Anticipating Reader Wants

I talk to writers about anticipating reader wants a lot when I’m discussing world building. For example, imagine a reader brand new to the fantasy world you’re creating. They’ve just dropped out of the sky and landed in the middle of it. They are fully immersed. (A good analogy for opening a book). What are your first few questions going to be? (“Why is the sky purple? Can everyone shoot lightning from their fingertips? Why does only the royal class get to wear clothes?”) A skillful world builder, then, incorporates the answers to these implied questions into their narrative so that the reader doesn’t have to be distracted from the story by the stuff they’re wondering about. They can just know it and move on to what’s happening in front of them. Otherwise, you have a situation where your reader is stuck on the details (“No, but seriously, hold the phone, why is the sky purple?”) and they’re missing the forest of your story for the trees.

This principle can be blown out to apply to every story. In a job interview, candidates are taught to anticipate the questions and give answers that satisfy that unique company’s requirements. Same principle. What does your reader want to see? What are you setting them up for? What promises are you making that you need to deliver on? (I’ve written a few times about “the promise of the story” but I can’t seem to find that blog post to reference. It may be worth a new post!)

Here’s an example of what I mean. You’re writing a MG about some neighborhood kids who want to prove that the old, crotchety woman in the dilapidated mansion at the end of the cul-de-sac is a witch who’s responsible for the town’s trees dying. We’ve all heard variations on this “A witch lives in that house!” tall tale. The wrong way to go about this sort of story would be to spend the first half of the manuscript discussing the backstory of what she’s done that’s crazy, sneaking around her house at night when she’s asleep, going to the local bookstore to look up books on local legends, having a seance in the woods to talk about the woman, trying to interview her neighbors, having a bake sale to raise money for better flashlights to sneak into the house again, etc. etc. etc. What is missing in all of this? THE OLD WOMAN.

The reader will not be invested in the story until we meet this crone in the wrinkly flesh. See her interact with the kids. Try and suss out what about her is so creepy. Make up our own minds. This is a classic case of telling versus showing. But since the woman is such a big part of this story, the longer we go without meeting her, the more unfulfilled we will be. The same goes for any big story element. If all your character can do is talk about the fact that school is making him miserable, let’s see a classroom scene. If a girl goes on and on about her crush, get him on stage sooner rather than later. I say all the time that something grows in importance the more it’s mentioned or seen in a story. This is a balance. If something is mentioned and not put into action, that could be a problem. (Unless it’s someone like Oz, the Great and Powerful, whose reputation is built up to ridiculous heights on purpose to make the final reveal all the more shocking.)

Like the unanswered question about your fantasy world that sticks in your reader’s craw and won’t let them immerse themselves in the rest of the story, these unfulfilled wants are a huge missed opportunity. When it comes to crafting your story, especially at the beginning, identify the most important characters, settings, plot events and other elements. Then see if you’re leaving the reader hanging with any of them. A little teasing is good and builds tension. Too much and the reader will want to stop chasing the dangling carrot. Is there any point where they’re left sitting and feeling antsy, thinking, “If we could just meet that old woman already, I would know so much more about what’s going on!” Act like a luxury hotel that anticipates their guest’s every need, from just the right number of towels to the preferred newspaper by the door in the morning. That lets your audience relax and surrender to the experience.

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  1. Christina C.’s avatar

    SHOW IN SCENE!!

    After reading this blog post, this is now carved into my brain :)

    What’s trickier, and what is essential I think in world building, is showing the why of, say, a purple sky without backstory or infodumping and when the characters involved aren’t new to the world and don’t need it all explained.

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