Frustrating your readers

A large part of writing is achieving balance, specifically a balance between causing your readers frustration when something with the potential to help goes horribly wrong, and providing that moment of sweet satisfaction when something actually goes right. A story skewed one way or the other can result in a reader never getting past the half-way point.

If your story is too heavily focused around a character making mistake after mistake and getting himself into deeper trouble, your reader may give up on the character, especially if there is never any sense of achievement. This is especially problematic if the correct course of action is clear to the reader, but not to the character.

For example, the character is in a fight with his girlfriend because he forgot to pick up her dog from the groomer like he promised, but something came up—something dark from his past. Rather than sit his girlfriend down to explain it to her believing that she “just wouldn’t understand,” he lies and tells her something else happened which she later finds to be false. She leaves him, believing he is cheating, and he is left alone to deal with his dark secret all by himself. Now, when the character reaches what seems to be his darkest moment, the reader probably needs some kind of relief—something has to go right for this guy! And if he manages to screw something else up, and does it again, and again, the reader may just give up on him. What fun is it too read about a guy who brought so much on himself and never learns his lesson—never changes and never gets anything right?

After the Jump: Internal and External forces, and stories without conflict

However, a differentiation must be made between external and internal forces causing problems for a character. Internal forces, such as the character making a stupid decision, can make a reader resent a character because of how foolish he is being. Unless it’s clear that the character learns something, changes, and at the end helps himself, then it can be irritating. Especially if the story is then solved by an external conflict despite all the character’s wrong turns along the way.

The external conflicts more directly reflect on you, the writer, because essentially you are playing God in your character’s universe. So when a car drives by and splashes dirty water all over your character, it’s all your fault. When external problems keep affecting the character, the reader expects these events to be doing something important. But if you just keep creating problems for your character to fall into, your reader will begin to resent you! There will be a moment where the reader just gives up for your character, and you don’t want that, especially if on the next page, something else bad happens.

Of course, this is not to say frustrating your reader isn’t an extremely beneficial—and necessary—plot technique. The reader needs to be at least a little frustrated with the character and the events of the story to be propelled forward. Without a little frustration, when everything goes your character’s way, things just get boring. Things can’t be too easy for your character—it’s just not interesting.

Stories like this often center on some sort of incredibly lucky character who always seems to get a free pass. Can’t afford that loaf of bread? The nice store clerk just lets your character take it. Pulled over by a cop? Just a warning this time….

The way to do this effectively is to use these “free passes” to set your character up for an even bigger fall. It’s essentially a way to mislead both your reader and your character into thinking it’s going to be a good day, all before things really go horribly wrong.

For example, that cop that let your character off with a warning? Well, that was super nice of him, but when he pulls your character over again for the same thing—speeding, broken taillight, running a stop sign—he might be a little peeved that your character didn’t head his warning which results in your character spending the night in jail. I doubt the person your character was in a hurry to meet appreciate being stood up like that, thus triggering a snowballing of events that lead to the character’s darkest moment.

And good things need to happen every so often, no matter how small they are, to break up the bad. Think of it like the stock market. If it’s just one massive, straight decline, people jump out windows (or close the book), but if there are little upturns every so often, there is hope—and that is what will keep the reader moving forward.

A good example of the use of hope to move a reader forward is Jeffery Eugenides’s The Virgin Suicides. From the first line of the book, the reader knows how things will end—tragically. But as the reader progresses through the book, there are moments of hope, moments when the reader feels like there might be a way out for the girls, that they might survive this story. Even though the reader knows better than to feel this way, there are enough happy moments and positive events to keep the reader going.

Just remember, all problems and no solution, and vice versa will just irritate your reader and the goal is to make your reader want to keep reading, not the opposite.

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