It’s Always the Story

I think every reader picks up a book of fiction and thinks, “Tell me a story.”

Not “give me beautiful writing” or “give me the psychological profile of a character” or “describe a setting vividly” or “dazzle me with a theme.” All of those things are good and to be hoped for, but the overarching need of most readers who deliberately choose fiction is “Give me a story.”

I came to this conclusion while reading the opening page of a BookBub offering. (I learn a lot from BookBub samples.)

The page in question was beautifully written in the first person, but it was losing me in the first paragraphs. They were set-up/introduction and again beautifully written but skim-able. And then she told me a story, just a short memory, and I read every word, it was riveting. Then the narrative went back to set-up, and I closed the sample.

Later I thought back on that and wondered why I’d ditched it so fast. Okay, I’m an impatient reader, but still, that memory scene was beautifully done. And I realized I just wasn’t in the mood for the kind of book where I had to skim authorial intrusion to get to the good stuff. Give me a story.

Here’s the thing about starting any narrative, fiction or non-fiction: You have the reader on the first line. Very few readers pick up a story or an essay thinking, “I really hope I hate this.” They are WITH you on the first line, on the first page, they want to be enthralled, entertained, illuminated. So give them what they want from the beginning: something enthralling, entertaining, illuminating. Don’t say to them, “I have to set some stuff up here, so just hang on, I’ll get to story in a minute.” They either won’t stay (that would be me) or they’ll keep reading but they’ll be annoyed.

The Tor newsletter recently had an essay on prequels by Ferrett Steinmetz that pretty well summed this up:

“[W]hen you look at far drearier prequels, the question they’re starting with all too often is: “What don’t we know?” “What we don’t know?” is often the boringest possible question you could ask.”

The problem often continues in the rest of the story because of helicopter authoring. The story is going along at a good clip, but then the author stops to tell us what the character is thinking at length (I mean paragraphs long) or what the character has always thought, and why, and what impact that has had on her life, and I start feeling like a little kid sent out to play in the snow whose mother keeps coming out to wipe her nose or give her a warmer hat or warn her not to eat the dirty drifts or explain the scientific basis of frozen water falling from the sky. The little kid probably just tunes her out and waits for her to leave, the real life approach to skimming the interruption, but I’m a reader, not a little kid, and I can leave.

But, the author says, I need that stuff in there or the story won’t make sense. Well, maybe.

First of all, is it really needed? I don’t need to know why somebody feels the way they do going back to their childhood days; I just need to know that she feels it in the now. I don’t need to know to why the protagonist and antagonist are being lousy to each other, I just need to see it in the now of the story. I don’t need to know it was a dark and stormy night, I just need to know how that’s affecting the story in the now.

In other words, keep the story in the now.

Eventually, of course, some of that stuff is going to be necessary. So you keep the explanation in the now; that is, somebody in the story needs to know that information, so they ask. The key here is “needs to know.” As in, there’s a pressing reason to ask. Maybe they’re being attacked, so one character turns to another and says, “What the hell? Who are these people?” Maybe one character has a complete meltdown, and the other character hands her a Kleenex and says, “What the hell? Explain what triggered this so it doesn’t happen again.” The “what the hell?” part of this is what pushes the question: I need to know this now.

The worst of this approach is monologuing (thank you to The Incredibles for the term). That’s when the Bad Guy has the drop on Our Hero and the hero says, “But why?” and the Bad Guy gleefully explains his Evil Plan for days, giving the hero time to defeat him. Or that classic: “You’re probably wondering why I called you all together today,” followed by a lengthy recap of the brilliance of the detective before the murderer is revealed. I think the key to all of these is believability: a true Bad Guy just shoots the hero and goes on to his next Evil Plan; the people in that library shout, “Just tell us who did it!” after about ten minutes. And readers skim.

Elmore Leonard said the smartest thing I ever heard about storytelling: “I leave out the parts people skip.” Of course, different readers skip different things for different reasons, but the basic idea is that people skip the stuff that isn’t story.

Of course there are a million variations from the basic linear plot–disrupted timelines (patterned fiction), multiple time lines (time travel, parallel lives of historical and modern characters), and others–but the basics of story remain. Tell me a story about this person, show me this person in conflict, immerse me in this world, make me care.

And don’t write the stuff people skip, the stuff that’s not story.

26 thoughts on “It’s Always the Story

  1. I’m reading this after reading the post about first lines, and it’s so interesting to me reading them in that order. When there’s too much information in the first sentence, that almost feels like the authorial insertion to me. It’s that over salting thing you mentioned. And as a reader, I’m feeling the work of the author going through a check list of everything I need to know…when I wish they would relax and let it unfold instead.

    Because it’s become so dense that I end up having to spend five minutes re-reading the first line to understand it all anyway…so you could have broken it up and not been so worried it need to all be about the first sentence and got me to understanding everything you wanted me to in the same amount of time. For me as a reader, I’m probably willing to give you at least a page or two for some of that set up stuff without ever thinking about it dragging.

  2. I have been researching for years for a novel I want to write. Then I realized the other day that I’ll never be able to share what I now know about the protagonist’s world and life. The realization came when I tried to read a novel about the same historical period which begins with loooong info dumps. Now I’m going to think about how little I can say about the world of the story yet to successfully show what it’s like.

    1. Roberta Gellis wrote a lot of medieval novels that were mostly pretty good, and she also wrote a fair number of articles explaining how you set up the background and the action in a medieval world without overdoing the infodumps. Things like having your hero NOT William Marshal — whose life is about as well documented as George Washington’s, which is Very — but, say, the young and nameless knight who carried the messages between King John and the Barons in May and early June 1215. You have lots of leeway with the messenger, you can introduce King John and other historical personages at will, he can have Infodump explained to him as needed.

      One of the best historical novels for explaining just the necessary but where the author did Pretty Deep Research was Doris Sutcliffe Adams’ NO MAN’S SON, in which the heroine is about to become a ward of Richard the Lionheart, who will place her in the Queens’ household. Bingo. They’re at the Acre siege in 1192 and Richard’s household includes two Queens; his wife, Queen Berengaria, and his sister, Queen Joana. The author doesn’t explain this at all, but she did her research. (She also was a mistress of foreshadowing, which I admire greatly — probably takes a third or fourth reading of the book to pick up the foreshadowing, which is neatly concealed, and nicely misdirecting.

      Unfortunately, the book is not readily available and secondhand copies, if found at all, are wickedly expensive. I have instructed my brother that he needs to charge all the traffic will bear if he auctions off my library after I predecease him.

      1. Should have said that Gellis historical novels are available in ebook, and she generally included notes either before or after the text.

        1. Ann, Thank you very much for your information and advice. I’ve ordered the CD of Roberta Gellis’s master class on writing historical fiction and a used paperback copy of her story that takes place in 1147. Thank you again!

          It turns out that the only book I’ve found that really describes life in that century (in this case during the reign of Henry II) is Red Adams’ Lady by Grace Ingram which was recommended here on Arghink. I’m sure you know that Grace Ingram was a pseudonym used by Doris Sutcliffe Adams. Another Ingram book, Golden Spurs, takes place during the Anarchy — my time period runs from 1090 to 1155 — but the book is neither a good story nor anywhere near as historically informative as Red Adams’ Lady.

          1. I read Red Adam’s Lady a million years ago (teenager) and I’ve never forgotten it. I should look that up again.

          2. You’re most welcome. So far as I know, the Adams books are:
            DESERT LEOPARD — Andre Norton really liked this one, and I read it at the Bodleian and then had it as a search at ABEBooks for years — when a copy finally turned up, I snapped it up instantly, and it turned out to be the publisher’s copy.

            POWER OF DARKNESS — Both romance and humor, which was relatively rare in romances written in the sixties — at least I don’t remember much, and hung on to every author who managed to insert some.

            THE PRICE OF BLOOD — set in the Viking age, so Anglo-Saxon rather than Norman. (What I recall most about this book is that I was reading it when a would-be boyfriend came calling, and I was so engrossed in the book that I had little attention to spare for him — I must have been barely polite.)

            NO MAN’S SON — I love this one for the foreshadowing and the plot structure and the sheer depth of research which is used just right. Lifelong favorite.

            Then the two Grace Ingram titles:

            RED ADAM’S LADY — Amazon has it at a non-astronomical price as a “rediscovered classic,” so it’s available. I bought it, read it, and said, “gee, it has the same flavor as Doris Adams’ writing, but why on earth would she publish a medieval under another name? Makes no sense.” It was no surprise that they were written by the same person, when that was confirmed, but I still have no idea why she used another name.

            GILDED SPURS — final work by the author, and of course it’s very much in the POWER OF DARKNESS world.

          3. That must be BOND OF BLOOD, which I think was her first. The research is good, though I thought everyone did a LOT of weeping.

            The endnotes were good, too.

  3. There is that old saying always leave something to the imagination, I think that is important to story telling too

  4. I will give a book at least 10% before abandoning it. A few I’ve abandoned recently have been in the ‘are you ever going to get to the story’ category, but most get DNFd because of a) unbearably poor writing b) unappealing characters.

    Even a book that’s not all that well-written can hold my attention; I go all diagnostic, like ‘why am I not enjoying this,’ trying to figure it out. Then if I do spot the difficulty I try to take that back to my own writing with ‘do not do that’ in mind. 🙂

    Sometimes I appreciate a slower approach. If characters have a lot going on outside the central relationship (in a romance, specifically) that is affecting how they engage with the relationship, I’m not sure how else to put that on the page aside from internal monologue, or dialogue with other characters. And sometimes what’s going on is something the character can’t or doesn’t want to talk about. But as a reader, if I never see *why* a character is failing to engage I lose patience fast. I’d rather read their thoughts about it so I know what the heck is going on. If I can sympathize with the situation, I’ll persist.

    Of course if those thoughts are eye-rollingly dumb or mind-numbingly boring, bailing out is the only thing to do. 🙂 Just enough to clarify, I guess is the happy medium. Not so much that you’re reading a therapy-session transcript.

  5. I must be in the minority about this. I can’t really stand reading books that are mainly snappy patter, and often skip that part of a book until I can clearly get (either from the observations or the thoughts of the main characters) how they think and respond to the world around them. But I’m best with internal monologues when at the same time I get observations of where and with whom they are, and reactions to and from others around them, which I’m thinking must partake of what you are counting as ‘story.’

    1. I think it depends (for me).
      If she’s sitting along and just thinking, no.
      If she’s in conversation or conflict with someone else and the thoughts are brief and to the point, definitely.
      But if she’s talking to somebody and then thinks for three paragraphs, I want to know why the other person hasn’t checked her for signs of stroke.
      And if the author slips into authorial intrusion–“Jane had always wondered”–I’m out of there.

      1. I think that’s one of the reasons I’ve always liked stories that involve at least one relative innocent in a setting they don’t quite understand. Then so much of the background and the reasons for things get explained as they try to figure out how things work and why they’re happening. Even better is one where several protagonists are fairly clueless about one another. The interior wondering is briefly expressed, the conflict or frustration gets voiced, and the contrasts between characters, and their explanations of their own whys and wherefores, all get points across without too much exposition. (Or patter of the “we’re two cool people just riffing here” variety with no hint of interior lives whatsoever.)

  6. Deborah Blake stories well in her new cozy, Furbidden Fatality. Reading the book is better than ingesting a hot toddy. Warm, involving and goes down comfortably.

  7. I was thinking this morning of how much I’ve learned as a reader from this blog. First lines, kill your darlings, and now tell me a story. Thank you, Jenny, for being a great teacher, as well as a great author.

  8. As a sometimes writer, I feel like it’s important to note that sometimes you have to write the infodump before you can see how it’s actually a story or part of a story or some of the bones of a story if you just shape it differently or give it more flesh or work it in carefully or whatever. It’s not always like marble, removing what’s not statue/story. Cutting is not always the right metaphor, there are lots of others.

    (Though since I can’t claim to be a successful writer, I suppose that should be taken with a big pinch of salt…)

    1. Writers are people who write. Successful has nothing to do with it.
      Besides, what’s “successful,” anyway. I think Nita’s a success even though my editor rejected it. Emily Dickinson got published once and never submitted anything again because they “fixed” her punctuation.

      And you’re right: anything goes in a discovery draft/first drafts. But before you show it to anybody . . . . Fast Women once had thirty pages devoted to Art Deco china, Susie Cooper, Clarice Cliff, and the third one whose name I have forgotten. Sometimes you have to write it all to find the stuff that matters.

      1. Ha, Emily Dickinson is my new role model.

        When I write lately I’m mostly writing for myself — I mean, myself as a reader, so not just anything goes write and throw it away, I do try to write it right, or at least work toward that — but this post seems to be about succeeding with readers who are not oneself. I’m genuinely not sure how often the two coincide.

        1. For what it’s worth, many Emily Dickinson’s poems follow the meter of Protestant hymns (her father was a minister). In other words, you can sing “Because I did not stop for Death/ He kindly stopped for me” to “Oh, God, our help in ages past / Our hope for years to come.”

          1. My students have to sing it to “Amazing Grace.”
            They have to sing to drown me out!

    2. I used to advise authors to pretend they’re Erle Stanley Gardner and write the last scene, where everyone’s in Perry Mason’s office and he’s explaining how he got the Guilty Witness to admit to everything on the stand. That gives you a base, and if all the links in the chain are in one place, something to check against to be sure you haven’t left anything out.

      You then rewrite the last scene, of course! But it’s short.

  9. I have a question. A friend is urging me to read Fifth Business by Robertson Davies. She told me that the title is a theater term. Davies quoted from someone, “Those roles which, being neither those of Hero nor Heroine, Confidante nor Villain, but which were nonetheless essential to bring about the Recognition or the denouement, were called the Fifth Business…” Yet, apparently he created that quotation.

    My question: Is there a term for a minor character who brings about the revelation/recognition in a story or play? I’m thinking that maybe Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing is that sort of character.

    1. I have no idea.
      Off the top of my head, though, why is a minor character who hasn’t been important before the cause of the revelation?
      Sounds like a deus ex machina.

  10. Fifth business isn’t necessarily a minor character who shows up at the end. At least not in the book Fifth Business.

    The book is told through Fifths Business ‘s eyes and the denouement is when that person confronts the nominal hero with one of those facts about his life that people who need to be heroes can’t face snd deny.

    But then the character who described himself as fifth business really is the protagonist.

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