Leading a reader is a term I use to describe habits that alert a reader about what’s ahead but doing so undermines tension.
Leading the reader can happen in two ways. One employs melodramatic statements that are intended as lures. The other states a fact and piles on unnecessary proof.
Have you ever read something like these?
~ Eileen opened the door to the ballroom. There before her was the surprise of her life! Never again would she take Boyd’s love for granted.
~ Jonathon read the report. With each paragraph, the words killed off a bit of his soul. By the time he was finished, his heart felt like an empty pouch.
These examples lead the reader because they tell of a grandiose or terrible something, but after the description is over, the reader is no more enlightened than before. What did Boyd do for Eileen that removed all doubts? What did the report reveal that was so soul-destroying for Jonathon? What comes next is an explanation, but the momentum of the story goes in reverse while the writer expounds on what just happened.
Some writers place a leading statement at the end of a chapter hoping it will fuel an irresistible urge to turn the page. While getting the reader to turn the page is a good thing, using a cheap trick to do so is not so good. A statement such as “What she saw before her changed everything she thought was true” is not only melodramatic, it’s a tease. Nobody likes a tease.
A second type of leading the reader is when a character express a conclusion as a fact, and then follows up the statement with unnecessary proof.
~ Eileen ran down the rain-slicked road toward where Boyd lay next to the fallen tree. Ten feet away she stopped. She was too late. He was dead. A sob caught her throat as she threw herself at his body. She checked his pulse. She tore open his shirt and started CPR.
Now wait a minute. Boyd is dead. She just told us so. She didn’t say he looked dead or seemed dead. She said she was too late. She said he was dead.
So if he’s dead, why’s she wasting her time–and mine–to check his pulse and start CPR?
A second way of looking at this is:
~ Jonathon walked in and instantly knew his wife was gone. After all the threats, Marsha had left him. “Marsha?” he called. He went into the kitchen. No Marsha. He ran upstairs to their bedroom. No Marsha. He yanked open the closet door. Marsha’s clothes were gone.
My reaction to reading this is, Dude, give it up, Marsha is gone. I don’t need to see the empty kitchen or bedroom or closet. I know she’s gone because Jonathon instantly KNEW his wife was gone. He didn’t guess, think, wonder or hope. He said he knew it, and I believed him, so his running around to make sure were just histrionics. No wonder Marsha left him.
Expressing a conclusion as a fact before it’s proven or discovered kills the tension of the moment. Once I know Boyd is dead, so is the scene. There can’t be a faint pulse or a dying moment promise or a stranger who happens to be a handsome neurosurgeon screeching to a halt and popping out of his Jaguar to revive Boyd and, by doing so, steals Eileen from him.
Likewise, if Jonathon tells me Marsha is finally gone, he destroys my hope that maybe she’s hiding in the closet with a shotgun to put the lying, cheating jerk out of her misery once and for all.
A simple way of solving this problem is to turn the statement into a question.
~ Instead of “He was dead” change to “Was Boyd dead?”
~ Rather than “…instantly knew his wife had left him…” change to “Had Marsha finally left him?”
A question makes the following actions more plausible.
By telling a fact too soon, the writer kills the drama. By making a melodramatic statement, the writer has to go backwards to back it up. This leads the reader by telling, not by showing the action as it happens.