Thursday, 13 December 2012

Assume Reader Resistance

There’s always the feeling when you write something that maybe no one else will want to read it. And that’s exactly how you should think.

Sure, there are going to be one or two people who are into exactly what you’re into, but for the most part people won’t be. Just because you came up with a story won’t automatically make them want to read it.

Realising this is half the battle to avoiding it (although admittedly it is the easy half).

There are those people in life whose exploits are interesting to you because you know them. When a friend or a family member has something to tell you it has a different effect than if a guy on a bus started telling you about his day.

Similarly, we are more forgiving towards characters we already know or authors who we are familiar with. Our expectations are secure enough for us to assume their story will be of interest (although that may not turn out to be the case). We’re willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.

But characters that are new to us are treated with a degree of scepticism. As a writer trying to win over readers you can’t rely on the audience being generous with their time, especially in the current climate where there are a zillion other people vying for their attention.

And while someone saying they have an interesting story to tell may be true, if you’re in a room full of people telling you that, which one are you going to choose to listen to?

Because that’s how things are at the moment. A lot of writers surrounding each reader, making hyperbolic claims and offering unbeatable prices.

So, if you were at  a party where everyone has some story to tell, who would catch your eye?

Obviously I can’t give you any definitive answers, but I have been thinking about it and the following things occurred to me.

There’s the guy who has a large group gathered around him, holding court. We’d all love to be that guy, but he’s already made it. I think we have to look a little lower on the totem pole for inspiration. 

There’s the guy who’ll talk to anyone he can corner. He doesn’t make much sense, but he talks non-stop and seems to always pop up. I think we’d all love not to be that guy.

There’s the guy acting weird and a bit crazy. He’s standing on a chair and flapping his arms like a chicken. Is he having some kind of manic episode or just looking for attention? Either way, when people try too hard to be noticed it rarely leads anywhere interesting. Properly entertaining eccentricity tends not to be so showy.

Then there’s the guy who seems to be up to something. He’s looking out of the windows and checking locked doors. Maybe it’s all innocent, but maybe not. Now I think we’re getting somewhere. I can tell what he’s doing (making sure the place is secure) but I don’t know why.  I didn’t know why the chicken guy was doing what he was doing, but I didn’t know what he was doing either. Complete mystery is baffling. Partial mystery is intriguing.

But wait, here comes a girl I don’t know who grabs me by the arm and whispers, “You have to help me. Pretend we know each other from university and we’ve just bumped into each other.” And before I can ask her why, a huge oaf come stumbling in with a bloodied lip, and she turns to you and says, “Oh my god! I can’t believe it’s you!”

The thing about that last example is that whether or not you’re interested in this story doesn’t matter, you’re part of it. The story that engages you is the one that involves you.

Now, that may seem fair enough in theory, but what does that mean in terms of writing? How can you involve the reader in the story (unless it’s one of those “Choose Your Own Adventure” books).

The key to that last example being more engaging than the others is this: What will the character choose to do?

The woman has asked for help, she obviously needs it, and there’s no time to think things over. Play along or bail? Choices are what makes a story compelling. Not whether someone has cheese or tuna in their sandwich, that’s not a choice it’s a preference. What does the character choose to do when the outcome matters? What do they choose when there's a personal cost? 

By putting a character in that position and not letting them off the hook, the story becomes impossible to put down (for the next few pages at least).
If you found this post useful, please give it a retweet. Cheers.


24 comments:

E.J. Wesley said...

Wonderful post as usual, Mood. But it does remind me of the old phrase, "Resistance is futile!" Kind of makes me want to write wearing an alien mask. :-)

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Presenting choices - check. Gets the reader wondering "What would I do?" as well.
I'd still be wondering about the chicken guy...

Vero said...

Superb. The example with the party and the different types of story beginnings (people at the party) is a really great analogy.

"Complete mystery is baffling. Partial mystery is intriguing."
Absolutely agree with this. Great post, Mood!

Patricia Lynne said...

Great post. Definitely will make me think while writing. Although, if I saw a guy checking locks I wouldn't assume he's trying to secure the place. My mind would go paranoid.

Brent Wescott said...

Love the post, but the picture at the end is great, too. I've done that before.

mooderino said...

@EJ - kinky

@Alex - but would you want to engage him in conversation? (free eggs would be nice though).

@Vero - cheers.

@Patricia - it would certainly get my attention.

@Brent - I'd love to be the writer of that book.

Guilie said...

Ooooohhhh... This is SO GOOD! Adding it to my post-it collection on the frame of my screen. Masha danki! (That's "thank you so much" in Papiamentu, the language where I live)

Lynda R Young said...

Great advice. It certainly engages the reader by putting your characters in this type of situation.

Charmaine Clancy said...

I'd probably start checking the locks too, and failing that, start pulling stuff out of cupboards and draws looking for clues. This might be why I don't get invited to too many parties.

mooderino said...

@Guilie - glad you liked it.

@Lynda - Cheers.

@Charmaine - I'd invite you to my party.

Michael Offutt, Speculative Fiction Author said...

Diversity I think lends itself very well to this concept. You've got black people that want to have black protagonists (hence why we now have a black spiderman), you have gay people who want to see gay protagonists, you have girls who want to see girls as the hero, etc. etc. So as we become a more diverse country, books (like other media) will have narrow appeal across differing interest groups. I'm okay with that. My book really seems to appeal to gay men who like to read science fiction. I've gotten quite a few accolades from them.

The one thing that I'm a little envious of is how religion seems to have such a broad appeal. In other words, I'm not religious, and therefore I'm not in that group. But those that are...you know...the christian writers, can write christian fiction and it really helps them to become best sellers.

mooderino said...

@Michael - I'd say you have to convert to Mormon if you really want to get in God's good books. I wonder what it is about that religion that produces so many writers...

Rachna Chhabria said...

Great post Mooderino. "As a writer trying to win over readers you can’t rely on the audience being generous with their time, especially in the current climate where there are a zillion other people vying for their attention."
Completely in sync with your thought.
I would ignore the chicken guy and zoom in on the other one checking locked doors. But, that's just me, wonder what the others will do.

Lydia Kang said...

So true about not assuming that your audience has time to be patient with your story. Well said.

Assm Khan said...

Totally agree with this thought, "We are more forgiving towards characters we already know or authors who we are familiar with." :)

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lbdiamond said...

A thought-provoking post. I often try to put a character in the worst possible situation and then see how they get out of it...sometimes they don't, LOL!

mooderino said...

@Rachna - I think it's only going to get more important to grab the reader's attention as publishing goes indie over the next few years.

@Lydia - I think trust has to be earned. Once you're established, then you can start messing with the audience.

@Assm - Cheers.

@LB - fun watching them try, though.

The Golden Eagle said...

Great picture at the end of your post--I can see myself doing that.

I like your analogy of catching a reader's attention to a busy room.

mooderino said...

@Golden - that was most of my childhood.

Michael Offutt, Speculative Fiction Author said...

@Moody: I want to answer your question you posed to me. It's been my observation that the women don't have jobs. They are all stay-at-home which is weird. So they all turn to writing because they want to produce income for their family while staying at home to raise all of the kids. That's just a theory, but I have lots of evidence.

Also, the religion produces a lot of fame mongers. I don't know if you noticed, but Romney really wanted to be president more so than just about anyone I have ever seen. I mean that guy REALLY REALLY wanted that job. That kind of fame grubbing is pretty typical and around here, there are a lot of would be authors that are pretty full of themselves and desperate to be in the spotlight.

Cat York said...

Great post. I am totally the person trying to talk to everyone in the room.

Lauren said...

Sounds like it's part marketing and part good storytelling. I like that. :)

Julie Luek said...

Another thought-provoking post. Tying the reader into the story is key and very subtle. I will have to think back over books I loved and look for that element specifically.

mooderino said...

@Michael - I'm not sure that's exclusive to Mormons. Seems like people are desperate for attention all over.

@Cat - you can talk to me any time!

@Lauren - a little blackmail couldn't hurt either.

@Julie - cheers. Provoking is what I'm here for!

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