Friday, August 05, 2011

Wait for it, Wait for it—Never mind: Building up and not Following Through

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Good stories have a lot of balance to them. The right combination of information and action, narrative and dialog, description and internalization. When that balance is out of whack, readers notice.

One thing that can tip the scales is a disproportionate focus spent on an event vs its importance.

Let’s say Bob and the gals are running from zombies, trapped inside an abandoned car manufacturing plant in Detroit. For ten pages, Bob is obsessing over what’s going to happen when they reach the other side of the assembly line and go through the exterior doors. Sally disagrees with going there, Jane wants to go somewhere else but Bob insists it’s the only option. Despite the dangers, it’s a lot worse to not go through the assembly line doors. They finally get there and…

They burst through the door, shoot a few zombies, run across the parking lot and get away.


After the amount of attention spent on how dangerous it was to get across the building and out those doors, readers will expect something to happen once Bob gets there. If it doesn’t, they’ll feel cheated, or worse, tricked.

But wait, you say, isn’t it the author’s job to create tension? Make the reader think something horrible might happen at any time, even when they know it won’t?

Yes it is, but that’s where the balance comes in.

Readers pay the most attention to what you spend the most time talking about. If you build it up, they will expect it to happen, and happen big. The more time you spend on something, the more important they’ll think it is. And the more of a payoff they’re want.

Conversely, if you spend almost no time on something, then have it happen, readers can feel like it happened out of the blue. It lacks impact because no groundwork was laid for it and there was never a chance for the reader to anticipate it (and thus worry about it).

If you want to fake out your reader, create the right level of build up for the event, but try pointing it in another direction. If you want something horrible to happen in the factory but you also want it to be a shock, perhaps let Bob worry about the assembly line doors. Readers will expect trouble, but not where the actual trouble will occur. The buildup fits the situation, just not how they expected it to.

Give the reader what they expect, but not in the way they expected it.

There will be exceptions of course. Sometimes you do want something to happen out of the blue and be a total shocker, but odds are you’ve laid some groundwork for it somewhere. If aliens are behind it all, having a space ship appear in the last chapter of the book with no warning or clues will probably lose your reader. But if there are subtle hints all along, and the moment the reader sees that space ship they suddenly piece it all together, then you’ve done the right build up for the event.

Surprises are good, but be wary of too much literary sleight-of-hand. If nothing you hint at ever happens, readers will also pick up on that and you’ll lose them. They might even feel constantly lied to. Don’t be afraid to mix it up and keep them guessing. Is it what they expect, or will it be something they missed? Do it well enough, and they might even start looking closer at everything that happens, looking for clues.

Pay attention to how you ramp up to events, large or small. Hold your reader in a constant state of anticipation so they keep reading and wanting to know what happens next. Make sure the payoff is equal to the buildup, because the moment you let your reader down, you risk them putting the book down.

Have you ever been let down by too much buildup? How did it make you feel?

More on twists and surprises:


  1. Great post! I agree...there are some books that build up to this big battle and you feel the impending doom throughout the entire book, but then you're let down when the battle either doesn't happen at all, or it does happen, but it's quick and easy which tells me it wasn't a big deal to begin with and that the reader got all worked up and worried over nothing.

    Thank you for the tip! This is defintely something to remember while working on my WIP.

  2. I find I'm most often let down when a big rivalry or nemesis has been built up and then, in the end, the final confrontation is over too quickly, or I don't get to see the hero overcome the villain themselves.

    If an antagonist is built up as a proper villain, I want to see that person taken down by the hero, or whichever supporting character has suffered most through their actions.

  3. Easy wins are on my pet peeve list, too. So are the ones where things are made more complicated just to be complicated.

  4. As writers, we can't just make promises to our readers ... we have to keep them.

    You make an excellent point here, Janice. Well said.

  5. I agree with your post, and I just wanted to offer up a good example of building suspense and following through. Check out Lee Childs' Echo Burning. The many references to the heat, and the characters mentioning that a storm must be coming were well done. For me, it was a study in technique.

  6. To me, this is just one of those things that's easy to say, and see in books books you didn't write, than in yours, even after many months, years, even decades of constant revision.

    Janice, as much as I really want to believe what you and others told me about trusting my instincts, what do you do if your instincts are just wrong?

    If people find my writing boring, unclear, not gripping enough, that's just not simply personal preference, it's my problem, not theirs.

    I doubt you will tell me this is 100% wrong. Even if you think I take it to extremes.

    But I am only telling you what I tell anyone else, the truth, and pray it's not coming off like an attack when it's not what I intend.

    How can simply "Writing the next book" fix this problem? So far, that hasn't been happening in my situation, and I've done everything short of pay thousands of dollars to hand this off to someone who clearly gets what I don't, and spend countless sleepless nights trying to do.

    I know paying someone to fix this won't stop the problem and make it better, but if I could Janice, I'd pay whatever it took for someone who's far better editor than I, fix where I go wrong, so people read the story I wrote, not X book, writer or movie they think I plagiarized, but I just didn't do that. Period.

    I know I have to grow a lot in the area. But Janice, can you at least understand how this makes me feel?

    I know you're no more immune to this problem than me, but you obviously found your way to getting results from your hard work, weather or not it sells, and I just feel stuck.

    Am I better overall since I started? Yes. I can honestly say that without being self-obsessed.

    But I'm stuck at my current level, which isn't enough, given recent feedback? Yes.

    If it were enough to shine, I'd hear less "I don't get this" or "Why does this matter" or "This is slow and unnecessary" comments and more "This is a real story being told" type of comments when my work is critiqued, and that doesn't mean I achieved perfection.

    I know this journey is different for everyone, but why does it sometimes feel like the only way I'll get better is to stop caring?

    You always say it's never a good idea to let someone's feedback make your story theirs, but why doesn't that apply when we read books by other writers, especially the published ones who were no less flaky than me?

    Or to put this another way,

    I've read enough of The Shifter and The Hunger Games #1 (Not done with that trilogy, so NO spoilers please!) to know that they're not mirror images of each other, despite the post-apocalyptic war stuff overlapping, how do you use your chosen genre to your advantage, without shortchanging the fact that you didn't imitate someone else's formula, you just did the formula your way.

    How can you show that off, especially in those annoyingly brief, forsaken query letters, without sounding like you never read one book in your chosen area, and you sure as he** did, or why write it all if you don't like it yourself?

    You just didn't let it rule your process.

    I'm still hanging in there, but it's getting really discouraging again, so wish me luck, I need all I can get right now.

    I know you always say just knowing there's a problem is half the battle, but just knowing the problem's there doesn't instantly bring about the solution, you know.

    If I'm ever going to get any better, just knowing there's a problem isn't enough, that's all I'm trying to convey here. Maybe your methods won't work for me, but I don't know what more to try.

  7. Jack M. Bickham (Scene & Structure) as well as a few others suggest that every scene should end with a disaster of some sort, excepting the Climax where the hero finally wins. I tend to agree with this. We all live through anti-climactic events and I know that when one occurs to me I'm always frustrated and wishing more had happened. Readers will feel the same way. Our job as writers is let them experience the struggle and, for once, actually get a successful and fulfilling resolution, in the end.

    Great post, Janice!

  8. I had this problem when I read Heart of Darkness for a literature class long ago. It was a tough but decent read until the end where *Spoilers?* the character who we'd been setting up to meet the whole book, speaks barely two sentences and then dies.

    There was no doubt some deep symbolism and meaning in that--but to me as a reader, it totally turned me off the book.

  9. It's good to see another reminder that writers should keep their pormises, or betray them spectacularly.

    The writer and the reader are characters second in importance to only the protag and maybe the antag. Since we know the story was constructed, we expect it to follow the rules.

  10. I really need to pick up a Lee Child novel. I hear such great things about his writing.

    Taurean, you'll find your process eventually. Many of your questions are good ones and I think they need their own posts, so I'll be discussing them on the blog. Don't get discouraged, you know where that leads you.

    If you're stuck, you might try writing something totally different from what you normally do to shake things up. Try writing for adults for a while, maybe using that adventure story you once told me about. Don't worry about what you think you ought to be writing or what the market wants, write the story you want to read and what to tell. Try new techniques and approaches and see if any click for you.

    Gene, that's a great book. I do think his word "disaster" can be misleading though, because it suggests every scene has to end with a cliffhanger-ish action thing, which isn't the case.

    Kathie, I had the same feeling when I read it. What readers want does change over the years, so maybe when HoD was written that was more acceptable.

  11. Janice, this is a great post and so, so true. I've read any number of books where the ending feels "rushed" and unsatisfying, because it all happens too easily in the end. If there's 300 pages of build-up to the final confrontation, I'd like it to be more exciting than a two paragraph "and then they won" scenario! And now to make sure I don't do that to my readers...

    Also, Taurean -- I know your comment wasn't addressed to me, but I really want to respond to you. I hope you don't mind.

    I think you'd be hard pressed to find any writer anywhere who hasn't felt exactly how you're feeling right at the moment. Self-doubt and over-analysis kind of come with the territory. So firstly, realise you're not alone. These feelings are part of the process, and overcoming them is part of the challenge of being a writer.

    Secondly, are you part of a writing or critique group? Or do you have other writers that you connect with in the real world? Writing can feel incredibly isolating when you're trapped in a room with your WIP and your feelings of inadequacy. I always find that spending time with other writers helps -- even if all we do is talk about the craft for an hour a month. So if you're not part of a group, perhaps your next step is to find other people in your area.

  12. Jo, I think it holds true for chapters as well as endings, too. Fake tension, but that wears thin awfully fast.

  13. Another excellent post. Thanks, Janice. I love how you always give an example.

  14. Bathany, thanks! I love examples. I get things so much easier when I see them in practice. Glad they're helping others as well.

  15. Useful post. I think it clearly illustrates the whole build-up of tension and how to have it pay off or avoid it not paying off. It's something that I'm trying to pay attention to in my current WIP. :-)

  16. Sbibb, red herrings and fake outs are good for those moments. Readers expect something, so why not give them what they aren't anticipating? You'd get double the surprise and payoff.