You remember Grover: Lives on Sesame Street, looks like—may, in fact, be—Cookie Monster's more svelte brother or cousin; his voice sounds like a barnacled version of Kermit's. When he gets excited, he pitches his head back in glee and does something akin to a fast, spastic waltz. He also has an alter ego, Super Grover. Super Grover sports a cape and an anachronistic knight's helmet; he flies pretty well but has significant trouble with landings; that is, he can't stop until he smashes into a building and slides, dazed and disoriented, helmet-blinded and cape-tangled, to the ground. He's complex and flawed, multi-faceted and compelling. Grover is the thinking man's Elmo.
In 1971, Golden Books published the spellbinding The Monster at the End of This Book. Part character-driven autobiography—Grover is the narrator and main/only character—part page-turner, and part weird, second-person post-modern experience, where the reader is the antagonist within the narrative, the book achieves that rare balance between art and entertainment. And in only 24 pages! The book is something like a minimalist Anna Karenina, if Anna were male and furry and bluish purple.
The premise of the narrative is that, well, there's a monster at the end of the book. Grover, good and timid soul that he is, takes it upon himself to protect you, the reader, from said monster. The task seems easy enough, but as Grover learns post haste, you prove to be a very dim-witted and careless companion on this journey. While he trembles in fear at the thought of finishing the book and unleashing the monster, you dismiss his warnings and rush through the text. When he implores you to count your blessings and cut your losses and stop reading, you turn the page. He nails boards up to impede your cavalier progress; you rip them down. He erects a brick wall; you turn the page and bury him in a pile of rubble. Time and again, you read of another calamity befalling your lovable narrator—and a calamity befalls or falls upon him on each and every page of the book—and although your heart breaks and you feel horribly complicit, you can't resist. You want to know what happens so badly, you want so desperately for the monster at the end of the book to be revealed, that you defy Grover's explicit and polite and entirely wise advice.
And thus Grover distinguishes himself as a true Monster of Letters, a narrator to emulate in your own work. His ultra-savvy storytelling style illustrates perfectly—deftly, smoothly, gorgeously—a strategy that writers of every stripe (fur color) can use: When your readers want something, do not give it to them.
Or at least hold off for as long as possible before giving it to them. The relationship between the fiction writer and reader is, in some ways, tantamount to a seduction: The writer, via the plot, awakens a desire within the reader, and the longer that desire remains unsatisfied, the more intensely it burns. You aim to introduce immediately a source of tension and fan its flames (sometimes you'll need to douse it with rocket fuel, other times you'll want to let it smolder) until the conflict is finally resolved. You want your readers aching to know who shot J.R., to know if Atticus wins the trial, if Elizabeth Bennett will marry Mr. Darcy. You want them to race through the pages, gobbling up the narrator's every word, to find the monster at the end of your book.
The goal is to hook the reader, then to keep them on the line, keep them reading. Work to introduce and cultivate a plot element that will keep the readers turning the pages. Try to engineer a concrete conflict through a character's desire—avoid abstraction and ambiguity at all costs—and put believable and formidable obstacles along the character's path. Grover introduces his conflict in the book's title, and from there, the tension mounts and mounts and mounts until the very last page.
For starters, brainstorm and write up a list of obstacles that would delay the resolutions to the conflicts below. You might, in fact, already have some version of these conflicts simmering in your stories or novels; if so, remember Grover's Golden Rule: As soon as the readers want something, withhold it. Try to find at least three (more is fine, especially for longer narratives) valid and vivid ways to sustain and evolve the readers' desire to find out what happens. Consider flashbacks, flash-forwards, subplots, or anything else in your writer's toolbox to help you seduce the reader. Grover goes from asking very nicely to screaming explicit orders to building brick walls, and as his attempts to hold the readers back escalate, so does the suspense. By withholding what we want, he makes us want it more. Follow his brilliant, furry model.
- Man wants to ask Woman out on a date. Woman wants Man to ask her out. What's stops him? What/who gets in their way?
- Traveler needs to get to a certain place within a manageable, but very tight, window of time. What detours does he take and why? What problems impede the trip? How does the traveler try to make up lost time?
- Woman has found out something about her sister's fiancé and needs to get the information to her sister before the wedding the next morning. The groom wants to dissuade the sister from sharing the secret. How does one character work to circumvent the other?
- Young boy wants to find his lost dog before the animal control officer does. Where does he look? What clues assure him (and the reader) that he's on the right track? What impedes his progress?
- Teenage girl needs to sell two more raffle tickets before the end of the day in order to win a trip to Europe. Why is she having trouble selling these last two?