Formulas don’t exist when it comes to captivating a reader. As much depends on the reader’s point of reference and mindset as the quality of the writer’s presentation, but some fundamentals hold true in all stories. The elements of storytelling consist of setting, characters, conflict and resolution.
A good storyteller does not coax the reader to enter his world. Rarely is there a door-bell or a secret knock to signal admission. A good writer understands the reader is a willing participant in the seduction. Just like the young girl who primps and preens before the prom, the reader wants to fall in love. That is the ultimate goal of the date, the private tryst, the intimacy between the writer and the reader.
To accomplish this goal is to address the sensual nature of the stranger who is absorbing the writer’s words. A writer needs to ignite the triggers that will evoke emotion, alert the senses and allow the reader to willingly surrender and become the writer’s prey.
Often referred to as the ‘hook,'’ it is the early snag in a story that reels the reader into a mythical world. The ultimate goal is to instantaneously transport the reader from their existence moments previously into the writer’s dimension. If the story takes place in a garage, the smoky smell of burnt oil needs to waft through the reader’s nostrils. If a princess steps out of the castle, we need to feel the nap ovelvet on her gown and hear the rustle of silk as she walks towards her destiny.
Critics will often snap, "don’t tell -- show me,” but in actuality what really needs to happen is to make the reader ‘feel’ the scene using sight, smell and touch. Using common words available to everyone, what sets the storyteller apart is allowing the reader to live in the artificial world for a few minutes and believe it actually exists.
The emotional attachment of the reader to that scene is critical in accomplishing a suitable reaction. Often, the setting lulls a reader into a false sense of security by accessing identification with the ordinary, only to have the character scare the living ‘bejesus’ out of the reader as his internal motivation is revealed.
Adventurous authors may decide to start from scratch and transport their reader to a world of Hobbits or royal courts, but the fatal flaw in many writers who approach a surreal world is to imagine the reader is not familiar with his fantasy. To accept this drama, a reader needs to be a part of it. The flaw in many writers' stories is the awkward jostle between reality and fantasy. If I am the princess in a story, my point of reference is borne from experience -- not that of my reader’s drudgery in their existence beyond the castle moat. A writer can’t afford to allow a character to wander aimlessly between two worlds.
It occasionally helps to build a character resume, cataloguing their experiences and vision of the world. Knowing who the character is arms that personality with attitude and life experience. Expecting a princess to understand dumpster surfing is as discordant as an obese person describing hunger. Unless… Perhaps the contrast between a gluttonous person trying to fill up an empty emotional cavity is enhanced by this conflict with the physical emotion realities of his world. That works.
The crisis, or conflict, is the sole purpose of the story. Imagine the mechanic who spends most of his days doing oil changes or replacing brake pads who may suddenly have the car of his dreams break down in front of his garage or the princess who must kiss a frog to find true love. It is a turning point, a time when the main character must pull together all of their life experiences and make a decision -- one that often goes against the grain of their usual reaction.
If the mechanic replaces the fan belt and goes home for supper, then the story wasn’t worth telling. But, what if he decided in that one moment to steal Elvis’s pink Cadillac and take the car for a joy ride on Dead Man’s Curve?
Let’s assume the princess found the frog too repulsive for her royal lips. Her refusal to sully her regal smacker allows her to be seen by the reader as an accident of birth, born into aristocracy but with the presence of a cowardly peasant. In both cases a resolution takes place, the story winds down and the reader goes back to her mundane existence, but happy to do so, satisfied that for a brief moment she was allowed to escape into the writer’s world.
♦ Essayist, commercial copywriter and published short story writer Jade regularly demonstrates her ability to accurately assess writing talent as Page & Spine's Senior Story Editor. Her compassion for new writers is counterbalanced by her direct, often cryptic responses to submissions she does not favor.
♦ This author's generous contributions help make P&S possible.