Monday, 16 June 2014

The Power of Story Compels You

A story with high stakes and deadly dangers can still bore you to tears. Equally, a character folding laundry while contemplating life’s absurdities can be deeply moving and affecting.

While there’s probably more to work with if your story is about an exploding volcano than creased shirts and an ironing board, the fact that neither subject-matter guarantees how the story will be received demonstrates that whatever it is that draws readers into a tale, it isn’t just a matter of sticking a character in a perilous situation and seeing how they cope.

So what is it that grabs a reader and keeps them engaged through many hundreds of pages?

There are two elements of a story that keeps readers reading, a compelling narrative and compelling characters. Both is ideal, although one out of two ain’t bad.

The narrative is basically what happens, and if you want to know what happens next, you’ll keep reading. Humans, in general, are curious. If you put a problem in front of them they would like to know the solution.

As long as a story is about things going wrong, needing to be fixed, obstacles that have to be overcome and enemies that require vanquishing, then the narrative will have the potential to hold the reader’s attention. Not because these things are inherently interesting or important to figure out, but simply because we have a magpie-like attraction for shiny puzzles.

But that only gets you so far. As mentioned in the opening paragraph, you can still bore the reader despite big explosions and earth-shattering events. Simply raising a lot of questions doesn’t create a cumulative effect.

A man discovers he was adopted, that aliens have infiltrated the White House and that Coca Cola are working on jet pack powered by fizzy pop. All very intriguing, but kind of random and unrelated.

For a narrative to be compelling, it isn’t just a matter of creating interesting events, it’s how they connect together. If a question provides an answer that raises another question, the cascade effect can keep a reader turning pages well into the early hours.

Rather than a man discovering he was adopted and then his mother telling him he’s an alien they found in rocket ship, the mother telling him they found him in a metal box, and then investigation of that box reveals it to be a rocket ship, which then activates and shows him the location of another alien... in the White House, provides a much greater momentum for the narrative.

It’s how you move the reader from one problem to the next without allowing a convenient place for them to stop that creates a compelling narrative.

A compelling character, on the other hand, can get away with murder (sometimes literally) just because the reader likes them so much. Often this goes beyond all reasonable expectations. If a guy takes ridiculous risks in the pursuit of a just cause, we would like him to succeed. No matter how unlikely, we want him to win.

If a crazed killer kidnaps your child then your desire to get her back, no matter what it takes, is perfectly understandable and admirable, but there’s no reason why that desire should translate into a new found ability to track down criminals and fight them into submission.

And yet we want that to happen, and are willing to make allowances in common sense and logic to see it happen.

That deep-rooted need in people to see a character go up against impossible odds and not be crushed by them is at the heart of a lot of literature. Of course, we will also accept more realistic tales where life's tragic nature wins in the end, but while contemplating our place in the universe is sobering and meaningful, it isn’t quite as satisfying as defeating an alien invasion with only an iPad mini and a bagful of determination.

What’s compelling about a character is their refusal to back down—and the more sensible it would be to give up, the more entertaining it is when they don’t. This means they need a good reason to keep going; if you witness a murder and rather than calling the police you decide to solve the crime yourself, it’s going to make the character come across as stupid more than intrepid.

But if the police don’t believe you, all evidence disappears, and the murderer comes after you, then taking the law into your own hands becomes much more plausible.

Any situation where characters finds themselves facing something we would all rather avoid, and they don’t panic, or once they stop panicking they take on the challenge, that character wins our sympathy and we want to see them get what they deserve, even though in life that rarely happens. Or maybe because of that.

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Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Sometimes a little panic is good.
If every problem leads to a solution that turns up a bigger problem, that keeps the stakes high and things moving.

mooderino said...

@Alex - you don't have to do it all the way through, but it can make for an exciting run.

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

I finished a 620 page book last night that I thought was boring. It didn't get interesting until the last chapter and now I've got to figure out if I want to read the sequel which is another 620 pages or whether I should just give up on it. Hmm. The writer in my opinion could have used some of your advice.

Stephanie Faris said...

I've attended workshops covering "character-driven vs. plot-driven novels" before, but I think this blog points out something that I was thinking during the workshops. It's usually not black and white. Most of the time you have varying degrees of's like those old-fashioned scales where each side held a certain amount of weight. The more plot-driven, the less character development is necessary and vice versa.

Susan Gourley/Kelley said...

I worry all the time that my characters are compelling enough. When I find a book that really has great character develop I try to figure out how they make it work. Great post.

Rachna Chhabria said...

I always worry about my narrative and characters not being compelling enough. Nowadays, when I read books, I analyze why I liked the character and whether the narrative held my interest. If my interest sagged, then at what point did it sag. This helps me in my own writing.

The Armchair Squid said...

Nice work. A friend of mine pointed out recently that the strength of Star Wars has a lot to do with the strength of individual scenes. Part of what keeps you going through the movie is that each scene is compelling within itself - a puzzle to be solved, an objective to be attained, a purpose identified, etc. I think this fits in well with your thinking here.

dolorah said...

"..we have a magpie-like attraction for shiny puzzles." Love this comment.

In the face of adversity (say a zombie apocalypse) I'm going to panic, cry, then run to the nearest person I feel will protect me until I can learn how to do that myself.

I think I write my main characters in much the same way. I guess my novels are more character driven than plot driven.

Unknown said...

So true. If you do not have good characters, you really have no story to go with.

David P. King said...

As I read your opening, I thought "has there been a romantic comedy with a dry cleaners as a backdrop?" Random, but hey, that could make for a good story. :)

mooderino said...

@Mike - i think you're being very generous even considering it.

@Stephanie - big and small moments can both be compelling, if handled right.

@SG/K - Me too, although the better the book the harder to spot the joins, i find.

@Rachna - bad books help me more than good ones in that regard.

@Squid - micro and macro, linking them is the tricky bit.

@Donna - as long as the character acts to deal with the problem (even if it's by running like mad) I think it can be made engaging for a reader.

@Lilith - it certainly helps.

@David - My Beautiful Laundrette?

Margo Berendsen said...

I love the example of the character finding out one thing leading to the next thing... and the point about coming up against impossible odds and not being crushed being the heart of literature... good stuff. I've always known that the heart of the story is a struggle, but that shed new light.

The Armchair Squid said...

No doubt.

Chemist Ken said...

I like to drop in mysteries to solve as the MC goes along struggling with whatever he's struggling with. One of my biggest problems is making sure that the sequence of effects I give the reader is as interesting for them as it is for me.

Jess said...

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mooderino said...

@Margo - we all love a trier.

@squid - word.

@Ken - I think you have to trust that what you find interesting others will too. You just have to be honest with yourself.

@Jess - thanks for the offer.

Unknown said...

I love the title of this post! Regarding the kidnapped child/parent avenger scenario, I've always found it interesting that the parent is usually either an ex-CIA agent, ex-Army Ranger, or some other form of super-spy/killer. Isn't it amazing how many of them have their kids kidnapped?

I've yet to read a laundry scene that kept me interested. As you so intelligently pointed out, stakes matter, and exciting reveals (like the metal box being a spaceship) are just as riveting as chase scenes. Great post!

Optimistic Existentialist said...

I think strong characters can carry a weak story, but weak characters cannot carry a strong story. Just my thoughts from a reader's perspective :)

mooderino said...

@Lexa - yews, it always helps if the parent has a p"articular set of skills" at their disposal.

@Optimistic -I think there are plenty of examples of weak characters in strong stories that worked. Not necessarily good stories, but certainly popular. Romances in particular can have very bland, milquetoast protags and get away with it.

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