Thursday, 4 February 2010

Unputdownability

I was pushed into an uncomfortably defensive position at a critique group some months ago, when one of the other writers asked after the quality of my manuscript. I said that I thought it was very good and he responded:

"It isn't enough to be very good - it needs to be unputdownable."

I didn't know what to say to this. It was true that I hadn't put the manuscript down for the last eighteen months, but that was hardly the same thing.

Later on, when I discussed the book with an agent, the U word came up again, except this time it was pretty clear I didn't have it. Not yet, anyway.

So what is this elusive magical quality, this mental equivalent of printing a novel on fly paper? I'm still not sure I have the full answer, but let me outline what I know so far as regards my own book (which it should be noted is a horror/comedy/thriller):
  1. It has to be consistently brilliant:
    Well, this is pretty good advice for anyone writing a novel, but the unputdownable book has to lull a reader into their trance-like state and keep them in it all the way through. Uneven patches, jarring word use, unbelievable situations - all these things break the reader's suspension of disbelief and send them hunting for other problems in the text. Yes, you can surprise - absolutely, in fact - but plot twists should draw the reader further into the story, not push them away.

  2. Engage the reader on an emotional level:
    Ok, I'm halfway through this blog post and wondering if I'm just teaching you to suck eggs here! Anyway, it's vital that the reader identifies with the main character(s) and gets sucked into the book to the level that their own feelings and those of the character start to intertwine. I guess this goes back to the classic "show, don't tell" - though maybe more like "feel, don't think".

  3. The tension needs to build throughout the story:
    In other words, never give the reader or the characters time to breathe. There should be clear dramatic tension from the very start and a through line that extends to the end of the story. The situation should get more and more serious for the characters and not be resolved until the climax. My plot originally had a rather loosey-goosey feel and several sections where the main character sat around feeling bored. Again, this all sounds like obvious stuff to fix, but I needed someone else to point this out.

  4. Raise the stakes:
    This is the part that I'm still having most trouble with, because I'm not sure how quickly to do this and to what level. Initially, I was writing the book as part of a series, so I deliberately made it more modest in scope to give me somewhere to go in later volumes. This resulted in a bit of a muted climax with minimal resolution. I've now pumped things up, but I'm getting comments that there still isn't enough at stake in the opening chapters. How far do you go with this? Should I start with the Big Bang and work up to a final scene where God fights Satan for possession of man's immortal soul? I think this harks back to point 1, as well - how far can you raise the stakes without sacrificing believability?

  5. Have cliffhangers:
    How could I not do this? I constantly ended my chapters by nicely resolving the tension in the scene. Even when I was trying to build tension in my rewrite, my chapter ends were still not doing their job. The simple solution? Just move the end of the chapter about 50 words back and then resolve the immediate situation at the start of the next one (but keep the central tension building!) If a reader is going to put down a book, they're most likely to do it at a chapter break, so don't let them go!
Is the unputdownable book always a good thing? Are there types of novel where the experience is enhanced by taking delicious bites of the content and letting your mind savour the detail? Perhaps an analogy to draw here is the difference between anticipating your favourite TV series on a weekly basis, compared to slurping up half a dozen episodes off DVD in a single evening.

So many questions! I appreciate any answers you might have in the comments section...

Nick.

10 comments:

  1. Interesting post Nick. Here is a case in point - The Knife of Never letting Go.
    Undoubtedly unputdownable, i raced through this story in which tension is cranked up to almost unbearable levels but, you know what, I kind of dont' want to read The Ask and the Answer because the first book was EXHAUSTING. I probably will read it, but i need a break, especially as I know the story remains unresolved in book 2.....

    Tension is good but you need to breathe...

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  2. i agree with kathy. you can see it in movies where the pace is relentless. they have to give the story a quiet moment for the audience to recover, collect themselves, take stock.

    great post!

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  3. Hi Nick
    You definitely need all of the points made and I would add in a baddy you can hiss at!
    I also agree with the other two comments. I know it's not a book but when I watched Terminator 2 for the first time I was exhausted by the time they came to a rest stop under a flyover. I think the same applies to books, you need to give the reader time to reflect between the action scenes - the calm before the storm. But how to keep the reader with you during these quieter times! There's a trick called the five steps (see The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing) which has made a huge difference to how my novel is paced. Watch out for an article on it in the next Thistle Blower.
    Maureen

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  4. I don't think unputdownability can be reduced to a formula, but if it could, it wouldn't be 'Non-stop Action = UPDA'!
    Twilight is slow and hypnotic for ages after the preface.
    Related to UPDA but different, is Rereadability, something I love in a book. Makes it less fast food and more of an investment.
    Lesley Moss

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  5. Interesting comment about Terminator 2, Maureen, and I look forward to that article.

    I was watching the first Terminator recently and was fascinated to see how the tension builds throughout the film and is brilliantly sustained during the climax. You really get such a visceral feeling of what it might be like to be stalked by a monster that simply will not die - without any of the 'coming back to life' tricks beloved by slasher movies.

    Regarding relentless pace - is this another example of adults assuming that kids and teenagers simply can't concentrate if the pace drops too much? I must admit that I myself have a pretty short attention span, but I'm trying not to pass it on to my children!

    Nick.

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  6. Hi Nick,

    Found it, but I think I need to change the advice . . . it needs to be like 'Ski Jumping' I've sat here with my computer unable to go to bed until I'd watched the last guy sail 146.5m through the air . . . incredible drama takes many forms!

    Night mate!

    Alex

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  7. I do agree with Kathryn - the Ness trilogy is wonderful, but you end up feeling you are overdosing on caffeine, and I could have done with a trifle less cliffhanging and a tiny bit more looking around.

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  8. Sometimes you want the space to breathe in the world that the characters live in. That wonderful feeling when you're in the middle of a really good book and you don't want it to end. That's unputdownability at a much slower pace.
    I agree with previous comments, sometimes the pace is so fast, you are exhausted by the end.

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  9. Just fyi: I seldom read these 'cliff hanger' books by choice anymore. When I find that grasping in a book it seems gimmicky and I put it down (sometimes I skim a bit first to see if the pattern repeats.) I work in the school system and read most of the stuff my students read and a lot they don't.
    REALLY! I have no desire to read something without stopping places. I can read most pocket books in an hour or two but I do have a busy life. If the book is good enough to read I always come back and read it. And what about the 'cliff hanger' books I read? I usually put a sticky note as a book mark where a normal break would have sensibly been and live my life. I teach students to do the same thing. These chapter breaks can be so arbitrary and artificial!

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  10. This is a great post, Nick. I'm currently working on my first YA novel and these are all points that I'm having to learn and re-learn as I work my way through the story. Having been a short story writer for years, my biggest hang up seems to be pacing. I give a character a problem and in the next scene they've solved it already. It's certainly a whole new game.
    I found #5 about the cliffhangers particularly brilliant.
    Just came across your blog today and I'm having fun reading through previous posts!

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