The great thing about writing is that is has a variety of tools available to the writer in order to render the best story possible.
We know about the right kind of characterisation, the right balance of basic elements such as description, narrative and dialogue, the amount of emotion and pace to use. We know about plots and sub plots, atmosphere and tension, and we’re aware of more complicated elements such as symbolism, metaphor and assonance and so on.
But the one thing that readers seem to thrive on is the writer’s ability to tease – this is one of the reasons why they keep turning the page. Reading a story is based on a ‘need to know’ basis – the reader constantly needs to know.
The deliberate tease has been used by storytellers for thousands of years. It is designed to lure the reader, to keep them guessing, wrong foot them deliberately, or it allows them to make correct or incorrect assumptions.
The opportunity to tease can occur throughout a novel and therefore shouldn’t be ignored by writers, because by constantly and subtly teasing them you can also keep them reading.
Sometimes these opportunities occur naturally as the story progresses, while other ‘teasers’ are precisely plotted and planned by writers and then strategically placed within the narrative.
The ‘hook’ is the very first chance a writer has to grab the reader’s attention – right at the opening of the story; something that holds their attention and keeps it so that they keep reading. This can be achieved by hinting at things to come in the first chapter, to lay clues about what might happen in the rest of the novel.
You’re teasing the reader from the outset.
How does ‘teasing’ work?
There is a variety of ways a writer can tease the reader. The most common ways are as follows:
1. Information hints
2. Revelation hints
3. End of scene or chapter cliffhanger
4. Narrative allusion and suggestion
Information hints are self-explanatory. The idea is that the writer plants clues for the reader to pick up on, so later in the story they will, literally, put two and two together and come to their own conclusion (whether they're right or not).
The hints don’t have to be obvious; they can be as subtle as you want them to be – don’t underestimate your reader because they will be astute enough to notice them. And the information you are hinting at is and should be relevant to the story/plot; something that might be referenced to happen further in the novel, or the information is relevant to something that might happen specifically to a character etc.
For instance, your main character is afraid of water, so you might reference this a couple of times earlier in the story – an information hint that the reader will notice. They will think that because it has been mentioned a few times, something must happen further into the story. This is an indirect, gentle tease.
Then, later in the story, several characters are boating on a lake, but an accident occurs and the main character must jump into a lake to save another character. But she is frozen by the irrational fear of water – the same fears hinted at earlier. Can she jump in and save the day?
Revelation hints work the same way, but instead of letting the reader in on snippets of information, the writer lays clues to a surprising revelation or important disclosure further in the story – a plot twist perhaps, which might wrong foot the reader.
For example, what if your main character becomes attracted to another character in the story – it looks as though he might be falling for her, and their relationship hots up. This subplot will tease the reader about what happens next with them.
Then, when the reader least expects it, the writer unveils the bombshell: it transpires that she is one of the bad guys, and the hero finds that he has been trapped by her deceit and faces imminent danger…
In other words, revelations and plot leaks act as a lure for the reader to continue reading.
An end of scene or chapter cliffhanger is one of the oldest ploys for writers to use. When written correctly, it practically guarantees the reader will keep reading.
The idea is simple – the end of a scene, and particularly the end of chapters – should hint at something about to happen, or something inevitable in the next scene or chapter, so that the reader has to read on in order to find out what happens.
For instance, in the first example of the character afraid of water, the writer is teasing the reader with a ‘what if’ situation. What if the character doesn’t jump into the water? The other character will drown. But if she did jump, she could save the other character, and overcome her fear of water.
The end of that scene, or chapter, would end on a cliffhanger. For example:
Chris watched the little girl struggling in the water, head barely able to keep above the surface, curdled cries skimming across the water.
Adrenaline raged through her body; heartbeat loud in her ears. Legs spasmed with the fear as the reflections danced from the water’s surface, but all Chris could think about was the cold darkness beneath, the shadows that lurked there.
She took in a breath, made a decision.
The reader is left guessing what that decision is. They have to continue the story in order to find out, so they have. In effect, they have been teased by the writer.
Writers should aim to do this with most of their chapter endings. Always keep the reader on their toes.
Narrative allusion or suggestion is a ploy writers use in order to toy with the reader. They do this by alluding to something or planting ideas to sway the reader’s mind, which is done through subtle suggestion. The idea is that the reader will read and digest this, and they will unconsciously remember it, until at such time in the novel that they discover they’ve been duped by the writer.
Of course, know these by another name: red herrings. These are particularly prevalent in crime novels and thrillers and they work to great effect.
They are more difficult to construct because of their complexity in relation to the story, characters and subplots, and therefore they need a lot of thought and planning in order to initiate them and make them work.
The easiest example of this is the writer’s double-cross. In a crime novel, for instance, the writer sets up the characters and the storyline in such a way as to make the reader believe that one particular character is the killer. The writer plants clues, alludes to the character’s guilt, even going as far as using the power of suggestion to cement the idea in the reader’s mind.
The writer ‘dangles a carrot’ to tease the reader in this way, until such a time as it’s revealed in a plot twist that it was in fact another character who did the crime and not the one the reader assumed.
The reader has been double-crossed by the writer through a well-written and well-constructed tease.
Of course, these narrative allusions are not confined to crime or thriller novels. In context, they can be used in many genres to illicit the same effect.
In the next article we’ll continue the theme by looking at how foreshadowing and dialogue can tease the reader.
Next week: Teasing the reader Part 2