Most of us would agree that order and chaos are on the opposite ends of a continuum. Orderly behaviour tends to equate with stability while erratic behaviour is chaotic. These opposites could be described as formal versus ad-hoc, rigid or flexible, dictatorial as opposed to anarchic. When it comes to writing, predictable and unpredictable seem to be useful terms.
What are expecting when we read a book? Predictable outcomes or unexpected ones? If the text is too predictable we get bored, or even worse, annoyed. We give up. Too many plot twists or character shifts produce the same results. Either way, the author seems to be trying to be too clever, or too boring, too obscure, too distant, too aloof. Too…awful.
How can a writer strike a balance? Moving away from order means creating variation — changing sentence lengths or structure, shifting points of view, altering scenes, unexpected situations — are all ways of creating interest. Betsy Warland, poet, mentor and manuscript consultant I worked with during and after The Writer’s Studio at SFU has written an superb book Breathing the Page: Reading the Act of Writing that examines many of the fundamental techniques and considerations that writers must come to terms with if they are to successfully engage readers. Proximity is a term she uses to explain how a reader feels positioned to the writing. Has the author drawn me into the scene almost as a participant, or have they made me feel like a detached outside observer? Do I have a gut reaction to this character, or do I feel distant from them? As Warland points out, these experiences of proximity are not random responses, but rather something a writer has consciously created during the act of writing.
“Respect your reader,” writing instructors often tell their students. What they mean is pay attention to how a person will read your work. If a reader is on page two of your book, all they know for certain is what you’ve told them thus far. Based on what you have (or haven’t) told them, most readers will have made several assumptions already, assumptions about where the story is headed, or who is telling the story, or what this or that character it like. As the writer, you know much more about your story and characters than the reader does at this point, but if you’re not careful, your reader may not stay with you long enough to find out. You may forget to tell them some important detail that they need to make the shift into the next chapter, or added some extra extraneous information in a scene that confuses them. Like Anton Chekov said, “One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it.”
What keeps readers engaged? Setting up a regular rhythm with not too many or too few shifts can work. But above all we must avoid repetition; readers can smell a formulaic approach miles away. There’s no doubt readers tend to like (and even need) consistency and reliability.When one character is talking (or thinking) we (as readers) need to be certain we know who we’re listening to. Too much variation in a character’s speech patterns or point of view, and it’s game over. One of the first things we do when we start a new book is to try to get (pardon the pun) a read on a character and an author. We demand certainty about whoever is telling us the story. I there is any wavering in our belief in that voice, our guard is up and the author is in danger of losing us.
Unfortunately too much consistency will turn a reader just as quickly. A few unexpected words in a sentence, or a surprising event or action can pique a reader’s interest — but only if that reader find it credible. If not, red flags go up. This is one of the many dilemmas all writers face — how to put ourselves in the minds of all potential readers out there at once. Seems hopeless, but all good writers have figured out how to do it.