Monday, November 4, 2013

On Gratifying the Reader

by

Donn Taylor


            In our most basic instruction on fiction writing we were taught to keep the story moving forward. A codicil to that principle is to maintain the reader's interest on every page. This is usually done by introducing new developments in the plot—an unexpected twist for the reader or a major character's reaction to encountering something unexpected. These are good rules that should be followed. But in these comments I will argue for the effectiveness of another means of gratifying the reader.


            I first noticed it in an old scif-fi novel by Robert Heinlein. He advanced the plot as he should, of course, but in the middle of the action he made a passing reference to a famous zoologist named Dr. Tiergarten. I found myself laughing because tiergarten is the German word for zoo. The effect was momentary, but it definitely gratified me as a reader.
            These momentary comic effects in the midst of drama were standard in the classic movies. No one would question the increasing tension in the movie Casablanca. But as it builds, the C.Z. Sakall character turns around and suddenly bumps into a character we already know as a pickpocket. Sakall's hurriedly checking his pockets provides a moment of hilarity in the midst of the growing tension. In the Western My Darling Clementine, as tension builds toward the climactic gunfight at the OK Corral, the Ward Bond character whinnies like a horse at the beautiful Linda Darnell as she carries a washtub of water past him. She responds by dousing him with the water. Neither of these incidents adds to development of the plot, but both gratify the audience with momentary laughter in the midst of the tension.

            I've tried to make discreet use of this technique a standard element of my fiction, though I tend to keep mine understated in the manner of Heinlein. The hero of The Lazarus File finds himself in a corrupt town run by a thoroughly corrupt sheriff, and in need of escaping town before members of a drug ring can capture him. During the escape he sees a billboard that flaunts the town's corruption by advertising exotic dancers from Germany, one of whom is named Kirsten Keinekleider. (The German keine kleider means "no clothing.") The effect is momentary, yet several readers have remembered it and reminded me of it.
 


            One scene in that novel involves an elaborate hoax perpetrated on one of the villains. The hoax takes place in the Red Herring Bar, and the leading temptress tells the villain she comes from a village named Mirage which, she says, is very close to where they are sitting. Similarly, an incident in my Preston Barclay mysteries has two people mention a rumor that an incompetent psychologist thinks the hippocampus is a zoo. Other incidents of the same kind appear here and there.
            Needless to say, this kind of thing can be overdone. But, used it judiciously, an author can gratify his reader in unexpected ways without detracting from the forward movement of the plot.

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10 comments:

  1. Thanks so much for the information. I love your use of the Red Herring Bar and the name of the exotic dancer. It's fun to see more than one layer to a story.

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  2. Donn, I think this really does add to the entertainment value of our writing. As a writer, it also makes writing a scene a lot more fun when you can insert witty, sometimes ironic, statements in the midst of the action. One drawback I've seen is that if the editor doesn't understand what you're doing, 9 times out of 10, they edit out the humor, leaving something entirely different than what you intended.

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  3. Oh, I *like* that idea! Thanks for the tip, Donn!

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  4. Thanks, Angie and Linda. I try to drop one of those in every ten or so pages, but not always as obvious as the ones I cited. The classic screenwriters knew what they were doing. They should have, because they learned much of it from Shakespeare.

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  5. Great post, Donn. I think your method also makes the reader feel as though he/she has a secret with you and that always rewards them.
    Thanks for the tip!

    Blessings,
    Deb

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  6. Great post, Donn. I also think your method rewards the reader by making her/him feel as though they have a secret with you. Thanks for the tip!

    Blessings,
    Deb

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  7. I love dry wit or understatement in fictional conversation, something the British are famous for. Winston Churchill was a master.
    Ann Gaylia O'Barr

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  8. That is a wonderful, encouraging idea, Donn. It reminds me of the "Easter eggs" that computer program designers put into their products. If you know how to find them, they're gratifying, but the program works as it should even if you're unaware they exist.

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  9. Wonderful, encouraging post, Donn. Kind of reminds me of the "Easter eggs" that computer program designers put into their products. They're delightful to find if you know they're there, but the program does its job even if you're Easter-egg-ignorant. :)

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