Let’s say you’re familiar with most of the basic guidelines when it comes to writing fiction. You know none of these suggestions guarantees a good story, but you try to apply them as much as possible. Can’t hurt right?
So you have a sympathetic main character with a clear goal, obstacles in the way, high stakes, an action-packed opening, a minimum of adverbs, active characters and you keep it all moving at a breakneck pace.
But when you show this tightly constructed thrill-ride to people whose judgement you trust, you don’t get the reaction you were hoping for. They don’t hate it, in fact they have lots of nice things to say about it, but it just doesn’t grab them.
They like the genre, have no problem understanding what happens and why, and certainly there are bestselling books out there with similar premises and characters so this sort of story definitely can work, and yet... it just doesn’t.
What is the missing ingredient? And what’s the best way to make sure it isn’t missing from your story?
Of course there are many reasons why a story might not be working, but most of these are easily spotted by critique partners. While it can be tricky seeing weaknesses in our own writing, a fresh pair of eyes (and a healthy lack of tact) usually put us back on the straight and narrow.
The problem comes though when your writing gets to the level where the obvious mistakes have been weeded out and whatever’s preventing the reader from fully engaging isn’t easy to spot. You know from the many ‘damning with faint praise’ reactions that something’s not quite right, but they can’t put their finger on it and neither can you.
What is often missing is a level of complication from the main character that colours the whole story, or in some cases it is present but in the wrong place.
Here’s an example of the kind of thing I mean: Our hero discovers that a great and revered writer didn’t write his greatest work and further investigations uncover a web of lies and deceits.
Now, could that story turn out to be interesting? Sure, it has the potential to be an entertaining read. So then, when do you think you would you feel like you knew that it was going to live up to that potential? When the plagiarism is discovered? When the reasons behind the lie are revealed? When life threatening consequences are encountered? When the investigation uncovers an even greater lie?It’s hard to tell isn’t it?
A lot depends on the specifics of the story and how events unfold. And if it takes a hundred pages to get to that point, the reader might give up before they get there or lose interest in the character even after things pick up.
There are ways around this, just fill those hundred pages with excitement to keep the reader distracted until the main plot kicks in. If the story has graphic violence, wacky characters, zombies, serial killers or whatever’s in the news (ebola strikes!) then you can get away with a main character who runs around doing enough stuff to keep the reader turning pages. Cheap tricks and a sense of urgency sell a lot of books.
But alternatively what if the story was changed to: Our hero discovers that his father, a great and revered writer, didn’t write his greatest work and further investigations uncover a web of lies and deceits.
All I’ve changed is the character’s relationship to his goal. Instead of pursuing an interesting puzzle, he’s now deeply invested in finding the truth. And this complication will affect how he deals with every single situation and person he encounters.
When should we learn that the great writer is our hero’s father? As early as possible, since this gives you the most bang for your buck. The greater investment for the character relates directly into greater investment for the reader.
If, though, you were convinced that you wanted to hold back the information and reveal it as a surprise later, then you would have to either resort to cheap tricks as before (and remember, cheap tricks work) or you have to come up with another, earlier complication.
Here’s another example: A woman at a big company is going for a promotion but her main rival is the boss’s son. As they try to one-up each other an attraction forms and they fall in love.
When do things get complicated? Probably not until she realises she’s falling for him. How long do we have to wait for that to happen? Probably quite a long time. First we have to set up the job, the promotion, the rival, and then show the attraction develop. That’s a lot of stuff that won’t be coloured by the complication (because the complication doesn’t exist yet).
It would be pretty jarring to have her fall in love at first sight in chapter one. Although not impossible to do—start off with a passionate one night stand (our girl has no time for love or a relationship), then head off to work to find the boss’s son has just transferred to her office, guess who? A cheap trick, certainly, but also a very workable one.
On the other hand, you can look at reworking the story. Maybe she’s the boss’s daughter but she wants to make it on her own so she gets a job as an intern in dad’s company.
Only one person will get the job after the trail period, so it’s dog eat dog, but her main rival is also devilishly handsome... Here the attraction to a rival is still gradually developed, but it’s in addition to the first complication. Does the spoilt rich girl have what it takes? Will she succeed without daddy’s help? Will she get discovered? It colours every action she takes.
When do we find out what she’s doing? Again, as early as possible is best. That doesn’t mean you have to reveal it completely. Her getting ready for work and pulling a cheap business suit out of wardrobe full of expensive designer gear can be enough to catch the reader’s interest and get them looking for clues.
Alternatively, you could start with her going: My name is Jenny Sinclair and my father is the eleventh richest man in America. He started out without a penny to his name, and that’s exactly what I plan to do.
As on-the-nose and telling as something like that is, it would still work. This isn’t about making the opening as engaging or gripping as possible. You can do that or not as you wish. What this is about is establishing a character-based complication as early as possible. One that affects every choice and decision the character makes.
Once you have this kind of a wrinkle established it can lift what may have been a mundane moment and add an extra level of tension to dramatic moments we’ve all seen before.
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