What makes the difference between a meh novel and one we fall head over heels in love with regardless of genre? Good question and it sure would make our job easier if there existed one answer.
Though there isn’t one answer there’s a list of pretty good answers, thus for this post and the sake of brevity, we’ll pick one. Today, I posit that the reader, upon page one, is testing a potential relationship. Kinda like dating.
We (readers) BOND to the great stories much the same way we bond in human relationships. Think about it.
We even admit to this all the time without truly noting what we’re saying, “OMG, I fell in LOVE with that book! I LOVE that character!” etc.
When we authors roll with this metaphor, our job as storytellers becomes far simpler (though simple and easy are not the same thing).
I teach a class called Hooked–Your First Five Pages (and offering it again) because those initial pages are critical. It’s like meeting a member of the opposite sex and noticing something that makes our heart flutter, that propels a longing to know more.
A vast majority of relationships start with this kind of heart-fluttering spark, though granted there are relationships where there was nothing/nada in the beginning, and, over time, something surfaced.
This happens in fiction though it’s rare. Every person who has ever recommended Girl with the Dragon Tattoo to me has told me essentially the same thing, “Oh the first hundred pages will bore the paint off the walls, but if you get past that….it’s AWESOME.”
Ok. I’m good, thanks. Not picking on this book, but just not my beer. Sorry.
I’m glad he has a great personality…. *looks for exit*
OPW versus NPW
Though not all relationships begin with an instant spark, it’s pretty amazing to have (and ideal, too). In fiction it is no longer optional. In a what I call the NPW (New Publishing World) we no longer have the luxuries of the OPW (Old Publishing World).
In the OPW, only so many authors were ever published. Discoverability wasn’t a nightmare. The competition was finite.
In the NPW? We gotta have that love-at-first-sight or the browsing reader will simply pass after glancing at the sample pages and move on until something sparks.
Story IS Seduction
All righty, so sparks are great but not nearly enough if nothing catches fire. Before Hubby, I had more than my fair share of bad dates which I want to use for the purposes of illustration.
When I was 20 a ridiculously hot Marine asked me out and he wasn’t gorgeous…he was breathtaking. Just looking at him made my knees weak…and then I went out with him.
I’m not picking on Marines because I know plenty who are brilliant, but this young man was not one of them. Though I think he was likely the most handsome man who’d ever asked me out, it was one of the most painful dates of my life. Agonizing might be a better word, namely because I find intellect attractive and this guy was about as smart as a tomato plant.
During the meal, I found myself wondering if he’d start leaning toward the light, postulating he might be able to photosynthesize his own food. Was the steak he ordered even necessary?
Yes, I know. Not a very nice thing to think but I was only twenty. Gimme a break!
And maybe he wasn’t dumb and I simply assumed this because I was young and dumb, myself. Perhaps he was nervous or shy. But what killed the spark was he was a blank, a Nothing Ned. He parted with nothing of his own.
Me: *eagerly smiling* So, you like to mountain bike?
Him: *shrugs* Not really.
Me: *still perky* Okay, you have hobbies?
Him: *makes face* Nah. Not so much.
Me: *dying a little inside* Where are you from?
Him: *chews* Texas.
Me: *feeling the tailspin, reaching for anything* What music do you like?
Him: *butters more bread* I dunno. Really don’t listen to music.
Me: *wanting to commit Seppuku with sorbet spoon* So what do you do?
Him: *shrugs again* A lot of things.
Now maybe this guy was a genius and a layered and dimensional human being with loads of cool hobbies we could have bonded over. But, because on this ONE date he parted with NOTHING of himself, he came across as boring, dull, and frankly dull-witted.
Was he? No idea.
I didn’t have the bandwidth to endure another painful evening like that to find out. The spark of his looks were enough to get me to dinner, but nothing ignited because he refused to part with anything personal to act as tinder to make use of the spark.
Then we have the other kind of date. Again, really attractive guy, enough to spark a date and by the end of the evening…I wanted to throw myself out of a moving car.
Over-Sharing Oliver was the opposite of Nothing Ned and he spent hours using dinner as his personal confessional/therapy session relaying in vivid detail everything that had happened to him from childhood, the deets of his nasty divorce and why he hates and doesn’t trust women (but thinks I might be different—thanks) and on and on about himself.
HIS likes, accomplishments, job, hobbies, interests, opinions and thirty minutes into this ordeal I seriously wondered why the heck I was even THERE.
I felt like a prop whose sole purpose was so he didn’t look stupid eating at a restaurant and talking to himself (though he was essentially doing just that).
The Story as Romance
When we create our characters we must be vigilant to avoid the polar opposite ends of the backstory spectrum, and it IS a balancing act.
On one side the character can be a Nothing Ned. We fail to explore and articulate the backstory of WHO this character is and why he/she is a certain way. How do they see their world? Why do they act/react the way they do?
Dramatic tension cannot exist in a vacuum. There is nothing to emotionally ignite the relationship between the reader and our story.
Conversely, when we create the backstory, it doesn’t belong vomited on the reader all at once like Over-Sharing Oliver. As we talked about on Tuesday, mystery is a good thing. It keeps readers turning pages.
There is a reason the final big ending of a novel is called the climax *wink, wink, nudge, nudge*.
The reader and story bond in relationship that grows and intensifies with every struggle, setback and finally a triumph (climax)…which can be a betrayal (tosses book across room), an unsatisfying letdown (no more books by THAT gal), satisfying (cool, maybe get his next book), or a mind-blowing transcendent experience (in love, committed forever and no author does it better).
How any novel ends largely depends on the writer’s skills at wooing the reader then making them see stars 😉 . They will love YOU forever, eternally devoted. Frankly that is what we ALL want, readers and authors.
Learning to create fascinating and layered backstories is a great start, and USA Today BSA Cait Reynolds has a class on that tonight which I strongly recommend. Cait is a fantastic instructor.
Additionally, the worlds we create can in and of themselves become like a character where readers fall goofy in love because they ADORE that world (um…Cosplay anyone?).
This is why we are also offering world-building classes, because it involves so much more than one might think. Many of the MS I edit really are sad regurgitations of other worlds by other authors or, as in the case of Independence Day Resurgence a boring and bizarre cobbling of other worlds.
Hollywood: Hey, let’s retread Independence Day, slap on some Babylon 5, Battlestar Galactica and a smidge of Call of Duty Infinite Warfare. It will be awesome!
Instead our goal is to learn to create something grounded in familiar mythos, yet wholly ours and unique and captivating. Y’all can also feel free to peruse the archives of this blog for all kinds of free posts on character, backstory and world-building.
Either way, I want y’all to succeed and to create the stories we (readers) LOVE. I want that when we think of your novel we then blather on and on like we would over some guy/gal we had a mad-stupid crush on.
What are your thoughts? Can you relate to the horrible date? The one you believed you’d enjoy and ended up only wanting to chew off your leg to escape? What about stories? What stories captivated you instantly and you’re mad in love to this day? Why?
I love hearing from you!
For the month of September, for everyone who leaves a comment, I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).
NEW CLASSES FOR SEPTEMBER AND MORE!
All classes come with a FREE recording!
We’ve added in classes on erotica/high heat romance, fantasy, how to write strong female characters and MORE! Classes with me, with USA Today Best-Selling Author Cait Reynolds, award-winning author and journalist Lisa-Hall Wilson, and Kim Alexander, former host of Sirius XM’s Book Radio. So click on a tile and sign up!