She opens the office door. She smells something…wet metal, steak tartare? On the breeze from the window, a dripping sound. Grace Emmerson sees Harold John, her boss of 10 years, slumped in a corner…
What question do you ask yourself when you read this? I imagine you thinking ‘What’s happened here?’ but you can let me know if otherwise…
This could open a news article, a work of fiction or a presentation even, aiming to create drama and grab your reader’s attention. Whatever you’re writing, Stephen King homage, technical spec or marketing video script, your writing will succeed when you hold your reader’s attention in thrall.
On Halloween then, here are some tips to thrill your audience in your writing.
Be An Attention Engineer
At the excellent Killer Women Festival run by London female crime writers, Erin Kelly took us through how to create suspense, emphasizing the importance of sensing what questions your readers will be asking. Whatever you’re writing these three questions matter:
- What has happened before?
- What is happening now?
- What will happen next?
You may not be addressing these three questions directly in your work, but you need to have answered them in your head. And when questions are answered for your audience, then new questions need to be posed. Getting to the key questions is the cruncher.
Like this example from a book review in the Atlantic magazine:
Play With Your Readers
Misdirect them, puzzle them and surprise them. If you love Gone Girl and The Girl On The Train you’ll know that at least the first half of these thrilling novels are misdirects. We think someone’s done something heinous, but we’re not quite sure… I’m currently reading Tammy Cohen’s excellent When She Was Bad, about half-way through, and a character has drunk some coffee which has a violent effect on his innards, which he believes is down to deliberate contamination… If so who’s done it, I wonder, and why?
If your writing in any form has what’ s known as a ‘baggy middle’ can you give it that shot of poisoned caffeine?
Create Sufficient Threat
Whatever you’re writing too, there must be sufficient threat to a featured character, for it to matter. Or indeed to ourselves, the readers.
So if a business is threatened by change for instance, you need to show just how much they value what is under threat. Sometimes a gripping headline is all your writing needs to convey sufficient threat:
In business writing, personalized case histories can help illustrate threat, as shown by Abbi Whitaker on Forbes.com:
This threat can be delivered with shocking suddenness as fear supremo, Stephen King describes here: “No waking or dreaming in this terminal, but only the voice of the writer, low and rational, talking about the way the good fabric of things sometimes has a way of unraveling with shocking suddenness. He’s telling you that you do want to see the car accident, and yes, he’s right—you do. There’s a dead voice on the phone…something behind the walls of the old house that sounds bigger than a rat…movement at the foot of the cellar stairs. He wants you to see all of those things, and more.”
What do you want your readers to see this Halloween?