A Story Worth Reading

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People did not want to hear about simple things.  They wanted to hear about great things–simply told.   — Jane Addams

What makes a story worth reading?  I decided to conduct my own ‘unscientific’ poll and here’s what the reading public at large had to say:

  • “Oh, it has to absolutely grab me from the first page or forget about it.”
  • “Hmm…good characters, interesting events and of course, some risks along the way.”
  • “I like the kind of suspense that keeps me up at 2 a.m.”
  • “I think it’s important to make a connection with the main character.  I like stories that relate.”
  • “I want a story that’s going to make me sit back and say I never thought of it that way.”
  • “Two words: gripping plot.”
  • “When I get home from work all I want is an escape for a while.  A good story will do that for me.”
  • “I think one of the purposes of a good story is to remind us that life is indeed manageable.”
  • “Stories that begin well, usually end well.”

And my all-time favorite:

  • “Why don’t you ask J.K. Rowling?  I think she has it figured out.”

With writing comes an awesome responsibility, wouldn’t you say?  Just look at this list.  Compelling characters, gripping plots, nail-biting suspense—and oh, make it look au naturale.

Well, I have some good news and some bad news.  The bad news is that I couldn’t get a hold of J.K. Rowling.  The good news is that there are a few things one can do to help heighten the chances that your story will be found compelling from page one.

Have frequent conversations with your characters

Get to know your characters.  Sit down and ask them questions that not only pertain to the story, but also ones that help you understand the passions and motivations that drive your character.  Your readers might not give a wit about George’s favorite meal, but maybe there a difference between how a ‘meatloaf & mashed potatoes’ guy responds to a situation than, let’s say, one who embraces a low-carb diet.  Talking to a character also helps the writer become aware of the character’s voice and body language.  William Faulkner once said he knew his story was working once his character stood up and cast a shadow.  When characters become real people to you, they’ll also become real people to your readers.

Keep the background in the background

Imagine how silly it’d be if we walked around wearing billboards that not only explained our origins, but also in short order listed all the experiences we’ve encountered along the way.  Pretty ridiculous, huh?  The same holds true for your characters. Sure, as the author, you know the whole story, but don’t explain more than necessary.  Ernest Hemingway called it the “Iceberg Theory,” or as it’s sometimes known the “Theory of Omission.”  Basically, the theory states the deeper meaning of a story should not be evident on the surface but be made transparent implicitly.  Allow your readers to inhabit your character’s world through action and dialogue.  In other words, ‘show, don’t tell.’

Let your characters speak for themselves

Don’t merely write dialogue, but let your characters speak for themselves.  Listen to what they have to say.  Pick up on the nuances and rhythms.  Write only what you hear.  Allow the character to create the story and never, never, never manipulate a character to make a plot work.  It’s not fair to the character or the story.

Start your story at a critical point

To pique your readers’ interest from the get-go, place your character at odds with something much larger than him or herself by the end of the first page, if not the first paragraph.  What does your character yearn for?  What are his/her needs or desires? What obstacles stand in the way?  What are the stakes? If there’s no conflict, there’s no story.

Write out of passion

Many times, writers are given the advice to write what they know.  That’s all fine but think how much more exhilarating it is to write about something you love.  If you write about the things that move you, you’ll soon find your readers following you on the journey.

 

What kind of stories keep you reading?  Feel free to leave a comment.  I’d love to hear from you.

 

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