Using Confusion to Hook Your Reader

Sat Oct 20 2018

Yesterday, a reader e-mailed me a question that was so good I decided to answer it here:

I have a first person story and at the end of the story there is a part that needs to be third person pov. There is a fight series and the main character unknowingly has the ability to pull people in to the world she is in. The other group she pulls in I need to show what is happening to them at the time she is pulling them in. I don't want them in the story until the end because they do not become important until that moment.

How can I put them in a single chapter to show their importance without confusing the reader?

I think your instincts are correct that it would be very jarring for readers to go through a whole 1st person narrative and then suddenly hit a 3rd person chapter that has all different characters and takes place on in a whole different world.

If I saw that in a published book, I would seriously be wondering if it was some colossal screw-up by the publisher, who had accidentally mixed in a chapter from some entirely different book during the printing process. It would be that jarring.

Hence, your instinct not to do it is a good one.

I think the tension you're experiencing stems from creating a genuinely confusing situation in your story but then wanting it somehow to also not be confusing. You're struggling because you're trying to figure out how to have it both ways.

Abandon the struggle

As I wrote about in an article from this past summer, what I always tell writers (especially for first-person stories), is to focus on your protagonist's experience of things.

As you've sketched out the situation, your protagonist has an ability that she doesn't know she has. Apparently, this ability will manifest in the middle of a fight: a stressful, terrifying, chaotic moment in this character's life. You bet your boots that's going to be confusing for her!

Rather than striving to avoid the confusion, the better strategy is to lean into it. Recognize it. Heck, celebrate it.

Leaning in

The heart of leaning-in is simply to confront the confusion head-on. Don't try to hide it. Don't try to deny it. And don't try to explain it away. Acknowledge it fully.

You do that by asking yourself what the character, in that moment, will be thinking and feeling when a bunch of strangers suddenly pop into existence in the middle of her fight sequence.

If I put myself in her shoes, my thoughts would probably go something like this:

(Interestingly, if you think about it for a minute you'll realize that your antagonist's thoughts will probably be almost identical to these, which suggests that both protagonist and antagonist are likely to react similarly to this unexpected development. At least in the initial few seconds.)

Going along for the ride

The situation you have outlined will undeniably be confusing for everyone in the scene, and indeed for the reader too. Naturally enough, as a writer your fear is that readers won't go along with it, and hence the idea of forestalling the confusion by introducing a 3rd person chapter beforehand.

Except here's the thing: readers will happily go along with the confusion so long as they can tell it's all part of your plan.

If your narrative signals to them "Hey, relax! I know this is weird, but just hang on and it'll all make sense in a few pages," then they will not just go along with it, they will positively revel in their own "ooh, I wonder what this is all about and what's going to happen!" experience.

And the way you signal that to them is by leaning into the confusion.

Signaling your plan

The best way I know to reassure readers that you have a plan is to let the characters voice the same questions your readers will be having. I.e. where did those people come from, are they really there, whose side are they on, and so forth.

And since you're doing this in first person, just reflect your POV character's confusion in the narrative. Share her confused thoughts through inner monologue. When you reveal such thoughts to the reader, what you're doing is telling readers "I, the writer, am aware that this is confusing. That's on purpose, or else I wouldn't have this character thinking these confused thoughts at this time. It is all part of my plan."

After all, you literally could not give the character confused thoughts without being aware that she's confused, which in turn implies that you understand the confusing nature of the scene. And since you invented the scene, since you are aware that the scene is confusing, and since you not only left the scene in the book anyway but leaned in to it, readers have no choice but to conclude that it's all on purpose.

This is just a hook that allows readers to relax into the happy state of enjoying wondering what's going to happen. It's lovely, because it gets readers to go along with you while deepening your 1st-person viewpoint through the use of inner monologue.

Inner monologue isn't your only tool, either.

You can also show other characters' confusion through their actions. As we've established, your protagonist and antagonist are likely to have similar immediate thoughts, and thus similar immediate reactions. The natural human thing to do when you're not sure what's going on is to back away to assess things.

So, let both characters back away from the fight until they can figure out what's going on and whether these new people are friend or foe. And there is nothing about showing people's actions that you can't do through your existing 1st-person viewpoint, just like you show everything else. There's no need to break away from your protagonist for that.

And show the new people's confusion, too. Those poor suckers are going be even more confused and terrified. I mean, their whole world just changed! And who knows what they experienced during the act of being pulled from one world to the other? They're more likely to cling to one another for support and mutual protection, and will be eying your protagonist and antagonist as potential threats. So let your protagonist watch them do that. Readers will be able to infer from seeing those actions that the newcomers are also confused.

Lean in to win

If that's what your story shows, following the moment when those new characters come into it, readers will be fine. They'll be confused just like everybody else in the scene, but they'll be fine because you leaned in.

That's all you need. You don't need some whole other chapter with a POV break in order to avoid the confusion. You don't need to avoid the confusion at all. You just need to reassure readers that the confusion is all part of the plan.