In PART-1 I looked at your story’s purpose, focusing on what you, the writer, want to convey to your reader and what you want your reader to think about. I maintain that every good story does this.
Perhaps the most famous starting point comes from asking the “what if?” question. I likewise maintain that most good stories in every genre (and many literary pieces) pose this question. The “what if” doesn’t have to be complicated. Last time, I pointed to Romeo and Juliet and as a good example of immediate story conflict. But it’s an equally good “what if” example: What if two young lovers come from rival/warring families?
As an exercise, I challenge you to look at any issue of Fabula Argentea magazine and to examine some of the stories and to put the story’s premise into a “what if” question. I’d be willing to bet that the authors of most stories, directly or indirectly, asked themselves “what if” when choosing what to write about.
“What if” is a powerful tool not only for developing a story but for setting the story’s purpose. And it certainly helps with reader engagement, assuming the reader is interested in that particular “what if” premise.
When it comes to longer works like novels, you may have multiple “what ifs” over the course of the story. Those may join the main plot, or they may be subplots that are resolved before or along with the story’s ending. These may take the form of escalating “what if” points of tension. Taking one of the simple examples from last time, let’s look at some escalating “what if” scenarios:
—What if a thief wants to rob a museum of a piece of art?
—What if the thief’s brother (who had nothing to do with the theft and doesn’t know his sibling is a thief) becomes implicated in the theft and is arrested for it?
—What if a second thief had planned to rob the piece of art and goes after the first thief to get it?
—What if the piece of art turns out to be a forgery and a third thief set up the other two to eliminate the competition by their getting caught?
I’m sure you get the point of how you can craft a compelling story using this technique.
Determining your story’s purpose is a necessary step in analyzing its potential success, by which I mean successful in engaging your reader.
But this is only the first stage. Clearly, if you fail to engage your reader in the beginning, then everything you do after that is likely to be fruitless because the reader will never get to the rest of your wonderful writing.
The second part of analyzing your story is ensuring that your reader is with you. Have you kept your reader in the loop? Does the reader know what’s going on? Have you provided enough information to ground the reader? Sometimes there’s a fine line between withholding information so as not to spoil a later surprise and leaving the reader confused.
Author David Woodruff’s flash fiction piece “SO THAT’S WHAT IT DOES” in the January 2021 issue of Fabula Argentea magazine makes for a good example here. (It’s under 400 words, so you can easily read it).
Woodruff gives just enough information to ground us in the situation, omitting unnecessary descriptions, and lets the reader’s imagination take over. The reader is never lost, yet is kept engaged, wondering what’s really going on here. And since it’s a short piece, nothing more is required. If the author had revealed the setting details, he would have spoiled his surprise ending.
In a very short piece, one can get by with a lot more than a longer piece, where you may run into problems misleading (and potentially confusing) your reader. Let’s say that you write a story of several thousand words set on a colony on the Moon (or in the future) but don’t tell the reader that upfront. Instead, you make it seem as if the characters, a husband and wife, live on Earth in a normal apartment and the husband goes off to a normal office job somewhere. However, in your attempted cleverness, you drop in occasional references that don’t quite line up with a normal Earth setting.
In such a story situation, you’ll likely end up with a confused reader wondering if he or she missed something and who will backtrack to try to figure it out. Backtracking is never a good thing to force a reader to do.
But let’s say that part of your story surprise is that it does all take place on the Moon. It’s usually an ill-advised ploy to lead a reader along that way because, unless that story has an otherwise strong and compelling plot line, such a surprise is likely to come off as a cheap trick with little or no impact for the reader. And I maintain that you won’t find that reader recommending your work to any other readers. Therefore, you have to ensure that any information you withhold doesn’t leave your reader lost or confused.
Another important aspect to keeping your reader in the loop is making sure your reader understands your characters’ motives, behavior, and what’s on their minds (words and actions). If your reader doesn’t understand why your characters are doing what they’re doing, you’ll end up with either a perplexed reader or one who sees the characters as implausible or unrealistic in their actions.
If you have a computer gamer nerd attacked in a dark alley suddenly become a kick-ass martial arts expert because he supposedly learned it from his gaming, that’s not going to fly with a reader unless you provide some logical justification (which could be a surprise story element).
As you go through your story (be it as you write it or during your first rewrite), make sure you’re keeping your reader in the loop, able to follow your story, and engaged in the story instead of being confused about what’s going on. Continually ask yourself this: Have I told the reader IN THE STORY what’s happening and justified why my characters are doing what they’re doing, or have I kept some details in my head and failed to impart them to the reader?
Mysteries are good things in stories, but they need to come off as mysteries and not merely missing or confusing information.
In PART 3, I’ll look at story logic to ensure that it makes sense to the reader in the context of your story’s world.