Thursday, June 18, 2020

The importance of advance readers’ questions

How do we know if a story will work?

Isn’t that the central question, the one that keeps writers up at night? Will my story hold water? Will the story present a unified, play-fair plot that satisfies readers?

I know these questions keep me up at night.

Have I given readers a satisfying plot that at once challenges yet is logical in its base premise?

Edgar Allan Poe, in 1841, wrote “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” the first mystery, and as the introduction, which goes on for two pages (get to the hook, man!), states, it will offer a new genre, a “chess game,” a “mental discourse.” Scholars Deane Mansfield-Kelley and Lois Marchino write that the story also provides the “Five Rules of Detective Fiction” (Longman Anthology of Detective Fiction):

  1. There must be a crime, preferably murder, because it fascinates readers more than any other crime and offers multiple ways to be committed.
  2. There must be a detective, someone with superior powers of inductive and deductive reasoning, who is capable of solving a crime that baffles the official police system.
  3. The police must be seen as incompetent or incapable of solving such a complex crime.
  4. Readers must be given all necessary clues/information to solve the crime, if the information is properly interpreted.
  5. The detective must explain who the criminal is and the motive, means, and opportunity by the conclusion of the story.
And, of course, Raymond Chandler, in his list of “Ten Commandments,” reminds us that the story “must be credibly motivated, both as to the original situation and the dénouement,” “the solution must seem inevitable once revealed,” according to The Book of Literary Lists (QTD in The Thrilling Detective).

Both Poe and Chandler were concerned with plot, albeit a century apart.

I’m receiving feedback on a novel this week, all of it valuable. But the questions advance readers ask always provide essential feedback because it leads me back to plot and/or clarity. In these questions, I see how the readers experienced the book. Their questions are never yes/no, even when they are. By that, I mean the answer to the question is rarely as important for me, the writer, as my personal follow-up question is: Why did they ask that question? I evaluate the reader’s experience of the book and try to deduce what led to the question.

I am lucky to have some close friends who will read anything I write. They approach the books from different career backgrounds and varied perspectives. What they have in common is that each is a serious reader. And the questions they ask give me pause and take me back to my overarching goal: to write a story that is complex without being confusing, that leaves readers satisfied. That means plot.

And, in the end, it means asking myself why readers asked the questions they did.

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