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.