Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Art of Story Velcro

I apologize for the extended blackout. Our house has been beset by a green plague (also known as pollen), and fallout has not been pretty. I'm not sure what cruel and whimsical force gave humans sinuses, but I think I hate it right now.

But while all of this sneezing and general miserableness didn't leave much space for writing/tweeting/blogging/cleaning/being a functional human being, it did allow for a great deal of thinking. Specifically, I've been thinking about what makes a story un-put-downable, and how I can get more of it.

You know how sometimes you'll have a book that you're enjoying, but it takes you forever to finish? Like, it's good and you want to know how the story ends, but life conspires and you just keep putting it down. Now, you know those books that take you over? The books that keep you up until all hours of the night when you desperately need to sleep but you simply can not put the sucker down? Yeah, those books.

The difference between these two types of books can be difficult to pin down. After all, they're both good, it's just that one was addictive and one wasn't. Why? What creates that special MUST READ brand of story crack?

I'm sad to say I haven't figured out the entire recipe for book crack yet (but man, once I do, watch out world! None of you are ever getting anything done again ever!), but I do believe I've figured out a major ingredient: reader engagement.

Reader engagement is just a fancy term for how into your book a reader is. When you can't put down a book, you are highly engaged, and engagement is a facet of reader interest. Specifically, if I want a reader to keep reading, I have to keep them interested on as many levels as possible. Interested in the plot, in the romance, in the world, in the outcomes of my character's lives, etc. And the more interest I can build, the more engaged (and addicted) my reader will be. As a story teller, I am competing against the reader's busy life for attention and time. To win this battle, my story needs to be almost impossible to rip yourself away and incredibly easy to get locked back in to if you do manage to pull free. In short, I need to story Velcro.

If you look at Velcro up close, you can see that one side is covered in thousands of tiny hooks which snag on the soft strap and hold the two together. Once stuck, the two sides require force, sometimes massive force, to pull them apart again. This is exactly what I want in my stories, to snag my reader so tightly they'll need to exert massive force to pull away, and every time the force stops, they fall right back and get hooked again. This sort of broad, inescapable engagement is essential to creating an un-put-downable book, and to achieve it, I take my cue from Velcro. I make hooks.

Putting hooks in your story is hardly a new concept, but I'm not talking about the big hooks that convince someone to pick up your story in the first place. If the reader's already reading, those hooks have done their job. We're in subtler territory now, which means smaller hooks, sometimes tiny ones, spread all throughout the story for the purpose of keeping your reader locked at that same level of interest that made them pick up the book in the first place.

To see this in action, let's take my favorite go-to example: Harry Potter. Most people picked up the series initially because a boy magician going to a secret wizard school is pretty great hook, but they stayed because J. K. Rowling is a freaking master of story velcro. Practically every paragraph of Harry Potter is filled with interesting tidbits, things you want to know more about. First there's the mystery of a baby left on the doorstep, and then empathy with Harry's terrible home life. This is followed by the wonder of obviously magical happenings and overall giddy excitement that is the world of Harry Potter itself and then finished by intense character drama and an exciting climax.

Rowling doesn't hit you with all of this at once. Instead, she picks at you, revealing one tidbit after another, hook hook hook hook, snagging you and pulling you into her story until you can no longer (and have no desire to) get free. Even when her hooks never really panned out (like all that stuff about the dragons in Norway), they kept me reading. I take several issues with the plots of the Harry Potter series, but I read each new HP book at midnight on release day just like everyone else. And that, my friends, is the power of amazing story velcro.

On a practical writing level, I believe that creating this sort of deep engagement is more of an exercise in attention than talent. You need to remember to think like a reader. When you look at your story, you have to put aside what you want it to be and see the text for what it is. You might know your main character is going to transform from a spineless wimp into an amazing person over the course of eight chapters, but your reader has no idea, and it's the writer's job to keep that reader hooked long enough to allow the transformation to occur. To do this, in every scene, in every paragraph, you have to ask yourself, "how can this be more interesting?" and then be ready to find that answer in all sorts of different places.

The best story velcro happens on multiple levels through out the story. It's not enough to just cram your paragraphs full of amazing ideas and prose (though that can take you pretty far if your ideas are cool enough, just look at China Mieville). But this sort of shot gun approach can overwhelm readers unless done amazingly well. A far safer (and easier) approach is to try to think vertically through all the threads of the book and apply your hooks on multiple levels. For example, if you've just done a lot of talking about world building, throw in some snappy character dialogue that reveals interesting facets about your cast. If it's a low point in the plot tension, create character tension to fill the gap. Have an argument, hint that someone might be lying. My personal favorite is to have something vaguely sinister happen just on the edge of the scene to make a reader gasp and go "WHAT'S THAT?!"

Wherever you see an empty spot or a place where reader attention might be flagging, work in a hook, even if you're not sure what to do with it yet. Not only will this keep your reader engaged at every turn, it also deepens the book and gives you something cool to pull up later in the plot, sometimes entire books later, and come out looking like you planned it all along.

I realize this probably sounds overwhelming. I mean, working in hooks when you're also supposed to be thinking about tension and character development and, oh yeah, just getting the freaking story down and making sense? That's a lot to think about. But as I said two paragraphs up, this isn't a matter of talent or genius or inspiration, it's an exercise in attention. The most important thing a writer can be is attentive to their own work. Having care, paying attention, adding detail, these are how you create depth, and the more you deepen, the easier it becomes to add nuance and flourishes to every part of your work.

Fortunately, writing is neither a spectator sport nor a timed event. Creating the dense network of hooks required to make excellent story velcro is a multi-pass project that goes on for as long as you're working on a story. For my part, I keep shoving in hooks all the way up to the final copy edit. But so long as you are actively thinking about reader engagement, even if it's nothing more than rejecting boring sentences in favor of more interesting ones, you are actively making your story better, and that's always a step in the right direction.


the superhero princess said...

One of my favorite hooks of yours, Rachel, is a seemingly "throw-away" conversation had by two powerful people at the end of The Spirit Eater. If a reader has been paying attention, they can clearly see the build-up...but it still hits you like a ton of bricks when you realize these two people are closer to Eli than you ever imagined. I had to close the book, gasp, and then shriek, which frightened my husband until I started babbling about it. ;) I was just one of those cool moments where you realize everything is much deeper than previously explained and it pulls you back in to find more.

Thanks for this awesome article, too -- I'm going to use this while working on revisions for my last NaNoWriMo novel.


Sommerset said...

Nice post! I really enjoy seeding my stuff with as many red herrings as I can manage, then cackling when readers become convinced that they have deep meaning.

Unless I decide later that they do.

I'm kind of a jerk.

Anonymous said...

Love to hear authors talk about PAYING ATTENTION TO THEIR READER. Nothing ticks me off more than a sloppy book. It's one thing if the author is learning their craft, or simply has no talent -- but a good author who just does not care enough about the reader to take the time to do a good job -- that's infuriating.

Jennavier Gilbert said...

That's something you're really good at, so it'll pay for us all to stand up and listen. Something I love about the Eli books is how quickly they seem to go by, even though I'm sad about it at the time!

Casey Clark said...

Reader engagement. Right on... I agree very much. I like plenty of books well enough, but I will rearrange my LIFE around a character and story that fully engages my senses, curiosity, and general interest!

Another great post, my friend. :)

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