Sunday, April 18, 2010

SUSPENSE: Blackbringer, Post #3

Dear Heather and Meg,

First, I need to congratulate you, Heather, on finding the time and brain-power to post about Blackbringer following a busy day at the Western Washington SCBWI Conference! Here it is a week later and I am still sifting through things in my mind, thinking about lectures I attended and how the tidbits I picked up apply to my own writing. Of course, I also heard some things that apply to our current book, and today will revisit Jay Asher’s session “No Bookmarks Allowed” as I look at Chapters 15 - 17 in Blackbringer.

The gist of Asher’s lecture was that if you keep your reader always wondering what’s next, they will never be tempted to slip a bookmark in place and close the book; they will be forever compelled to keep reading. Asher went on to explain how one achieves this, and it has to do with keeping lots of balls in the air. Lots going on. If you introduce a question in chapter one and resolve it in chapter three, you had better get another question going in chapter two so that when the first question is answered, the reader is dying to know the answer to the second one. The writer’s job is to create a series of overlapping questions so that the reader is always wondering about something.

Laini Taylor does a terrific job of this, overlapping questions, mysteries and riddles throughout the book. Reading her novel with this in mind, I am able to see clear examples of what Asher was speaking about.

In Chapter 15 Poppy shares with Magpie the whisperings of the trees: “The trees say the age of unweaving has begun.”
Magpie responds, “Unweaving? Unweaving what?” (p.148-149). Poppy has no idea. Neither does the reader. Hence, the reader has something to wonder about. Also, in this chapter, Poppy assigns a name to the creature Magpie pursues—Blackbringer. While the reader still doesn’t know exactly what the creature is, Poppy is answering a question that was started before the reader turned the first page—the question posed by the book’s title—Who or What is Blackbringer?

By the end of this chapter, then, the reader has had one question partially answered, and a new question asked.
 (A quick aside here about chapter endings. During his lecture Jay Asher spoke about importance of writing chapter endings that beg the reader to continue. Notice how Magpie, at the end of Chapter 15, “slipped beyond her senses and lay still in a world of hot white light and knew no more” (p. 158). Am I going to keep reading? You bet I am!)

Moving on to Chapter 16, Taylor takes nearly three pages to answer the question asked in the previous chapter as we learn, from the Magruwen’s perspective, the definition and history of the Tapestry, and its Unweaving, which has been taking place over a period of many centuries.

There is yet another mystery solved in this chapter. First, let me hop back to Chapter 3 for a moment, where Magpie finds a knife buried in a skeleton’s spine. The blade is embellished with ancient glyphs and letters, “As for the graceful letters that spelled out Skuldraig, they were writ in the alphabet of a forgotten time and to her eyes seemed only an elegant design” (p.35). Here, in Chapter 16, the Magruwen explains to Magpie the meaning and history of the blade: “Skuldraig means ‘backbiter. That is its way” (p. 164). He goes on to explain that the blade which Magpie found thirteen chapters earlier is in fact the blade that the Magruwen himself forged so many years ago for his champion—Bellatrix.

Thus in Chapter 16 there are questions answered and mysteries solved, but there are new questions posed. For instance, when the Magruwen comes to learn that Magpie has successfully wielded the blade Skuldraig he asks of her, “Nay, but who are you? Who made you?” (p. 165). 

It turns out to be a good question, and one that is not answered until until much later in the book.

Moving on to Chapter 17—what a suspenseful opening! Poppy is about to have her wings ripped off by Batch Hangnail who is suffering from a serious case of wing envy. The scene ends thus: “His fingers curled lovingly around her wing joints, and he began to pull” (p. 171). Right there Taylor cuts to a scene of Magpie and her crows flying to deliver to Poppy an acorn for her to plant. No way am I putting a bookmark to use! I need to read on and see if Batch Hangnail succeeded, and in turning the page I find my answer--Hooray! Poppy will fly another day.

Question asked—Does she lose her wings? Question answered—no she does not.

At the end of Chapter 17 a new mystery is opened when Queen Vesper’s lackey shows up with the message that Vesper requires Poppy’s assistance. Taylor writes,
Batch laughed and a vicious smile transformed his face. All traces of the woebegone sniveler were gone in an instant and he became, again, the predator that would have torn Poppy’s wings from her back without a thought. ‘Tell Queen Vesper that Batch Hangnail sends his regards.’ (p. 179)

Do I put in a bookmark? Nope. I want to read on and find out about the connection between Batch Hangnail and Queen Vesper.

Heather and Meg, I could go on, looking at this leap-frogging of questions and resolutions, but I will stop here. It occurs to me that what I need to do now is apply this to my own writing. I suspect that in places where my story seems to turn into a yawn-fest I might discover that, among other things, the reader is left without anything to wonder about.

StorySleuths Tip #64: Never answer a question for a reader without being sure to ask another. Keep them wondering!