Thursdays Tips: Let’s Talk Carrots… Sort Of (Or the Fine Art of Secret-Keeping as a Novelist)

Let’s begin with another foodie term first though, shall we? I promise to get down to writing in a minute here. Do you remember when “plate” became a verb in cooking circles? The food channels and recent popularity of cooking obsessions necessitated the term to refer to how a chef presents a well-cooked meal. The term is plating. “Let’s plate up this masterpiece. It’s all in the presentation.” 

Same’s true for writers with "carroting." Let me explain. When you, as the writer, keep things from your readers, you “carrot” them along—as in bait them to follow you. This is a necessary technique. You don’t want to not do this! However, you also don’t want to overdo it either. 

Carroting has its uses. You can use secret-keeping to hold a reader’s interest. It’s a tool of engagement. And keeping readers engaged is key, right? But there’s a fine line, and there are some techniques to keep in mind. Plus, no matter what, you’ll always have some carroting going on because you need to keep that story question in question until near the end of the story.
So, how can you tell if you’re frustrating readers? And how can you best use this “carroting” technique? 

First things first: your opening chapter is not the place to frustrate your reader. First chapters have enough question marks (in the sense of unanswered questions). Readers are trying to get into your story world, to get to know the characters, to discern the story question, the stakes, the genre elements specific to your work. They’re trying to bond with your POV character, to sympathize, to find some common ground. They’re trying to get into that character’s head. Deep POV helps them do this. However, if you bait them with senselessly unanswered questions, you won’t make friends with your readers. There had better be a good reason for not divulging information. We’re in his/her head, and s/he knows why Aunt So-and-So is standing on the front porch carrying a shotgun. Let’s hear it. 

Note: Unsure if you’re frustrating your reader? Have unbiased folks give your manuscript a read. They’ll tell you. 

The issue here (with keeping secrets from the reader) is that the point-of-view character obviously knows the answers, and if we’re in deep POV, we should too. Otherwise, the secret-keeping feels contrived, forced, artificial. (Now, there are times when the POV character does not know the answer. In mysteries, for example. Great! Carry on with secret-keeping.) So, your best strategy is to know deep POV (First KEY). Study it and practice it. Editors can tell if you get POV or not and we can tell if you’re using “carroting” incorrectly, as your main means to keep readers engaged, especially where that opening chapter is concerned. 

Second KEY: have more than one means of engaging the reader. Use character sympathy, action, suspenseful elements, etc., to keep your reader engaged. Don’t have one inane secret, which just happens to be your main POV character’s secret, be the only means of hooking the reader. Have more things up your sleeve.

Third KEY: find the balance. Like with every other area of writing, we need to find the right balance between secret-keeping and divulging those answers.

So, let’s summarize:

* Above all, avoid frustrating the reader.

* Don’t overwhelm readers with too many unknowns in the first chapter. 

* Have more than one means of keeping the reader hooked (engaged) in the story, particularly in that all-important opening chapter. (Especially if it’s obvious the POV character is dancing around the answer.)

* Take advantage of deep POV. Don’t be too far removed. That doesn’t mean share everything the POV character knows, but it definitely pertains to not keeping readers in the dark. 

Use carroting wisely, and like with plating, you’ll have a great presentation!

1 comment:

  1. I have made the mistake of telling the whole story as I wrote the scene. I have learned that keeping secrets is hard to do. There is a fine line, just as you pointed out out here in this article. BUT... once you discover that fine line and learn to write right down the middle of that line, your readers have the indulgence of discovering the secret with a great, "A-ha! That's what she meant when she said..."