Creating Reader Anxiety

I have a friend who once worked in a used bookstore where the owner practiced the art of “creating customer anxiety”. He did this by regularly moving all the sections around, so if you didn’t buy the book when you first saw it, you might well never find it again. That was his theory, at least. In practice I don’t think it made any difference at all, because it assumed a certain fusion reaction in the brain of the ideal customer that likely never happened. Used book buyers are impulse buyers anyway, and impulses come and go. They go into a used bookstore hoping to find something – anything – at random, and they approach it the same way every time. Used bookstores are made for the pleasantly unexpected.

Once you buy a book, though, it’s a whole other ballgame. Readers are highly trained and rational creatures. They know what to expect at all times and if those expectations are short-circuited or otherwise not met they can go a little haywire. I’ve seen this reaction many times to some of my stories, which I tend to bring to conclusions which satisfy hardly anyone except myself. For example, this two-star review of “The Girl in the Trees” on Smashwords:

This will be a fine story…
…when the second half is published. The author paints vivid characters, sets up a very promising situation, moves the story briskly forward into dire complications, and then…
…Quits. Just like that.
If it were an overtly experimental fiction fragment or a free come-on for the whole book, I would grumble but accept it; but a standalone story it ain’t. This highly talented writer is like the little girl who had a little curl right in the middle of her forehead.

Now, I know the story ends rather abruptly, but it ends right where I wanted it to. The girl in the story makes a sort of “deal with the devil” to get what she wants. The story could have continued, but I didn’t feel the need. Stories can always go on. You have to draw the line somewhere. So I’ve wondered for a while now where this reader would have liked it to go. I’ve also been wondering who the heck is downloading this story, because it gets downloaded several times a day and the only other reviews I’ve seen say essentially the same thing. From Goodreads (three stars in this case):

I love the concept and the characters, though, be warned, it’s essentially unfinished. In this section, we’re introduced to the major characters and the stage for conflict is set but we are not rewarded with a resolution.

From Barnes & Noble(three stars):

I wish the author would tie up the loose threads, clean up the story line and expand on the young girl’ s experiences, living on her own.

But that’s not what I wanted to do. Like in the end of the movie Casablanca when Rick says “this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship”, do we really want to follow along with their friendship after that? I don’t think so.

Well maybe somewhere I’ll take it somewhere else, but it’s going to take an editor to give it a push, as it did with the revised versions of “The Part-Time People”, “Fixture” and “Zombie Nights” (where the insertion of two new paragraphs changed reactions tremendously).

In the meantime, something happened in my current story (How My Brain Ended Up Inside This Box) that has the potential to seriously annoy and vex future readers. There are two approaches to take here: 1) surrender, or 2) carry on. I always choose the latter.



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