The most important aspect of storytelling, any storytelling, is engaging the reader.
| Make Me [The Reader] Care
Having waded through countless blogs, articles, stories, essays, screenplays, poems and practically every other literary form for many years, I've come to a simple conclusion about what is readable and what is not.
It comes down to a simple philosophy. Make me care.
Make me care about your main character.
Too many writers wade into some huge plot development before the reader has the opportunity to care about the protagonist [main character]. I see this so often, I'm beginning to think there's a terminal literary virus going around.
Who cares if your hero gets killed in the war if we don't know anything about your hero? Kill him already. I can't tell you how many hundreds of times I've thought that.
Take "Gladiator" for example. Why do we care? We see this man loves his dog, his country and his family. He only wants to complete his job and go home alive and in one piece at the end of the day. As a film viewer or reader--we can relate to that. After the screenwriter has established that this is a man, doing a job so he return home with honour then the hero bashes swords about.
I don't care if you're writing about an green elf on an alien purple planet--why should I care about your elf? Now, if your elf feels self-conscious because she has rounder ears than the other elves and wonders if she has human blood [since we all wonder if we are attractive to others] then cradles her baby brother elf with tears in her eyes before she takes off on some grand adventure, we might actually be concerned that she will die on her adventure and never see her baby brother again.
Or, if your elf sniffles a bit at a sad story her friend tells--well we might like your elf because all of us have our soft spots.
Make me care about the people in your story who suffer.
One of the great journalistic tricks of humanist journalists is to make people reading the article, whether they used to care or not, care about the subjects they are writing about. They will describe crying babies in orphanages, sucking their fingers and looking up with wide-eyed starvation. Bluntly--they play on the reader's emotions.
And so, my dear writer, should you. The only writers who deal strictly in facts are analysts. Even then, it's often questionable.
Make me care about your Anti-hero.
What if your main character is unlikeable? How about "Dexter"? He's a sociopath. He kills people. He is incapable of loving anyone. Why do we like him? Not only because he kills other serial killers and plays out our inner fantasies of vengeful justice but because he is isolated and doesn't seem to understand other people at a very basic level. We relate to him because we're all confused by other people some days and the irony he expresses with his inner voice draws us into his world. Often, when interacting with others, he does what he thinks they expect him to do. How many of us have done that, sometimes?
Dialog seems highly underused these days in literature to make readers care. One of the greatest ways of letting a character express him/herself is through conversation with other characters. Do real people just go marching off to some grand adventure yelling, "Tally Ho, it's off we go!" or some such? Or are real people reluctant to get involved in some apparently idiotic quest that will likely get them killed and don't want to leave their home and community for what looks like a pipe dream?
If you haven't seen "A Lion In Winter"--see it. It has some of the wittiest dialogue of all time. Simply brilliant. Every character in the entire script is a scheming, underhanded manipulator. Yet, due to the vicious bantering we, the audience, find ourselves interested in all their fates.
Through conversation, people don't just pass around information --they show pieces of themselves. That is how we learn about each other as humans. So use it in your stories.
Be consistent. Don't say, "Mary is shy" then have two pages of Mary conversing with her best friend. If Mary is shy, she will say very little. If you have a character who is a brilliant schemer, show that his/her dialogue contains deliberate misdirection and less-than-honest responses to direct questions. If your character is supposed to be brilliant then let his/her brilliance shine in conversation.
How a character speaks tells a great deal about them as a person. Do they speak slowly and deliberately? Is every word carefully measured? Is s/he politically astute? Does s/he good naturedly blunder around when speaking with others? How a character converses with a friend, then differently with an authority figure, can tell the reader a great deal about his/her motivations.
Make me care about your personal story.
Autobiographical writing is often guilty of poor storytelling that does not draw in the reader. Frankly, a counselling session about some horror that happened to you as a child doth not a story make. Abuse stories are a dime a dozen. Sad, but true.
Make me care. Although writing can be therapeutic, good writing is NOT therapy. Nor is it often "politically correct".
Now, if you were a curious child who plunged your fingers in light sockets, stuck your tongue on the glass licking a windowpane one winter, rode a Rottweiler or did any number of crazy kid things a reader can relate to--THEN were abused by someone, became withdrawn and terrified, and one day suddenly found your inner lion again when your country was invaded--THAT might be interesting.
To understand the difference--I suggest reading "The Bandit Queen" about Phoolan Devi. You don't have to become a member of parliament but if the only thing in your story is sh1t and abuse, it isn't a strong story, it's a therapy session. Story writing is not a substitute for a support group.
For the love of literature, don't use "therapy" words such as "empowerment", "transaction", "abuse issue" or any other such psychobabble. What's more powerful:
"The smell of whiskey brought back my abuse issues" or
"With the stench of his whiskey breath invading my nostrils, I stumbled back, deafened by the roar of ancient childhood dragons"?
Show me about your character so I can care.
Writers, please, don't *tell*me, "Frank was courageous."
*Show* me Frank's courage. Tell me about the time, quaking with fear, he stood up to his teacher and told her to stop bullying the kid in the class with the learning disorder. How he went to the principal's office and refused to back down, then was expelled.
Don't tell me a warrior is powerful or dangerous. Show him/her in action. Let me see, hear, smell, touch and taste his/her mighty wrath in battle.
If you're going to have a battle of some sort--I want to hear the bones crack and smell the blood spray. For those of you writing battle scenes, when something dies, it lets loose its bowels and bladder. A small but important detail of the battlefield that most writers tend to overlook. Make me care that people are out there killing and dying for some perceived greater purpose other than the standard "empire".
Make me care about "the bad guys".
A good villain is often essential. They're also hard to write. Nobody wants to take over the world for the dark side, unless the story is for children under twelve. Villains have reasons.
We may not agree with those reasons as a reader, however, we should be able to relate to their internal logic. A great villain provides a foil for the hero. We need to be able to relate to that villain, even if the villain is obviously a tyrant. That doesn't mean fake sympathy about his mommy and daddy being mean to him, either. Does the villain truly believe s/he's superior to others? Why? Did s/he grow up in a lower class and fight his/her way to the top and now, is giving no quarter? Was s/he born into the privileged class and feels entitled to money and power?
Make me care about secondary characters.
There's no point in offing the main character's best friend if I know nothing about her, other than their friendship. Fleshed out secondary characters with motivations, desires and lives of their own add dimension. These details may not be as prominent as they are for the main character but without them--why does that character exist? Simply as a foil for the main character is hardly a reason to bother writing them. They must add to the story and the reasons the reader cares about what happens to them, as well as the main character.
Great storytelling, whether autobiographical, fantasy, history, romance, science fiction or any other sort, is about the investment that a reader has in your story. If the characters are wooden and dull, the story, no matter how strong the plot, will be, too.
Give your readers a reason to invest in the time to read your story. If you're not writing to be read, then why post it publicly?