I’m going to break the fourth wall here for a minute: this week’s topic was hard for me, because it’s hard for me to think of the writing I do as having any sort of technique. I realize how pretentious that sounds. I don’t mean, like, Everything I do is pure a~rt~ or anything like that — nor do I mean it in the self-deprecating (my favorite) way of, nothing I write is any go~od T_T. It’s just that, um, I just write and think about all that other shit later.
Here I am, two days before my post is supposed to go up (and thus days late from the poor editors POV), with a cup of coffee, and I’m thinking: When I’m writing, how do I try to manipulate my reader?
And there it is: I want to mess with my reader’s feelings. I want to own my reader for about 30K to 70K words and never ever let them go. I want to make their whole brain go HOORAY or NO NOT AT ALL NOPE or OMG WHY or, maybe sometimes, HMMMMM. I even expect them do it in all caps. If life were Tumblr, I would expect them to need at least three reaction GIFs by the end of my story.
Now that I think of it that way, oh, of course. I use techniques. Duh.
It’s still taken me damn near two hours to figure out the rest of this post. The number of failed drafts would utterly boggle you.
I think there are three things I try to do well to keep a reader invested. (Sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously.)
- World Building
I don’t always do them well, or maybe I don’t always pay attention to what I’m doing, but generally speaking, this is how I do it.
1. World Building
This might not be such a big deal for literary fiction, but I’m a genre girl, and I think genre needs a partially-explained world. I also think readers stick around when they have a burning interest in the world that’s been created, even if the plot itself doesn’t necessarily wind their crank. There is a Certain Famous Author whose books just frustrate me to the point of pulling my own hair, because there’s so much untapped potential in the world they’ve built — meanwhile, the main character bangs her way through every problem. Ugh, please, I am begging for some politics from that world, and I have never said that ever.
World building is a fun balance between things that are familiar to the reader and things that blow their mind — one informs the other. At the same time, I don’t think every story in a world needs to be told; there needs to be some mystery, something for the reader to wonder about — so long as it’s not something you’ve promised and then failed to deliver. (Also, the danger for too much telling is so high when you get wrapped up in LOOK AT ALL THIS STUFF I CREATED. It’s really hard not to detail the very little details, when you’ve plotted them all out so carefully.)
In this respect, I think test readers are vital. A as a writer, I can’t always tell what a reader is going to want to know; when the test reader comes back and goes, “I’d really like to know more about A,” and I didn’t even think of it,
I think a reader will forgive a boring or flawed world for compelling characters. I can think of half a dozen times I’ve done so. (I once read a book, interested in the characters, and only later realized, “Wow, that book was really sort of terrible. How did I miss X, Y, and Z while I was reading?”) And frankly, I love characters. I’ve had stories change when I wanted more of one character, less of another. Boom! Characters, baby.
If I allow my ego to come into play (and I do, frequently), I’m good at dialogue. I feel like I can tell you more about a character by the things he says than the narrative itself. So I try to use conversations to draw lines between characters and to keep the reader invested in how these people all co-exist.
(That approach is actually somewhat flawed; I tend to focus on dialogue at the expense of action. So, you know, I may not be dispensing the best advice here.)
Structure isn’t going to save a boring world with boring characters, but I think when everything else is present, it’s going to help ramp an average story into a YES YES HOLY CRAP YES story. In word form, I try to use more than the event in action to pull a reader into the moment. I want them to feel scared. I want them to do the book equivalent of leaning forward in your seat and forgetting how to breath.
To me, the equivalent actual speech is in the punctuation, with a dash of sentence structure. I use them both to bring it home.
It’s a pretty common thing. Shorten the sentences. Spell it out. Create tension. Then let it all out with a longer, varied sentence. That’s just Writing 101 — and yet, voice (for me) is built on that simple structure.
More importantly: bad structure can kill a story that’s otherwise brilliant. It’s not just in being able to do basic things with words — I mean, a lot of people can create coherent sentences and paragraphs, but not all of them can really tell a story. It’s almost mystical, really. You can break down all the basics parts and rules of a story, and digest the individual things that work, but you can’t just recreate a story with a formula. You have to know how to use the words for maximum amounts of awesome.
I don’t think any of that is terrible news-worthy or mind-blowing, but it’s what I find I use to keep a reading going. I realize there’s something wrong with this list being utterly devoid of the word “Plot,” but frankly, I think people connect with the world & characters, and follow the plot along just to watch those two things change and move.
So. Techniques. I think.