By Amber Wheeler Bacon
When I worked with Alice Mattison at the Bennington Writing Seminars, she helped me see that what I thought was my novel was actually a series of strong, barely connected episodes. I began studying novel structure then and saw that a novel needs some kind of narrative momentum to keep a reader turning pages. What Alice asked me was, “What kinds of questions will a reader have as they move through your novel?” Since then, I’ve been paying attention to see how other writers use the events in their stories to introduce and answer questions for readers.
You really do need the perfect number of questions. Too many and the reader’s confused and frustrated. Too few and they’re bored. I suppose a writer can get by with one really good question for the reader: I did read Malone Dies by Samuel Beckett in order to find out how and when Malone dies. But there were other little questions to move the reader through, like, will he find his pencil in the bed? Will that man visit again?
When I read Crooked Hearts by Robert Boswell a few months ago, I thought he did a great job of balancing momentum and story. I read another novel by him this month, Mystery Ride. It, too, showed me how the pacing of a novel is really about how readers will take in and move through your story.
The novel begins when Stephen and Angela get married and buy a farmhouse. After buying the home, they open the cellar door and find it filled with trash. Somehow, they eventually get the trash out. The chapter ends and we know that it’s a decade after Angela left Stephen. But still, “the memory of those days would come back to Angela… rising up before her whenever she felt doubt or longing… the inexhaustible mystery of love found and lost.” Something about that line tells us that it’s not all over between them. We read on, wondering if the “mystery ride” referenced in the title will be the path it takes for the couple to get back together.
Chapter two begins, however, and confuses our expectations. Angela is remarried and has just had sex with her current husband, Quin. In fact, she’s “pregnant”—or going to be—but doesn’t know it yet. The other events in this chapter, coming mostly from Angela’s point of view, introduce storylines that will exist throughout the novel: Quin’s affair, her daughter’s troubling behavior and the pregnancy. The reader has questions about all of these things as we move into the third chapter. These are the big things that move us from chapter to chapter, but in the first two, there are also mini-problems that exist within each chapter that get us moving to the next one.
For example, in chapter one, the problem/question that arises and is solved by the end is if or how Angela and Stephen will get the trash out of their cellar. On the very first page is: “They did not notice the trapdoor on one side, hidden beneath a stack of corrugated tin.” Something about that line among the wonderful things the couple did notice when they decided to buy the house, gives the reader a moment’s pause. And sure enough, a few sentences later—after they’ve bought the house—we get, “Stephen pulled the sheets of tin away and discovered the door. When he lifted the lid, the stench made him stumble and fall.” It’s bad. There are rats and rotting trash bags. The couple can’t sleep in the house knowing what’s below them. It’s likely not the kind of problem or question that would get us through an entire book, but it gets us through ten pages while we’re figuring out the bigger questions about the book.
The same cycle is repeated in the second chapter. The big questions are about Angela’s marriage, her pregnancy and her daughter’s mental health—and of course, the reader is kind of hoping she’ll get back together with Stephen. We know the book is about their relationship as much as it’s about anything else. However, the chapter focuses on Dulcie, Angela’s daughter, and her teenage troubles. As Angela is taking a walk in the middle of the night, listing the pros and cons of staying with Quin, who’s cheating on her, she sees her daughter sneak out of the house and get into a car. “The skill with which she lower[s] herself to the ground” tells Angela that this is a habit. She follows the car. The chapter ends on the car ride home after she’s found her daughter drinking beer and skinny-dipping in the ocean. The immediate action keeps the reader engaged while Boswell continues adding layers to the larger questions of the novel. She’s just had sex with Quin, and is trying to sleep, but can’t. So instead, she thinks of Stephen’s hands: “his gentle hands had been one of the reasons she loved him… He raised cattle now. His palms would be callused and rough.” And there are “still moments when she long[s] for him.” And of course, Quin’s affair is barely touched on, but the reader is fine with that. Again, it’s a big question that will carry us through the entire novel, and it happens to be connected to the other big questions about Stephen—isn’t Angela more likely to end up with Stephen if she’s in a failed marriage?
Creating momentum and sustaining it through hundreds of pages takes a storyteller’s instincts and a spreadsheet maker’s eye for detail—one that sees every chance to layer the big stories with hints and teases along the way. Balancing the big questions and the small ones is one of the hardest parts of writing a novel. Mystery Ride provides a great example of a book that gives readers the right amount of both.