It was a gentle turn in the white-sand road, a curve that disappeared into the Florida scrub. The afternoon sun slanted through the trees and January mosquitoes gathered around my face whenever I stopped too long. Nothing mysterious about this place or time, yet the bend in the road kept me walking.
I was alone on the trail with my dachshund, paced by the crunch of his feet and mine on the sand, the drone of an airplane, and the intermittent calls of birds. I was taking a stretch after a long drive. I had no reason to keep going deeper into the woods, yet each bend in the path beckoned me onward.
After the flamboyance of the Keys, this place seemed dull. I found the broken-apart scutes of a turtle and put one in my pocket as a souvenir. Maybe that was all, the only reward for this walk – and then a flash of white flared in the woods to the left, a big bird winging down the canal. It was a great white heron, the southerly form of the familiar great blue heron. I kept walking, the heron flying ahead, landing, and then when I again got too close, lifting with a prehistoric squawk!
Just as I paused, thinking about turning back, I saw the spoonbill. The rosy exemplar of all that was Florida. The image that I bought at Audubon House in Key West. There it was, strolling up and down on a lawn across the narrow canal, pecking at the ground like a Seussian version of a chicken. That was why I’d kept walking, the promise of something magical, something unexpected, just around the next bend.
So what does all this have to do with writing?
We need to provide the reader just such gentle curves in our stories, the bends that conceal what’s really quite close, the moment of held breath as the promised scene unfolds.
Don Fry, a wonderful coach whom I remember from my days as a newspaper reporter, called these “gold coins” – “something readers will enjoy, such as a terrific quote, a striking new character, a wonderful sentence, a telling detail, or an amusing anecdote.”
As Fry explains it, readers will begin to lose interest as they keep moving into a longer article. They may even think about stopping. “They need a lift to their spirits and expectations. So we put something wonderful just before the sag, a little bit that will refresh them, a reward for reading that far,” Fry says.
Now, the thing about human nature is that we don’t need a steady shower of gold coins. Whether it’s an article, a short story, a novel, we use our writerly craft to move the narrative forward, but it still requires mental work to follow a narrative. The reader has to put one foot in front of the other. So reward that reader with occasional joyful surprises – reinforcement, if you recall your psychology.
In operant conditioning, reinforcement is anything that strengthens or increases a behavior (as in reading all the way to the end). While continual reinforcement will work, there is something about the human mind that responds just as strongly to partial reinforcement, when gold coins or cookies are provided only some of the time.
We keep walking, waiting for that wonderful bird.
We keep reading, expecting the lovely phrase or startling moment or scintillating bit of dialog.
When I was just beginning to see the shape of the novel that would become Blood Clay, I had a moment of shuddering déjà vu. I was driving down a highway in North Carolina, newly my home. I looked to the left and saw a dirt road curve into the woods. On the outside of the turn, a sickle of standing water reflected the sky. I stopped, right there on the highway, trying to remember where I had seen it before. And it came back, a dirt road through the woods that my father used to take as a shortcut, a place he told me was “Bambi’s woods.” And I remember holding my breath as he turned there, and watching deep into the woods as we splashed through puddles left by recent rain.
I’m now at work on another novel – discovering new things every day about the characters, the back story, unexpected linkages. It’s what keeps me moving forward, as a writer. And those same rewarding moments will, I hope, someday lure the reader as well – turning the pages with the expectation of the reward that waits just around the bend.
Valerie Nieman is the author of Blood Clay, a novel about newcomers in the New South, as well as collections of short stories and poetry. She teaches writing at North Carolina A&T State University and is the poetry editor of Prime Number magazine.