Writers, Tell the Reader about the Farmers

Published about 2 months ago • 3 min read

Hi Bookfoxers,

How do you create suspense in your fiction?

You need suspense throughout your book because the opposite of suspense is ... boredom. The reader isn't looking forward to anything, and there's no friction, no electricity in your writing.

You're just delivering information.

You're just having characters talk and act.

In fact, I would wager that having suspense is the main element that separates ho-hum fiction from fiction where readers grip the deckle-edges and stay up past their bedtime.

What is suspense? It's about looking forward. Or, to put it another way, anticipation.

At every moment, the reader should be anticipating something.

  • will he eat the green eggs and ham?
  • will her dragons help her ascend the iron throne?
  • will he harness his wizard powers to defeat the one who shall not be named?

Let's look at a specific example.

This morning, I was snuggled up on the couch with my son, reading out loud to him the Roald Dahl book, Fantastic Mr. Fox.

This is a favorite in our house, not only because we Foxes always appreciate a good fox story, but also because Roald Dahl is a masterful storyteller, spinning such yarns as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach.

There's a moment in that book when Roald Dahl takes a FULL PAGE to talk about a fox creeping out of his hole.

Every detail is trotted out.

  • nose twitching from side to side
  • the look of the moon
  • a rustling noise
  • flattening against the ground
  • a glint of a gun

About the only thing that was missing was the voice of George Clooney, who voiced the Fantastic Mr. Fox with remarkable aplomb in the animated movie.

It's a very ... slow ... scene. But it's never a boring one.

The reader is on the edge of their seat because we know that three farmers named Boggis, Bunce, and Bean are lurking nearby with guns, ready to shoot Mr. Fox dead.

The reader is just waiting ...

Waiting for when the shooting starts.

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Can you imagine if Dahl hadn't told the reader about the farmers?

And just focused on all the details of the fox creeping out from his hole?

Ugh, it would be SO BORING.

Nobody would care about the fox smelling the breeze or looking at the moon or moving slowly from his hole.

The only thing that gives those details energy is that we know those farmers are lurking in the shadows with sweaty hands curled around shotgun barrels.

Now, if I could summarize the problem with many books, it's that the author hasn't told the reader about the farmers.

"Telling the reader about the farmers" simply means you have to give the reader the conflict that will make even the most boring details sparkle with tension.

Without the knowledge of the impending conflict, every story falls flat on its face (and your reader abandons your book, never to lavish it with praise on Goodreads).

Here are several questions to ask yourself as you try to tell the reader about the farmers:

  • Where could you give the reader a little more information that will whet their appetite for impending conflict?
  • What information will make the reader curious?
  • How much information is required? (aim for Goldilocks -- not too much, not too little)
  • Can you double up on the farmers? And give your reader multiple things to look forward to?

Of course the Fantastic Mr. Fox does manage to dive back inside the hole without getting killed (although he does lose his beautiful tail, sadly).

But if you haven't read the rest of the story, I won't spoil it. :)


John Matthew Fox


John Matthew Fox helps authors write better fiction. He is the founder of Bookfox, where he creates online courses for writers, provides editing and offers publishing assistance. He is the author of "The Linchpin Writer: Crafting Your Novel's Key Moments" and “I Will Shout Your Name,” a collection of short stories.

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