Warning: No problems are actually solved in this post.
You spend a good hour crafting a dramatic scene. A family comes home from a pleasant dinner. The father and mother tuck their daughter into bed before going back to their room to watch TV. But what neither the reader nor the parents know is that someone is in the house. Someone has been waiting, with a plan to kidnap the child, and now he is ready to make his move. Through the house, he will creep. Oh, he’s left clues to his presence. (You, the writer, left clues.) But will the parents notice them in time? Will they be able to stop the villain from taking their child?
To create such a scene the writer will need details. Perhaps there’s a sliver of still damp mud on the stairs, and the only muddy place around is the back yard--where no one has been this day. Perhaps an inside door is ajar that wasn’t left that way. Maybe the toilet is running but it only runs after it’s been flushed. Maybe there’s an odor. One or both of the parents need to notice these things, need to find them cumulative, need to find their tension rising as realization hits. The writer is hoping that the reader’s tension will rise at the same time.
Herein lies the problem. To be effective, the clues need to be sketched in subtly. But what if the reader doesn’t pick up on them? Readers bring so much of themselves to the table, and that is both a blessing and a curse for the writer. It’s a blessing because we don’t have to give every single detail of a world to have our readers join us there. They bring with them to your piece their imagination, experience with the written word, and a love of stories. They want to be swept away and are willing to give us the chance to sweep them.
But readers are also fickle. They’re human. They have moods. They get tired. They have a million other things to do. In conversations in my writing group, and with other readers, I’ve seen how one tiny detail can throw the reader out of a book. And the detail doesn’t even have to be wrong! A friend of mine who writes historical mysteries spoke about a criticism she got from one reader who thought she was putting modern thoughts into the head of a period character. Turns out, the writer had done her research and knew that such thoughts, while not common in the period, had clearly been expressed in writing by some people of that time.
What is the solution? It seems our best chance is to write so well that we “create” the appropriate mood in the reader. No matter how he or she feels when they pick up your book, they need to feel how you want them to feel by the end of the first few paragraphs. I know it can be done. I’ve had it done to me by writers such as Thomas Harris, Dean Koontz, Cormac McCarthy and Jim Sallis. So, the solution is simple. Just become a great writer. Whew, I’m glad I figured that out. And now I leave you to it.
Hey, don’t look at me like that! I solved the problem for you. You don’t expect me to do everything for you, do you? The great writing is your part of the deal.