Simple principle: A story should mean something to the reader. Otherwise, it’s just people running around.
We’ve all read stories that didn’t grab us. Maybe they had plots that looked okay on paper (ha ha)—they had a “heroic” character who had to deal with problems until finally reaching a solution. But we just didn’t connect with the character or the incidents. We weren’t moved. We didn’t care.
If you find a story like that (or if you already know of one), it’s valuable to investigate why it left you cold. What was it missing? Or perhaps what did it do that turned you off?
It can be difficult to analyze and learn from good stories because it’s like vivisecting a living frog—as you start slicing and dicing, the frog dies. The living essence of a successful story is often a complex interplay between story elements. But an unsuccessful story can be easier to examine, because it starts off dead. Cutting it into pieces won’t hurt it.
In my experience as a writer and editor, stories end up dead when they aren’t about something meaningful. They don’t deal with anything that matters to the reader. More precisely, they don’t manage to make things matter to the reader. Even if they deal with elements that seem universal—love, survival, success, etc.—they do so in a way that doesn’t click. They don’t engage our emotions or our interest.
So if you’re a writer, how do you make readers care?
Step 1: You have to care. If you’re writing about a situation that ought to be engaging, but it doesn’t engage you personally, then your story is already dead. The elements must matter to you.
Take a simple example. Many thriller stories start with characters discovering that their lives are in danger. Character X is walking down the street when a bullet barely misses X’s head. (Yes, this is a cliché, but it will probably be used in stories long after you and I are both dead.)
To make such a story work, you the writer have to care a great deal about Character X. You have to be interested in the person and in that person’s survival. Then you have to communicate that feeling to the reader. Why is X someone who deserves to live? What is X living for? Why would it matter if X were killed?
Emotional engagement starts with you, the writer. What makes you care? And then how do you stir similar feelings in the reader?
There’s often a getting-started problem involved. You may care about Character X because you know a lot of cool things about them. However, you may not be able to tell all those things to the reader at the very beginning of the story, especially if some of those things are secrets that only get revealed later on. Besides, you hope to hook the reader with the sudden surprise attack, so you want to get to that as soon as possible, rather than first spending time on momentum-less characterization.
Well, too bad. Story beginnings always have to juggle multiple elements at once. You have to introduce the setting, at least one character, the action, the story’s tone and maybe more, all simultaneously. Readers might give you a small amount of slack—let’s say a paragraph or two—but for some readers, you may only have a single sentence to get in the hook.
So you have to connect fast. You have to give readers a reason to care. That means presenting a character worth caring about—a character you care about—and a promise that you aren’t going to waste the reader’s time.
In Part 2 of this series of blog posts, I’ll say more about how you do this.
[Bullet picture from User Moriori on en.wikipedia via Wikimedia Commons]