One of the main tenets of writing story is to make the reader as the question: What happens next?
But this question shouldn’t be aimed at the writer, or even the story. The question should be aimed by readers at themselves.
And they shouldn’t be sure of the answer
Any question posed in the right way will offer an unknown to be revealed, that doesn’t make it interesting. I could ask you to guess what colour socks I put on this morning. Just because you don’t know the answer doesn’t mean you want to know.
It’s only when characters are placed in situations where if readers were to ask themselves, If that was me what would I do? And they don’t know, or even better, if they know the options but they don’t want to make the decision, then seeing someone else have to make the choice is a rewarding experience.
That’s true even if the character ends up making a total hash of things and tragedy ensues. Seeing someone else deal with difficult situations is what makes fiction better than real life. Because in real life we can’t afford to take outrageous risks or pursue outlandish dreams. Gambles rarely pay off and forfeits tend to be severe. But in stories, the less ordinary paths can be explored.
So while in real life we want things sorted out in the easiest and quickest way possible, with the police doing their job, lovers remaining true and illnesses being treated in good time, in fiction the opposite is true.
That’s the case whether it’s a man trapped in a cell about to be executed for a crime he didn’t commit, or a girl in love with a man who ignores her and is in love with his job.
Readers want to see scenarios they would never want to be in, with characters forced to do things they would never dream of doing. They want the character to take the more difficult path and they want to see it handled with insight, creativity, ingenuity, sacrifice and surprise.
Of course, that requires the writer to produce those elements. No easy task. So it’s understandable that a lot of aspiring authors write about characters who get what they want in fairly straightforward fashion.
Characters face problems they just happen to be perfectly suited to deal with. Like James Bond finding the gadget he’s given at the start of the movie is exactly what he needs to defeat the villain at the end. And those sorts of stories have an audience. People like to be comforted by the idea that their fantasies might come true, that we might have a fairy godmother we didn’t know about who will grant our wishes.
But the story where the character has no easy or obvious way out, where none of the paths available are without consequences, is a story readers will be affected by and react to with genuine emotion. They will care about what happens. They may not want to know what happens next, they may dread what they suspect, but they won’t be able to stop themselves turning the page to find out.
Don't forget, Alex Appreciation begins today (annual event?). Stop by the many, many people showing a little love to our own Ninja captain, Alex Cavanaugh. You can find the linky list here.
For myself, it's been a pleasure to encounter such a generous spirit on the interweb. Cheers, Alex.