Since a lot of you joined lately, I’e updated and reprinted this from four years ago.
When readers open a book [or flick on their electronic reader, I reluctantly add], they expect to enjoy it, or at least to FEEL something. Most adults will continue to read, even when a storyline is only so-so. I do that, too. I keep hoping that it’ll get through the rough or boring spots and wow me at some point. I am disappointed to find that it’s boring or unrealistic. I don’t know if I am more disgusted with the book or with myself for continuing to read. Perhaps we must read what we think is inferior to recognize what is good.
There is no way a child will read a boring book. There are far too many books and electronic distractions to choose from for children to spend a boring moment hoping a story will get better. They simply toss the book aside the moment it fails to interest them. That is why editors can tell by the first page if they want to read a manuscript further.
Our job to start out with great writing so that the reader doesn’t stop before page ten where the action begins. It doesn’t have to be a Mickey Spillane “two shots ripped into my groin, and I was off on another adventure” type of lead. But hook the reader with something familiar enough to make them feel comfortable and different enough to whet their curiosity.
A sure way to grab a reader is with emotion. Think of all the emotions we experience in a day—joy, anger, fear, shyness, etc. We give the reader the opportunity to experience emotion with whatever challenges they face. Readers expect to not only learn about a piece of life they have not experienced themselves, but they also want to laugh, to cry, to empathize–to feel. But they want to do it vicariously by identifying with a protagonist much like themselves.
The character is a surrogate for us, and a buffer between us and danger, the same way those magic words, “Once upon a time,” let us know as children that ogres couldn’t reach us. The emotions will be greater than the story itself. It is a scary world in reality, and few of us feel we can control any of it. Stories allow us to face those fears whether they are as overt as an abusive parent in a contemporary story or facing down a fiery dragon in fantasy.
Words can’t erase a feeling. The main character overcomes a negative emotion with a stronger more positive feeling. [Example: A young boy is afraid of heights. Everyone tells him it is silly to be afraid; just be careful. It isn’t until his kitten appears trapped on a branch higher than an arm’s reach that the love he feels for his kitten overcomes his fear and he takes his first step off the ground Our desires direct our reasoning. We can justify just about anything if we put our minds to it. If you don’t believe that, remember the last time our boss or leaders told you that what they are doing is for your best interest. We internalize our emotional struggles that eventually cause our actions or inactions. [Example: I know I’m not supposed to stay up past my bedtime, but I can do it without being caught. But what if Mommy catches me? Etc.] It adds tension when the character has hidden emotions that are contrary to the overt feelings:
I would dearly love to dump this pitcher of water in her lap. “More ice, Aunt Maude?”
As you think your story through, see it in your mind’s eye as scenes, each leading to the next. Be aware that your reader will “become” the character as he or she reads. Your reader will experience the emotional struggle going on with a clear view of the protagonist’s thoughts. That’s subjective viewpoint, whether you use the preferred third person or first person version. That is what bonds you, the reader, to the protagonist until the last word.
Practice makes near perfect. Try your hand at writing scenes of frustration, jubilance, sorrow, regret, etc. Avoid using those descriptions. Show don’t tell. We’ll FEEL those words.
If I haven’t laughed out loud or had a good cry by the end of a book, I feel cheated. How about you?