Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Rule #1: Take the Reader With You

The last 3 weeks of reading have been a very interesting exercise for me. I have red one series which was incredible, bookended by two books which were not. All three taught me the same lesson: Take the reader with you.

There's an author whose books I read years ago, but who ended a series in a very unsatisfying way, so I stopped purchasing her books for a long time. I wish I hadn't done this. For years I left her to her devices, and only recently picked up the first in a new series. I was so blown away I devoured the entire series in days.

The last book in that series, I am happy to report, was not only amazing, it was inspiring. They were none of the technical, or storytelling issues that I'd observed in her debut series. I kicked myself for not believing earlier reports that these books were crazy-good. The thing that made this series incredible was not the character development, or how I was completely absorbed by the story (though those things are masterfully done). The incredible thing was that the premise of this series was ridiculous. If I were to describe these stories the entire premise would sound not only weird, but literally impossible. To have this many plots, and all the insane details converge on a small handful of people in a small town would seem implausible. But this author observed rule 1:

Take the reader with you.

Her world-building was steeped in reality, despite the fantastic nature of the story. Her characters were deep and complex, realistic despite their relative youth and inexperience. And the story was compelling despite the completely improbable elements that came together to make it up.

In short, she achieved The Impossible. The good news is that means we can too. You and I. All we have to do is take the reader with us.

There's any number of academic exercises I could do to explain what that means. But honestly, I think this is a skill we develop with time (just like this author did). Instead I want to tell you about the other reading experiences I had over the past 3 weeks, and why they didn't achieve this:

In the first, I read a fantasy book that, while beautifully written, and of a fascinating premise, never pulled me into love with the hero. And because the entire story hinged on me falling in love, the entire story was boring. I did not finish it.

The other book I read, and did finish--barely--was a contemporary romance. It was very well written, with complex characters, and a family dynamic that in normal circumstances would have kept me flipping pages late into the night. However, there was one major flaw in the story, and it took me several chapters into the book to identify it: Why was I not connecting with the story in the way that I should? Why was I able to put the book down, and go to sleep.? Answer: There was no character intent. There was never, at any of the divergent points in the story--every action, transition, or internal narrative--a description of what the protagonist wanted.

So on one hand I was left wallowing. Where are we going, and when can I expect to arrive? And on the other hand, I was frustrated. Why are we here? What's the freaking point?

I have to say that this last was, in fact, the most frustrating even though the writing was probably the best I've read in a long time. Knowing that there was a talented author behind the story and these characters, who clearly needed to be putting words out there, but also knowing that the reason this book was not receiving the accolades it should, or the reviews, or the sales, was because of this one missing element, broke my heart.

I'm guessing most readers would not be able to identify this unless they've taken some kind of creative writing structure training or study. But the fact remains unless you take the reader with you it's an unsatisfying story. And in this case I never got on the train because I wasn't told where it was headed.

I've talked on this blog before about character intent. I've talked about motivating stimulus and reaction. I talked about those things years ago, before I was a published author. I stand by those words. Mainly because the more I learn through my own writing, through reading, through being edited by a very experienced editor, and just generally in my own study of the craft, the more I know this to be true: Unless you take the reader with you, your book is going to fail.

Do you want to know what a book looks like when it doesn't take the reader along for the ride? It looks like a mediocre reviews, readers left questioning why they read the book, lackluster sales, and lots of "Did not finish". Whether they're able to pinpoint it or not, there's something missing, a critical element that effectively ruins the read.

So, what's my point here? My point is that you can't skip an understanding of the craft of writing and expect readers to fall in love with what you do. You, the author, must first understand what you want the book to do, then you have to figure out what your protagonist needs to want in order to take the story there. And after you've communicated that through their voice, you need to surround them with such tangible detail and response to stimulus, that even the most ridiculous premise is gobbled down whole.

You can do this. So can I. But just as our character needs to strive for something, so do we. There's no short-cuts here, folks. Study the craft. Understand the rules. Then when you break them, it's because you know another, better way to achieve what they do within the parameters of your story.

Good luck! (And I'll take all prayers to that effect for my current books *wink*

1 comment:

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