Some books make me want to know more so desperately, it’s agonizing. Why? I thought back on some of the books that made me feel an uncontrollable urge to know more, and there are two things they all had in common:
The best example I can think of was the tv show “Lost.” Every episode presented a new question. Why are there polar bears on a tropical island? Who is the guy living with them that wasn’t in the plane crash? You want to watch the next episode because you have to know. If an episode started out with “Polar bears escaped from a science lab on the island, which is now abandoned,” you would say, “Okay, cool.” You wouldn’t feel compelled to watch more.
The plots that make me the most eager to continue involve choices. I’ll spend the entire book urging the character to make the right decision. Often it’s for a character to confess her love to a guy who clearly loves her back. I’ll never forget how Jane Eyre almost killed me. Mr. Rochester wouldn’t tell Jane he loved her, and he made her (and me) suffer for a hundred pages! I couldn’t stop reading until I knew whether or not he would chose to be with her.
The Hunger Games is an excellent example of choice. In almost every chapter, Katniss has a choice she has to make, and I can’t stop reading until I know what she’ll decide. Will she volunteer to play the games to save her sister? Will she trust Peeta? Will Peeta protect her, or kill her? When she’s trapped in a tree with five people at the bottom ready to attack her, how will she get out of it?
There are some story elements authors think will drive a novel, but they only contribute to the story. Without questions and choices, the narrative tension will not be compelling enough.
In the next post, I'll talk about the ways authors try to add tension but don't succeed.