How it’s perpetuated: Everyone says it – writing books, professors, writing groups, editors, agents, even readers. It sounds so logical, who’d argue?
Why we fall for it: The first goal of any story is to anesthetize the part of the reader’s brain that knows it is a story. When we get lost in a good story, it feels like reality – literally. Recent research has shown that when we read about an action, the same areas of the brain light up as when we actually experience that action. We really are there. As a result, the last thing a reader is able to do (or wants to do for that matter) is analyze how, exactly, the story is creating such a perfect rendition of reality. And so when asked what it is that grabs us about a great story, we say it was the luscious language, the intriguingly complex characters, the witty dialogue, the fresh voice. In other words, we say it’s well written when what we really mean is that it felt like life.
The truth: Writing well is the handmaiden of story. The real goal of every writer is to learn to create that sense of urgency that makes the reader want to know what happens next. This is not triggered by dazzling wordsmithing, but by mastering story itself, and understanding what people are wired to crave from every story they hear. The shorthand answer is: something that just might help them better make it through the night. We turn to story to shed light on the thorny internal problems we face. Stories teach us how to make sense of ourselves, others and the world at large by allowing us to vicariously experience myriad “what ifs.” After all, life is tricky and rife with risk, so what better way to prepare to navigate the one place we’re all headed — the future — than story?
Three things you can do to create a sense of urgency:
1. Make sure you know how your story ends; ask yourself, how does my protagonist’s world view have to shift in order for her to achieve her goal? What does she have to realize that, most likely, she’s spent her whole life avoiding? Then don’t hold back — sew this internal conflict into the story, beginning on the first page, if possible, in the first sentence.
2. Always remember, what draws people into a story is that sense that all is not as it seems. The reader is all too familiar with “business as usual” (read: ho hum), a story is about what happens when something out of the ordinary bursts through that predictable pattern and forces your protagonist to deal with it or else – even if it begins with something as seemingly mundane as the mail arriving a half hour late.
3. Let us know that something specific is at stake, and don’t be shy about telling us what it is, and how it’s affecting your protagonist. Make us feel it by letting us know what it forces your protagonist to confront. How does it differ from her expectations? What action does it trigger?
After all, stories are about how the unexpected forces us to confront our beliefs about ourselves, the world and others – and find out what we’re really made of.
What’s the last book that swept you away? What did it teach you about life, or better yet, yourself?