The Cracker Jacks theory of fiction

When you open a box of Cracker Jacks you know what you’re getting: a few crunchy handfuls of caramel corn with the occasional embedded peanut. But some marketing genius long ago had the idea of going one step farther: “A surprise in every box.”  To this day, Cracker Jacks is known for that inspired combination of a familiar pleasure plus a little extra tingle of the unknown. It doesn’t matter that the surprise is usually a piece of inconsequential plastic that will end up mashed into the playground gravel; it’s the anticipation that matters, not the object itself.

Opening a novel or story should be a little like that: a balance between the familiar and the surprise. Or in other words (quick visit to Roget’s), the domestic and the exotic. The ordinary and the extraordinary, the stock and the shock, the everyday and the once-in-a-lifetime. Some writers can lean toward ordinary yin and make it fascinating while others can switch the yang into hyperdrive and make tons of money. But most of us have to find our own proportion.

Why the familiar? Because continual stimulation creates no bond. A hand is comforting; take the reader’s hand. A door is as solid and reassuring; open it. What is more welcome in time of need than a handkerchief? Unfold it. You’re going to mystify, you’re going to speed up the pulse, you may even stun or shock, but you’ll do it in a world that may be slipped on like old shoes, once the reader consents to enter it. People have to eat, sleep and breathe; they also have to interact, recognize, feel, compare, relate. That’s where you catch a reader, in the relating. Something familiar, something he recognizes even in a different setting. Cliché, which budding writers are taught to avoid (like the plague) actually stands many a best-selling author in good stead. Like throwing a flag on the scrimmage line, it helps the reader sort out quickly what everybody’s feeling so we can move on to the action. A “literary” author will take more care with the language but still has to find points of contact. This can be the sharply-observed detail (Yes! I’ve heard water sound just like that!) or the fleeting personality quirk (that’s how Aunt Sarah laughs). A genre writer establishes familiarity through character types easily recognizable from the movies or other works of fiction. This is either boring or comforting, depending on the readers and what they’re after. The point is, there’s more than one way to establish a writer-reader bond.

But once the bond is created, is has to be continually refreshed. My agent once told me that the goal of a fiction writer was not to get the reader to the end of the book, but only to the next page. And the next, and the next. That means you have to get out ahead–not as obvious as it may seem. Often writers find themselves playing catch-up, reacting to their characters’ reactions. That magical moment when characters seem to take control and start acting on their own can become a trap. The author has to stay in control; a story given over to domineering characters is in danger of slipping into autopilot. Remember the Cracker Jack rule: a surprise on every page. And there’s more than one way to surprise–it’s not always a twist in the plot (or else your plot would resemble a corkscrew). Sometimes the sharp observation that establishes familiarity can surprise at the same time: the paradoxical “shock of recognition.” The surprise might be some revelation of a character that makes him more appealing or more sinister; something in her background that shines light on the way she’s behaving now. It might be a dash of humor in a serious novel, or a somber moment in a comic novel (harder to manage). Or a clever turn of phrase that startles or delights without distracting.

Can you do this on every page? Without it coming to seem like you’re just pulling stuff out of a hat, like a magician increasingly desperate to hold his audience? That’s where the craft comes in, and works out.

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2 Responses to “The Cracker Jacks theory of fiction”

  1. Kate Lacy Says:

    JB – How do we sign up to FOLLOW this blog? I’d love to get it deleivered to my email address whenever you enter a new note. but I don’t see a Follow icon.

    Kate

  2. lisha cauthen Says:

    Every page? EVERY DANG PAGE?

    Okay.

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