Thursday, 8 November 2012

Story Questions Worth Pursuing

You don’t make readers want to know what happens next by not telling them what’s happening now.

There’s a guy, he’s being chased by someone. We don’t know who, we don’t know why. Clearly he doesn’t want to be caught, but other than that everything is a mystery. So as the reader you’re going to keep reading to find out what’s going on, right?

Well, maybe if you have absolutely nothing else better to do. But for most of us, that implication that everything will become clear if we keep reading, and that it’ll be totally worth it, just doesn’t pay-off in most cases.

Because it’s easy to make it seem like there’s something amazing around the next corner. It’s much harder to actually have something amazing waiting there.

So how do you make it clear that the journey will be worthwhile, and at the same time not reveal too much and ruin the surprise?


First you have to realise that a hyperbolic claim, even if it’s true, will feel suspect. That suspicion could be totally wrong—makes no difference.

Then again, we all know from adverts and marketing that hype works, but you need certain things to make it so. Things like money, spamming, brand, name recognition, notoriety, reputation... basically a concerted effort to convince as many people as possible.
When it comes to engaging a reader’s interest in a story, making hyperbolic claims can certainly make a difference. If reviewers and blurbs from famous people are telling you it’s fantastic, that can be very convincing. But when you make the claim yourself, it probably won’t sway so many people.

If in a story a woman is being chased through the woods, and she’s desperate not to be caught and is desperately afraid of being caught and by God it’ll be terrible if she’s caught, then that’s just the author claiming his own story is exciting and dangerous. That’s a problem, since what writer isn’t going to claim that?

Where’s the evidence for these claims?

I know a great recipe for hot chocolate. This claim may or may not interest you. I might be telling the truth, but are you really in the market for another way to make hot chocolate?

I know a great recipe for hot chocolate like you’ve never tasted before. Now I’m being a bit more hyperbolic, but in a fairly standard manner like you might see in an advert. It’s so generic it ends up not really meaning anything.

I know a great recipe for hot chocolate like you’ve never tasted before. And you won’t believe the secret ingredient. Okay, now I’ve given you something specific. What separates this hot chocolate is “something special”. I still haven’t told you what it is though, and I could be bullshitting (The secret ingredient is love!), but it catches the attention a little more.

I know a great recipe for hot chocolate like you’ve never tasted before. And you won’t believe the secret ingredient that means no calories. That’s right, zero calories. My claims are still unsubstantiated and hyperbolic, but I’m specifying the area I’m dealing with. I know there are people interested in this area, but also there are those who are not. By narrowing the focus I make it more attractive to some, and at the same time, I give others an excuse to move on.

The fear for a lot of writers is if they reveal what the story is about people will realise they don’t care about that subject and stop reading. So the writer keeps things as vague and mysterious as possible under the delusion that once the reader gets far enough into a book, they’ll keep going no matter what.

But a crappy idea is crappy no matter where in the book it’s revealed. The only real reason to delay and delay and delay isn’t to intrigue the reader, it’s to give into the feeling of insecurity that it won’t be good enough, so don’t tell anyone. And the thing is it may well not be good enough. But the only way to find that out—and then fix it—is to put it out there and deal with the reaction.

I know a great recipe for hot chocolate that masks the effects of poison. You can kill someone over a delicious beverage and leave no evidence behind.

As long as you’re dealing with generic, familiar ideas, the only people you’ll attract are those who happen to be already interested in the subject. Fans of particular genres fall into this group.

It’s only when you move onto something people aren’t expecting that the premise becomes interesting to everyone, and knowing specifics makes you want to know more. In the example above, you still don’t know what’s in the chocolate, but now there’s a reason to find out.

A woman running through the woods from a serial killer who wants to kill her (as serial killers are wont to do) doesn’t seem a very gripping idea because it isn’t.  Hiding who or what she’s running from doesn’t make it any more gripping. Emphasising how scared and desperate she is also doesn’t help. The only way to make it thrilling and enticing is to give her something truly horrifying to run from, and then tell the reader what it is from the outset.

Not knowing what’s going on doesn’t make the story interesting, although you can string people along for a bit. Knowing what’s going on doesn’t necessarily make things interesting either if what’s going on is familiar and predictable. Knowing what the situation is and making the reader curious about what the character is going to do about it is what keeps readers turning pages. 
If you found this post useful, please give it a retweet. Cheers!

26 comments:

nutschell said...

Okay now I'm craving hot chocolate, but also strangely scared of it. haha. great points! When i'm in the process of revising, I stop and think about whether I'm revealing too much or whether i could push the info later, to add more suspense to the story.:D
Nutschell
www.thewritingnut.com

Gail said...

I don't tweet but this was an excellent post. I like the examples which made it more real for me. You showed us how to make it different.

mooderino said...

@nutschell-it's hard to get the balance right.

@Gail-cheers.

R. Mac Wheeler said...

A woman running through the woods from a serial killer ... doesn’t seem a very gripping idea because it isn’t. Hiding who or what she’s running from doesn’t make it any more gripping. Emphasising how scared and desperate she is also doesn’t help. The only way to make it thrilling and enticing is to give her something truly horrifying to run from, and then tell the reader what it is from the outset.

WOW!

Worth the price of admission.

mooderino said...

@Mac-thanks, glad you liked it.

Karen S. said...

This makes perfect sense- like Realtors say- location, location, location- (which is important to your story as well) but this ranks right along with my use of show, show, show mantra... with keeping them (hopefully) curious as well. Glad I stopped by, and now I'm your newest follower- one of my fave bloggers R. Mac directed me here! Thanks so much!

Elise Fallson said...

I think reading a book should be like watching a good strip tease. You don't want to start off with them completely naked. You want to seduce the reader and little by little remove the layers. Then by the time you get to the end, you have your climax. Non?

Bryan Russell said...

If they're all wearing really snappy hats, though, that's a bonus; I may keep reading.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Crappy idea is a crappy idea - funny!
I don't do much vague and mysterious. (And I wouldn't even know how.)
Like the poison twist.

mooderino said...

@Karen-Hello! Any friend of Mac's is always welcome here.

@Elise-Not sure that's the right analogy since you pretty much know what you're going to get at the end (nekkid person) and you probably have a good idea if it'll be worth the wait because you can see what they look like. Most aspiring writers who try to pull off the enigmatic mystery approach are like a stripper whose behind a screen throwing clothes over the top and you have no idea what's back there until right at the end when they step out completely starkers. Might not be what you were hoping to see.

mooderino said...

@Bryan-true, a nice hat can make all the difference.

@Alex-after you finish the Cassa trilogy, perhaps a murder mystery?

Elise Fallson said...

I agree. I think the problem I have is finding the right balance, too much too soon, too little too late. Plus, I'm the type of reader that would keep reading (at least for a few pages)to find out what the woman was running from...more things for me to work on I see. (:

Sarah Anne said...

Great post. I have this problem a lot--knowing how much to reveal and when to reveal it. I find it especially hard with first person. What if your narrator knows something you don't want your readers to know yet? It can be obvious and awkward.

Lydia Kang said...

So true. That balance between revealing enough to get interest, and too much and spoiling it all...it's hard.

Michael Di Gesu said...

Interesting point Mood. I must admit I am one of those guilty writers that tries to be vague and mysterious, at least in the beginning. I always thought that would hook the reader. Perhaps not. Your point is valid if the story isn't good from the get go ...

Thanks for the food for thought.

Vero said...

"Because it’s easy to make it seem like there’s something amazing around the next corner. It’s much harder to actually have something amazing waiting there."

- This is why I love you, Mood. ;)

mooderino said...

@elise-thing is it always feels like it would be better to keep as much stuff back as possible, but the revers is true. It's better to give more info tot he reader and if it doesn't engage the reader then you know you need to come up with better material.

@Sarah-I would recommend you reveal what the first person character knows to the reader. Just isn't worth the contrivance.

@Lydia-Especially when you as the writer can't help but know stuff the reader doesn't. Hard to get into the reader's head.

@Michael-I think once you're established as a writer the readers are more trusting, but it's a bigger risk with new writers, I think.

@Vero-that's the reason? I thought it was my amazing hair and rock-hard triceps.

Rachna Chhabria said...

I did try the vague and mysterious in my book once, my CP's loved it. Now I just have to make sure agents too love it ;)

mooderino said...

@Rachna-I think the one thing you can say for certain about agents is, you never know.

Dalya Moon said...

I saw a JJ Abrams lecture (Ted Talks) where he explained that it didn't matter, and that the mystery was far better than any reveal.

And I thought ... ah. Yes, now I know why I want to punch JJ Abrams all the time.

Michael Offutt, Tebow Cult Initiate said...

Beautiful post today, Moody. I wish I knew some famous people that would lend me an endorsement.

On your "a great recipe for hot cocoa" I was at Cafe Madrid (my favorite restaurant in Salt Lake City) and the maitre de said, "Try the chicken soup. It will change your life." And I did and I loved it.

Now that's one hell of an endorsement. Thanks for putting my book cover on your blog and for the shout out in the Funnily Enough.

Carol Riggs said...

Gosh, these are great thoughts! All too true. The unexpected is SO refreshing. :) Super examples here too!!

mooderino said...

@Dalya-I saw that TED lecture. I was hoping he'd have a better ending for Lost. No such luck.

@Michael-chicken soup that changed your life would have to be damn good soup.

@Carol-cheers.

Paula Martin said...

Excellent post, mood - real food for thought there (and hot chocolate too!)

mooderino said...

@Paula-cheers.

Kızlık zarı said...

Dave it has always been pleasant reading what you wrote here and expressed with freedom. We look ahead to your posts
Kızlık zarı

post a comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...
 

MOODY WRITING © 2009

PSD to Blogger Templates realized by OOruc.com & PSD Theme designed by PSDThemes.com