Lately I’ve been critiquing a lot of writing where the story is full of movement and people go from A to B in search of whatever, but it reads very dull and lifeless. All genres, no matter what demographic it’s aimed at, need story. But even if all the basic requirements are fulfilled, it can still read flat.
A guy is hungry. He has no money. He borrows some from a friend. He goes to the store. He buys some food and eats it. Now the friend wants a favour in return for the loan...
Things happen, someone wants something, there’s an obstacle, a solution is produced and there’s even a suggestion it’s headed somewhere. So why doesn’t it grip you? What we have so far is just a bunch of stuff happening. It isn’t interesting in and of itself, and if you want the reader to be engaged it needs something more.
You have the ability to judge which of the things that happen to you in real life are worth relating to others. You make that judgement all the time. You know if it’s worth repeating. You know who it’s worth repeating to. Some things you would only tell to people close to you who already know the people you know. But some you would tell to anyone you get into a conversation with. The difference between the two is what makes a story.
Consider, I tell you a woman at my work got fired because she was sleeping with one of the employees and they got caught. Sort of interesting, but you don’t know these people, it’s a fairly unremarkable story and you know nothing about the office politics of my job.
I could fill you in, start by giving some background on the company, some personal details of the people involved, their names, their history, my relationship to them, but will it be worth all that time it takes to bring you up to speed, just to tell you about someone you don’t know getting fired?
Now let me tell you another story. I was at work and the guy at the desk next to me needed some paper so he went to the supply closet and opened the door to find our boss bent over, her skirt round her ankles, while the guy from IT stood behind her completely naked apart from a Staples baseball cap.
You may then feel inclined to want to know what happened next. But that interest isn’t predicated on knowing back story or personal details about those involved. What happened is more important than who it happened to. The event, the action of the scene drives the curiosity to know more.
This isn’t just about the ‘inciting incident’ of a story that kicks off things at the start of a book, this is to do with any sequence anywhere in the story. And the nature of the scene doesn’t have to be quite as extreme as the one I used. It can be the way someone reacts. It can be what they say. It can be what they don’t say. But it needs to be a moment that can catch the interest of someone who knows nothing about the people involved.
A good story, whether it's across a whole book, or just part of a chapter, is one that requires minimal personal details going in. And which makes the reader want to know more coming out. What happened to her? Was she fired? What did she say? Where can I get a Staples baseball cap?
This is my theory. Any takers?