It’s not enough to have something dramatic happen in a story. The reason why it happens is also important.
In terms of impact on a reader, there’s a big difference between a character getting upset about losing their house to the bank and getting upset because their favourite tv show got cancelled.
What happens keeps the reader interested in the short term. Why it happens is what keeps them interested over the course of an entire novel.
For the big things, the major plot points, the premise, the reasons why it’s happening will be something the writer is probably already aware of and working on to make sure its importance is clear.
The guy doesn’t want the girl to leave because he loves her, the secret agent wants to find the bomb before it kills everyone, the cop wants to catch the serial killer because yada yada.
Obviously, being aware you need a reason is only part of it. You still have to come up with decent ideas and execute them well, but as long as you know where to make those reasons clear and interesting, you’ll have as good a chance of making it work as is possible.
However, the big moments aren’t the only moments in a story. Characters have to go about doing stuff, getting to places, interacting with each other. Those scenes also require characters to have reasons for doing what they’re doing.
Since those moments aren’t of such great consequence, it can be easy to let them slide. Make them as short and quick as possible and get them out of the way. You need a guy to go to the store because once he gets there he finds the place overrun with Martians and the story gets going. So he tells his wife he’s going to get some milk and off he goes.
And that’s perfectly plausible. It won’t have readers throwing the book down in disgust, they’ll keep reading, probably, as long as things don’t get too pedestrian. But not turning them off isn’t really where you want to aim for. The question is, will it keep them engrossed and turning the pages?
Because flat, generic, emotionally bland scenes don’t tend to hold the attention. And just because we haven’t got to the bit with the aliens yet, doesn’t mean it’s okay to coast.
If, for example, the wife wants him to get five things from the store and tells him to write them down so he won’t forget, and he gets pissed off because she has no faith in him and he refuses to write a list but she texts him the list, so he takes a photo of a dog taking a dump in the street and sends it to her... well, maybe you don’t have to go quite that far. My point is you can create tension and emotion and reveal character and have a dynamic already in place using the smallest of scenes.
That way, when he does get to the Martians in the 7-11, he’s not going to arrive like he’s idling in neutral, and the reader isn’t still waiting for the story to start.
In real life, people do things for the same reasons as everyone else. If I say I’m eating a sandwich you won’t require an explanation, you’ll just assume I’m hungry and eating is what you do when you’re hungry. As a writer, though, there is room in the seemingly ordinary to stimulate the reader’s interest.
If a man says he’s going to the bank, there’s no reason why the bank scene can’t be interesting and engaging.
If man says he’s going to the tanning salon, there’s no reason why that won’t be an entertaining scene.
But if a man says he’s going to the bank, but he drives past the bank and pulls up outside a tanning salon, you’ve already got the reader’s interest before the scene has started.
You can get away with giving characters the usual, familiar reasons for doing things, but the potential for the unexpected or unfamiliar to engage a reader often goes unexploited.
If you look at any moment in a story and the reason why the person is doing what they’re doing, and then just ask yourself if the reason could be something more interesting, or if the character’s mood could be better shown, chances are you’ll be able to engage the reader and start building momentum so that you’re already up and running by the time you get to the take off point.
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This post first appeared March 2013. Holidays are over. Next week, new post!