Compelling Your Reader to Turn the Page
by Shawn Goodman
A story: long ago, when I was first married, I lived in a crumbling gothic Victorian in Buffalo. The neighborhood was terrible, and the streets were littered every morning with broken forty-ounce bottles of malt liquor, syringes, and discarded condoms. But the rent was cheap (three-fifty per month), and it had a nice cupola overlooking the Niagara River. The owners, a retired Italian couple, lived on the first floor and were absolutely terrified of intruders; they had the entire place rigged with a homemade alarm system designed by their unemployed lunatic nephew, Walter. In a fit of paranoid ingenuity, Walter had rigged the basement and first floor with several miles of Radio Shack wire connected to these little plastic sensors and tacked to every window, appliance, and door frame. And there were megaphones, too, mounted under the eaves and half-covered by bird nests and spider webs.
None of this seemed especially peculiar. My landlords, the De Lucas, were small, quiet people who left plates of biscotti on our doormat. Mr. De Luca, who had worked for thirty years as a manager at the GM plant, still wore a three-piece suit and bow tie to watch television in his own living room; they were nice people. Which is why I told my wife that the row of fifties-era refrigerators humming away in the basement was probably filled with vegetables or loaves of bread. It did not contain body parts or portals to alternate universes. But the uncertainty was killing her, and it was all she could do to finish the laundry without opening them up. She used to talk about it, how badly she wanted to pull the chrome latch and break the refrigerator’s fifty-year old seal.
Which brings me to the time I was working outside and those megaphones (remember the megaphones?) split the air with the most incredible, debilitating noise. “Intruder alert! Intruder alert!” My wife ran out of the house, frightened, and said, “Shut if off!” “I can’t. I don’t know how!” I said. But we did manage to shut it off, and then we called the De Lucas, who were staying at their daughter’s summer cottage. It was a crazy thing, all that noise coming from long-forgotten megaphones mounted up under the eaves. And it wasn’t until years later at a Thai restaurant in Ithaca when my wife said, “Do you remember when that alarm went off?”
“Yes,” I said, feeling like the ground was beginning to shift under my feet. I was not ready to be shuttled through time and space without a warning, or at least some context.
“Well I did it,” she said. “I set the alarm off. It was those refrigerators.”
“You opened the refrigerators?” I dropped my spring roll in the little plate of chili sauce and chopped peanuts. “How come you never told me? Forget it. Just tell me – what was in them?”
She sipped from her cup of tea, regarding me coolly. She was the master of this story and, apparently, three years wasn’t enough to season it; she needed one final moment.
“What was in them?” I gripped the edge of the table, visualizing the massive white refrigerators against the stone foundation wall.
She set her teacup down. “Onions. They were filled with onions.”
At this point I could tell you about all the West Side Italian families who survived the Depression by eating onion sandwiches. And I could tell you that, forever after, some of them hoarded onions in refrigerators, and went so far as to wire the refrigerators to homemade security systems and megaphones. But none of that matters, really, because this isn’t a story about onions, or how the De Lucas survived the Depression. It’s about how to instill in a reader that perfect level of curiosity and interest that compels them to turn the next page… or open up the refrigerator. It’s about how we really do want to be transported through time and space, to be carried away by a story that moves us, and entertains us, and makes us forget who we are, even if it’s just for a moment. How is this done? Carefully, I think. And by letting the story unfold only as it must. Even if it takes three years, and a row of refrigerators filled with onions.
Shawn Goodman is a writer and school psychologist. His experiences working in several New York State juvenile detention facilities inspired Something Like Hope. He has been an outspoken advocate for juvenile justice reform, and has written and lectured on issues related to special education, foster care, and literacy. Shawn lives in Ithaca, New York, with his wife and children.