Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Christmas Cracker Suspense Writing

My 8 year old niece loves Christmas.  At lunch she couldn't wait to pull the Christmas crackers and get us all wearing the paper hats, and she particularly liked reading out the cracker jokes.

"What do snowmen wear on their heads? Ice caps!"  
"What do polar bears eat? Ice bergers!"
"What do you call a man with a paper bag on his head? Russell!"

The trouble was she read them out just as I've written them, leaving us no chance to guess at what the groan-inducing answer was.  It was hard to keep the interest going as there was no opportunity to participate.  

Same with writing.  If you set up a problem and give the reader the answer immediately then you've missed on us participating in the story.  If we don't participate we don't engage.  If we don't engage, we stop reading. It's as simple as telling a Christmas Cracker joke.  


Jim Murdoch said...

As far as punch lines go it really depends on how good they are how long you can afford to leave off the reveal. Few stories can pull of the Statue of Liberty sticking out of the beach and do it well as M. Night Shyamalan has learned. The longer the audience/reader has to wait the greater his chance of being disappointed and the louder his groan is going to be.

Where one has to take off one's hat is when a writer tells a story and we all know how it's going to end and yet he manages to still surprise us. The recent adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express is a perfect example of how this can be done well.

Sarah Duncan said...

Very true. As ever, it's a question of judgement, if you delay the reveal too long the readership gets fed up and moves on.

I'm interested by your mention of the recent adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express. Of course, what the writer did was change what the story was really about - ie not who dunnit, but would Poirot lose his faith? I must admit I didn't like it - though I appreciated the attempt - because there are times when all you want is something nice to look at and not too brain taxing, and Christmas was one of those times.

I suppose I watch Poirot for the style and the characterisation, not the story telling. Hmm, I feel a blog post coming on.

Jim Murdoch said...

Horses for courses, Sarah. My wife and I absolutely loved the adaptation.

Sarah Duncan said...

Oh yes, another man's meat and all that. As far as I remember I watched it with a tin of Quality Street beside me and the best part of a bottle of wine inside me so I might not have been at my most - ahem - alert.