The aim for every writer is to write a real page-turner. To write the kind of story that the reader cannot put down until the story has finished. We don’t just want the reader to consume the words, but to devour them. The focus point: the story is not about the events. The story is about people’s reactions to the events. (example: focal = sherlock, viewpoint = watson)
What does the reader want?
To be able to satisfy a reader, you must first know what it is the reader craves. People are on an endless journey to get to know themselves. This is an endless journey because people are constantly changing and because sometimes a specific experience is required that shows us a part of ourselves we don’t otherwise see. Stories provide endless different lives and experiences, each teaches us more about ourselves and life. It expands our worlds.
Readers care about actions done by or to a character they care about, action relevant to the character’s goals and associated obstacles.
So what does the reader need? A story that seems real.
What makes a story seem real?
- Telling Details
- Character information
- Humour (generates authenticity)
- Some factual information
- Deep POV
The depth of Point of View
Shallow POV: John heard a dog bark.
Deep: A dog barked.
For a story to work, it has to be a complete story. The story starts with conflict, which forces action in order to resolve the conflict. Thus, the story ends with closure. The formula is this:
Story = Conflict -> Action -> Resolution
Stories are about conflict. Happiness is dull. Life isn’t about coping with happiness, it’s about achieving happiness. The same goes for stories. Mind the golden rule: If the characters are happy for a moment, don’t dwell on it. If the characters are happy longer than that, the reader isn’t. If all is going well, the story isn’t going anywhere.
Give the readers a desire and an obstacle. You must have both, and both must be strong. The author creates the want and the obstacle, the characters should then do their job. The character’s energy and determination is what drives the story, not the author. (Read more about conflict)
Conflict = Desire / Need + Obstacle
Each scene must set your character back further, rising the tension. Things get worse and worse, until they get better.
Remember, conflict should force the character to act. This action must be a direct attack on the obstacle or a defence against it. A thought-process can also be an action.
The golden rule: the ending is in the beginning. The beginning always starts with the dramatic conflict. This conflict puts two forces of equal strength against each other. The story doesn’t end until one of the forces prevails after an all-out battle. Many times, the ending reflects a defeat or victory but it can also be a mixture of the two. There can be partial victories, compromises, but only after an all-out struggle. The ending can never be achieved without extreme effort. (Read more about endings)
Hook the story to the heart of the reader.
The relatable character: Identification
The person who suffers the conflict. This can be an alien or an animal or even a desk chair as long as the chair has personality and emotion (like a person). Abstract concepts and ideas can be interesting, but they cannot be used as a medium for experience. A vicarious experience requires a character with a core, a perspective that draws you in, details that give the story life. The reader must be able to relate to the main character(s). This does not require the protagonist to be likeable, just relatable. This makes him and the story realistic despite how bizarre it might be. Relating to a person means connecting to a person, this connection is always an emotional one. (Read more about hook reader to character)
Conflict is the cause of identification, conflict forces characters to act and thus reveal themselves. Revealing characters must happen for identification to happen. The reader identifying with a character is the effect of a story, it’s the result of a story told successfully.
Conflict -> character actions -> character revealed -> identification
Identifying with the character allows the reader to share emotions with the character. The reader can live through the character now. Feel what the protagonist feels, whether it’s joy or sadness. The reader will now also worry for the well-being of the character. The better this connection becomes, the more immersed the reader will become. The reader now places himself in the story, by living through the character. You must show the character to the reader in order to allow identification. A reader cannot identify with a person he is merely told about. The character must be experienced.
Relate to the character through emotion
The best way to relate to another person is through an emotional experience. Pin down how the character feels by determining his worries, fears and hopes. We are drawn to people who show vulnerability. A baby crawling on the highway evokes more fear and terror than a drunk crawling on the highway. Vulnerability is a necessary ingredient for identification. We rush to those who need us the most. Each scene and each chapter must end in the mind of the character, with him struggling and worrying about what just happened and what he has to do next. (Read more about character creation)
Five character layers as you get to know a person:
- Sensory image; John is tall and heavy.
- Personality, how he relates and interacts with the world; John is a pessimist.
- Activity, what he does; John makes a noose.
- History, what he’s done in the past; John has tried it before.
- Core, a few core elements that relate to the story. Depth in a person, that we don’t normally see from real life people we meet. Their deepest thoughts and feelings. The secrets they don’t tell anyone; John’s wife is pregnant, but John is unable to have kids. He never told her for fear she would leave him.
The connection is made through emotion. If the writing is done well, the reader feels what the character feels. Which means the character must always be feeling something. If he doesn’t feel anything, the reader doesn’t feel anything and puts the story down. The emotion can be explicit, it can be implied, it can be suggested, as long as its there. If the character doesn’t know what he feels, then he feels confused. (Read more about writing emotion)
Show, don’t tell.
The age old saying: show, don’t tell! Why is this so important? Because the reader won’t just take your word for anything, he has to see it with his own eyes. The reader won’t feel a thing when told, only when shown. Writing is actually a visual medium, only the painting is done through words and the result appears within a person’s mind. You must give the reader specific enough visuals so he can imagine it.
Telling details: describe both specific element(s) of some things and imply/invoke some larger context usually either the scene or the character(s).
A few telling details can be enough to sketch out entire scenes. Showing happens through scene and dialogue. It mimics the a realistic pace, moment by moment and word for word. (Read more on show, don’t tell)
Key ingredients of an engaging scene
- complex layered characters who undergo change
- a point of view from which the scene is experienced
- memorable significant action seemingly unfolding in real time
- meaningful revealing dialogue when appropriate
- plot advancing new information
- conflict and drama that tests and reveals the characters
- a rich physical setting that calls on all the senses
- a spare amount of narrative summary or exposition
- dramatic tension: creates the potential for conflict
- use of sensory details, powerful verbs and affective words
- active voice using empathic writing
- more metaphors (wolf’s teeth) than similes (teeth like a wolf)
- scene subtext: deepening and enriching the scene by building imagery and emotion into deeper layers
- scene interactions of only purposeful character actions, to guide characters through changes in the most dramatic way possible
- suitable pacing and scene length to create mood and tone per scene
- avoid unnecessary details
- avoid abstract
- avoid gerunds (-ing words)
- avoid adverbs (-ly words)
- avoid passive voice
Cleaver, J. (2002) Immediate Fiction.
Hall, R. (2014) Writing Vivid Settings.
Haven (1999) Wright Right; Creative Writing Using Storytelling Techniques