Fiction Writing: What Really Rivets Readers?
Here’s a counterintuitive fact: Writers spend way too much time obsessing about “the writing.” They sweat over the words, the technique, the language, the flow, the use of metaphor, and hey, are there enough sensory details?
Fact: In and of itself, the writing doesn’t matter.
Here’s another counterintuitive fact: Writers spend way too much time thinking about “the plot.” They lay awake into the wee hours wondering: is it externally dramatic enough? Is it fresh enough? Is something big happening? Do the plot points even add up?
Fact: In and of itself, the plot doesn’t matter.
This isn’t to say that they don’t matter at all. Of course they do. But both the writing and the plot are secondary. Heartbreakingly, you can execute both beautifully and still have written a novel that is flat, uninvolving, and thus nothing but a bunch of things that happen. In other words, the fate of most manuscripts. Not because the writer didn’t give it her all, but because she focused on the wrong things. Not on purpose, but because that’s what the writing world has told her to focus on.
So, what should you focus on instead? The story. The story is not about the plot or the writing. The story is what gives the writing and the plot their meaning. It’s what makes them involving. What is the story about? The story is about how your protagonist changes, internally.
Here’s a myth the writing world would have you believe: The narrative “throughline”—that is, the logic thread that binds the novel together—refers to the plot. No, no, no! The narrative throughline is the
evolving internal narrative the protagonist uses to make sense of what’s happening in the plot.
Quite simply, the writing and the plot are there in service of your protagonist’s inner change, not the other way around.
The question is: how can you be sure that the writing and the plot aren’t hogging the reader’s attention, boring her to tears?
First, by focusing on what does rivet the reader, according to brain science, no less. Here’s the skinny: fMRI studies reveal that when we are grabbed by a story our brain instantly, innately searches first for the protagonist. Then it laser beams in on her inner narrative as she struggles, scene by scene, to make sense of what’s happening and what the hell to do about it, given her overarching agenda. In other words, we’re not focusing on the external “what” (the plot, the writing). We’re hungry for the internal “why.”
Here’s a simple “proof” you can use to make sure you’re giving the reader what she comes for. And it’s not math, it’s psychology. It is how, as humans, we navigate the world. Each and every one of us is trying to bring our agenda to fruition, and so we’re constantly trying to decipher the “why” behind what other people do, the better to figure out if they’re going to help us or hurt us.
Okay, so how do you get that onto the page?
Here, step-by-step, is how it plays out:
- conclusion drawn.
This isn’t formula, it’s how the brain rolls. Let’s break it down:
The protagonist goes into the scene expecting something that will affect her story-long agenda, and you need to let us know what that expectation is. On the page. Clearly. Concretely. Knowing what she expects is what gives us readers a yardstick by which we can gauge the emotional impact of what’s happening, and so experience the urgency. And since stories are about what happens when our expectations aren’t met, chances are the protagonist isn’t going to get what she expects. Or, if she does, it’s going to feel very different than she expected. And, always, it will bring unintended, unanticipated consequences.
For example, when Kamala’s boss, Rashida, calls her into her office, Kamala is exuberant because she expects that she’s about to get the promotion she’s been working toward for months. Walking to Rashida’s office, Kamala is picturing the relieved look on her mom’s face when she tells her that the extra money means they won’t be evicted next week after all.
But when Kamala doesn’t get the promotion, she’s going to think back to conversations she and Rashida have had about it over the past few months. Come to think of it, just yesterday Rashida told her the promotion was a done deal. Instantly, Kamala will scramble to figure out what the hell happened.
Could it be that Kamala did something to somehow screw things up? She’d mentally race through a list of possibilities, but then . . . wait a minute, how come Rashida looks so uncomfortable, and why can’t she meet Kamala’s gaze? Hmmm . . .
Hey, wasn’t Rashida’s slacker nephew, the one who was just hired a month ago, angling for the position Kamala was about to get? She and Rashida had laughed over his hubris. But now, it’s blazingly obvious that Rashida buckled under family pressure and gave him the promotion instead.
Kamala has to admit that Rashida plays a good game, but she’s not trustworthy. Clearly, trusting people, even a good friend, to put hard work and fairness above family is foolish. Lesson learned. But since Kamala is just as dedicated to her mom as Rashida seems to be to her slacker nephew, now Kamala will have to out-maneuver both the nephew and Rashida—because that promotion was hers, and she’s going to get it.
Notice how the conclusion drawn plays forward? But hey, does Kamala know for sure that the slacker nephew got her job? Of course not. The point is, when her expectations went belly up, she instantly tried to figure out why. What rivets the reader is the meaning the character reads into what is happening—especially when they’re wrong.
Because while it’s true that Rashida’s nephew got the job, it was only because Rashida knows he’ll blow it spectacularly in about a minute and then she can fire him and finally get her family off her back. But that’s not why Kamala was passed over. The real reason is because there’s an even bigger job coming up in a month that Kamala is perfect for, with way more money, too. But it’s top secret, and Rashida has been told she can’t breathe a word about it until then, which is why she seemed so uncomfortable. Uh oh!
Now, let’s take one minute and imagine that scene without Kamala’s internal narrative. It would look like this:
Rashida calls her into her office. Kamala goes in smiling. Rashida tells her she didn’t get the promotion. Looking gobsmacked, Kamala leaves her office. No matter how beautifully written, no matter how many sensory details were thrown in, no matter how polished the prose—who cares? Even though the plot point—Kamala doesn’t get the promotion—was met. Flat, flat, flat. Not even a well-placed metaphor would help, nor a bit of perfectly rendered body language. Why? Because without the internal narrative, we’re locked out of the story.
Make no mistake: the story the reader comes for is the protagonist’s internal narrative—expectation, comparison, meaning, realization, conclusion drawn. Everything else is gravy.
Lisa Cron is the author of Wired for Story and Story Genius. Her 6-hour video course Wired for Story: How to Become a Story Genius can be found at CreativeLive.com, and her TEDx talk, Wired for Story, opened Furman University’s 2014 TEDx conference, Stories: The Common Thread of Our Humanity.
In her work as a private story coach, Lisa helps writers of all ilk wrangle the story they’re telling onto the page. For a library of her free myth-busting writing tips, and information on how to work with her one-on-one, you can find her at: wiredforstory.com