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Curiousity and the novel

February 12, 2011

Probably the most general and compelling question to me, as a reader and writers of novels, is what makes me want to keep reading and, therefore, what I can do as a writer to make readers want to keep reading. I’ve written about this before, and will surely return to it a number of times from different perspectives. Currently, my thinking is spurred by an essay by Alice Mattison in The Writer’s Chronicle, “Uncertainties that keep a reader reading,” that takes this question head on and provides some useful answers.

Mattison begins the essay by explaining that she frequently has to read novels in progress by student writers that just don’t hold her interest, and that she is writing in response to this problem. She gives an extremely general but also extremely useful one word answer to the question of what makes a reader keep reading: curiosity.  She writes, “This essay will concern itself with whatever makes us curious, whatever provides forward momentum–acknowledging that an elaborate, dramatic plot–or a simple but compelling plot–is the customary way of keeping us involved” (33)

But Mattison doesn’t stop with plot.  Through her close examination of several great novels, she generalizes about what makes the reader curious and I’ve listed a number of her points here.

1. Knowing more about the main character and what will happen to him than he himself knows, and waiting “with growing anticipation” (35) for him to figure it out (The Magic Mountain)

2. Always having a sense of moving through time (The Magic Mountain)

3. A number of uncertainties, “each one keeping us interested at least until we come to the next” (35) (The Magic Mountain)

4. Scenes and events which “embody the conflicts within the characters’ personalities” (36) (The Sun Also Rises)

5. Scenes which are dominated by a question in the reader’s mind (The Sun Also Rises)

6. A plot that withholds, giving partial but not complete information (The Quiet American)

7. The storyteller’s or author’s presence–and the sense this gives readers that someone is in control of the story and the way it’s being told. “[S]omewhere there’s an author, and the author, at least, thinks we’re moving in a direction, [thereby giving] us all the reassurance we need to keep paying attention” (34). (The Quiet American)

8. Waiting to know what happens next to characters we care about (The Years–which is particularly good at this because many years pass and we see children become adults)

9. Knowing at the beginning what the trouble is and then seeing that trouble embodied in events (The Years, The Fountain Overflows, by Rebecca West, and The Man Who Loved Children, by Christina Stead–three novels that Mattison groups together as family novels)

10. Characters who have intense and possibly irrational feelings (The Years)

11. Descriptions which are vivid and engrossing, with mesmerizing but not oppressive formal repetition (The Years)

12. Causality–when one scene causes what happens in the next scene, with mounting importance (The Sun Also Rises, The Fountain Overflows)

Mattison ends her essay with this advice: “If we are novelists whose thoughts first go to characters and situations rather than to stories, maybe we should stop and decide, early on, what in our characters’ lives can be arranged so as to make our readers curious… We need to tell our stories in an order that will be interesting and suspenseful… [W]e need to think up actions that will be tangible results of  our character’s  feelings and personalities and will have further consequences in other actions…. In other words, we should give our people not just characteristics but characteristic action, and let that action have results that accumulate into something big…. And perhaps most importantly, we should make our characters as strange and outrageous and passionate as real people are, so that while our readers roll or tramp steadily toward their destination, something will keep them not just curious but happy” (40)

I plan to test these generalizations against novels that did or did not keep me reading in future posts. And of course I’m busily testing my own novel-in-progress against Mattison’s curiosity imperative and figuring out ways to both revise and move forward with her points in mind.

You can find Alice Mattison’s complete essay in The Writer’s Chronicle, Volume 43 Number 4

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