In any great book, every connection functions perfectly, the margin for error is almost nil. The chain has to be perfected for your story to unfold in a satisfying way.
A great book has a superior “unfolding.” Like a bud opening, readers get a better and better idea of what’s really going on as they read. Eventually, they see a fragrant rose in all its glory.
An unfolding could also be called an “unpacking.” It’s like unwrapping a present. You see it, shake it, wonder what’s inside, and then unwrap it until you find the surprise. Hopefully, it is delectable.
To craft a sequential order of reveals, an author must order and dispense intriguing pieces of information. The trail starts on page one and continues to the end. At each step, the author parlays what has gone before and promises yet more to come. In this way, a murder might unfold to its solution. The meeting of strangers might unfold to a happily ever after.
Think of each piece of information as a layer of an onion. The first scene is one layer of your prosaic vegetable, and by the last page, the reader can see the whole onion. They can even chop it up and cook with it themselves (think book club discussions). Maybe you want your readers crying, as if they’ve just cut an onion, by the end of your book; or perhaps you want them to feel exhilarated. It’s up to you how you manage your unfolding.
Creating an unfolding is very much like pioneering a path up a mountain and sticking in footholds to let future climbers follow. From secure foothold to foothold, the reader smoothly ascends the mountain, dreaming of watching the sunrise from the top.
If a foothold is missing, the climber will be stuck. So, too a reader. This is the last outcome an author wants. Whether it’s at nine feet, the middle of the climb, or five feet from the sunrise peak, progress has ended. You want your unfolding to take your reader to the top of the world.
Make your unfolding as clever as the Honda Cog ad
The award-winning Honda Cog ad is a wonderful and visual illustration of the concept of unfolding. If you haven’t seen this famous ad, or want to enjoy it again, here it is.
It’s an ad for a car, but you don’t see the car until the very end. This is the genius of the ad and why it represents unfolding so beautifully.
The ad is footage of a giant Rube Goldberg machine made up of the car parts. Tires roll into each other, windshield wipers crawl across the floor, the speakers vibrate – energy is transferred, one by one, through all the parts to the end.
You want the scenes in your book to work equally well to deliver your big bang when the car finally rolls forward into view.
The quality of a Rube Goldberg machine depends on the creativity and complexity of 1) a set of moving pieces, 2) their order in the chain, and 3) suitable links that keep transferring energy to the end.
When everything is aligned, it’s a feat of human ingenuity to watch unfold.
The same engineering is going on in great stories through content, order, and links. Designing your unfolding with a focus on content, order, and links makes storytelling look easy, but it’s not. It all about good design.
This is the notion captured in the making of the Honda Cog ad video. Lots of ideas were explored, many thrown away, and only a fraction of them ended up in the video. It took precision, practice, and time to create the entire sequence of events. One misalignment and the flow stopped. In early attempts, tires rolled sideways, parts escaped, links failed, or it just didn’t look as good as it should.
When every connection needs to function perfectly to reach the desired end result, the margin for error is almost nil. Just like the material in a book, extended mayhem has to be tamed. The chain has to be perfected.
Unfoldings are a function of the linearity of stories: events happen in time. Both storyteller and reader experience stories in drips that add up to make the ocean of the tale.
For this reason, clever authors spend a lot of thought not only on great content, but on the exact order in which it is revealed to readers. This order can often be ingenious, especially in the case of mysteries and thrillers.
Likewise, savvy authors intuitively know that what really oils up a story and makes it work are beautiful links. Without links between the parts of a Rube Goldberg machine, it’s a waste of time. Your book’s causal chain needs those same deep links: they are the footholds to the top of the mountain.
What a reader feels at any point during a story is a function of what you’ve given them to that point, plus anticipation of what is coming. You must not only be aware of this, but use it to your best advantage.
The Honda Cog ad is also a wonderful metaphor for the concept of unity in writing.
The Honda Cog ad makers would never have thought to use just one part repeated over and over in the chain. They would have never used parts from another car. It’s the diversity of parts, and the way they perfectly and uniquely make their own contributions, that makes the car.
Each part by itself is just a part. Only when they all come together in exactly the right places does the engineering marvel of a working car emerge. Forget one key part and you might not get out of the showroom. Break one part and you are stuck in the car park. Remove lesser parts, and drivers will be inconvenienced, like not having windshield wipers in the next rainstorm. The quality of the parts can spell the difference between economy and luxury rides.
You want your story to take people places. Give them a ride to remember.
Is it a love story or a romance novel?
Tightening Your Story’s Cause And Effect Chain With “And So”
Unity In Writing
Use Pacing to Improve Your Storytelling
Lead Your Readers With Your Book’s Structure