The Fiction Writing Workshop: Don’t Forget the Reader

By Kristin Bair O’KeeffeKristin Bair O'Keeffe

A few weeks ago, I bought a secondhand copy of Mark Haddon‘s novel A Spot of Bother in an antique furniture shop in Shanghai. I liked his first novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and had high hopes for this one.
 
Though I’m only midway through the book, I’ve not been disappointed. The thing about Haddon is that he gets that there is an indispensable, dynamic relationship between the writer and the reader, and no matter how interested he may be in telling his story, he never forgets that there’s a reader out there on the receiving end.
 
How do I know this?
 
Because I can’t stop reading the book. Because every night I look forward to shutting down my computer, washing my face, and crawling into bed with it. Because I’m already counting how many pages I have left, calculating how many more nights I can read at the pace I’m going, and forcing myself to slow down so I can stretch it out.
 
How does Haddon keep my interest? How does he successfully maintain a relationship with me, the reader?
 
1.   The first sentence of each chapter drops us into the middle of something, for example, Chapter 7 begins, “There was a clatter of plates and Jean turned to find that George had vanished.”
 
2.   Haddon utilizes a third person narrator who jumps from character to character in an organized, interesting way. Each chapter is told from a different character’s perspective, for example:
    a.  Chapter 1 is told from George’s perspective. (It’s in third person point of  view, but we’re getting details about what George feels, thinks, and sees. We’re very, VERY close to him.)
    b.  Chapter 2, George
    c.  Chapter 3, George’s wife Jean
    d.  Chapter 4, George
    e.  Chapter 5, George and Jean’s daughter Katie
     f.   and so on.
 
3.   The characters feel like family members, friends, or neighbors. Because of the point of view choices Haddon has made, we get very intimate with these folks. We understand their motivations, desires, and frustrations. And because we understand, we care.
 
4.   Tension. Haddon creates tension. Because we know the characters so well and because they have such conflicting motivations, desires, and frustrations, tension is a natural outcome.
 
5.   Because the tension is so high, we want to know what happens next.
 
All that said, I recommend you run out and buy Haddon’s A Spot of Bother. Read it, study it, set it aside for a while, and read it again. When you sit down to work on your own writing, keep his relationship with the reader in mind. Then create your own.

 
 
October 2007 Family Fun MagazineKristin Bair O’Keeffe’s debut novel, Thirsty, will be published by Swallow Press in 2009. Since moving to Shanghai, China, in 2006, Kristin has been chronicling her adventures (and misadventures) in her blog, “Shanghai Adventures of a Trailing Spouse.” Her essays and articles have appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Poets & Writers Magazine, The Baltimore Review, San Diego Family Magazine, and The Gettysburg Review. She teaches fiction and nonfiction writing and is the curator of Out Loud! The Shanghai Writers Literary Salon. To learn more, visit www.kristinbairokeeffe.com.

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