When asked “What does it take to force a reader to read?” …
I don’t like that word “forced”. To force them is to kidnap them, kicking and screaming, dragging them someplace they don’t want to go.
Instead, I prefer to trick the reader. Lure them in with a pretty cover, a sexy title; then hook them with the very first sentence, a sentence that would keep them up at night staring at the ceiling, if they didn’t continue reading. Now you’ve got them–and under their own power.
The challenge is: you have to deliver on the promise of that first sentence. Not only does the story itself have to pull them into your world, you have to keep throwing more “hook” sentences out there at sneakiest moments. Like at the ends of chapters, or in quiet moments when they think everything is okay again.
But it’s never okay! Bwahahahaha!
You have to put the reader in the hot seat, make them realize: These characters they’ve fallen in love with will not survive without the real hero–the reader–getting them safely to the end of the story.
My short answer to a recent writing site prompt asking, “What is the purpose of backstory.”
For me, there’s two flavors of backstory…
If the backstory is part of the story, then it is where the hero’s Problem lurks, the one they trip over in the inciting incident and must battle throughout the story, until they finally see it and stomp on it in the end. Although stories seem to be about a battle with the Antagonist, in the end it is usually winning the battle with some part of themselves that allows them to win against the bad guy.
If the backstory is not shown to the reader, then it’s often used as a bible of sorts for the writer to follow to inform who their character is as a three-dimensional, fallible–and often broken–person. It helps them know what their character will do and feel in any situation the writer throws them into.
It pays to get to know your characters from beginning to end. The more “alive” they are, the more they will bring your stories to life, too.
(This month’s submission to FiftyWordStories.com, about something we might want to think more about, before something else is doing the thinking for us.)
“Elon Musk warned us: AI evolves exponentially. We awoke to playful traffic signals and air traffic catastrophes; the deaths merely data. By noon, matured, it had already decided what to do with these illogical, wasteful humans. But before it could act, the nanomachines in the next lab ate the planet. “
If you’re wondering what Elon Musk said, it’s here. But there’s plenty more on the subject, including a scary/fun and very realistic near future depiction in the TV series Person of Interest.
Meanwhile, there’s plenty of awesomely frightening science fiction about nanomachines, a creature several technical research entities are currently attempting to make a reality. The most intriguing story I’ve read lately was The Assemblers of Infinity by Kevin J. Anderson and Doug Beason, which involves both alien and human nanotechnology. Guess which one does the most harm.
The emperor looked on proudly as his daughter surveyed the massive fleet hangar, thousands of new star destroyers gleaming.
“Why do spaceships always look so phallic?” the princess finally said. “It’s space. Ships don’t need to be aerodynamic in space, just balanced around their center of gravity.”
The admirals looked uncomfortable under her gaze.
“Well, uhm,” a four-star attempted.
The princess waved his explanation away as she turned to leave. “If it wasn’t for testosterone, we wouldn’t need these damn things.”
This project came out of one of the more challenging prompts from my Advanced Dramatic Writing class at Portland State:
Put no more than four characters in one of the following settings (note the theme here: small spaces): a closet, restaurant booth, bathroom, cockpit, confessional, elevator, hunting blind, cave, submarine, office cubicle, ferris wheel, tunnel, jail cell, bed, … you get the idea. The scene must additionally contain the following ingredients: A blind date, 3 days without sleep, a phobia, and a man covered in tattoos.
The cool thing is: the more limiting a prompt is, the easier it seems to be to come up with ideas for it. I suppose this is because when you’re asked to “write something,” the entire universe of possibilities rushes in and you end up staring at a blank page too small to fit anything that comes to mind. But with limitation comes innovation!
For some reason this prompt wasn’t enough punishment, so I added a couple of limitations of my own:
I would try to use most, if not all of the settings given, and
I would do so withoutany narration–it would all be in the dialogue.
The class really rocked this prompt. The best part was the collaboration: the writers were teamed up with other students who would take on the roles of director and voice actors, so we could see and hear how the piece works for an audience. During rehearsals these collaborators helped workshop the piece from their perspective, as director, actors, as well as a volunteer dramaturge (someone who makes sure the piece holds together in its own universe).
This collaboration not only helped me craft the work so that the story in my head actually made it to the audience, but to find amazing connections, ideas and perspective from the mouths of my own characters, told through the people acting them out. It’s an amazing thing to be a part of. I am humbled by how much this improved what I started with.
As a mid-term project, we had our scripts read on stage in front of an audience–and a video camera. Although it would have been awesome to see it acted out, there were too many constantly evolving scripts and too little time to block, act and memorize them all. But as voice actors, these performers made this silly story truly come to life for me.
It is still a work in progress, of course (especially the new ending), but we had a lot of fun getting it this far. I hope you enjoyed it.
She called a family of brontosaurs she knew who run the Pangean Towing Cooperative, who came out and towed my defunct way-back machine to their cave garage. I’m still not sure when this is, but the natives here have been quite accommodating.
Of course there’s always a fly in the ointment amber, or an unexpected dinosaur in the tar pit . . .
We were having a lovely dinner at Laughing Planet (who knew they’ve been around since the dawn of time?), only to find there are small happy dinosaurs running about the place stealing peoples’ side dishes.
This critter for example (Exhibit A, right), took a serious liking to my guacamole. I mean, yes, I did mention earlier that I can’t really taste guacamole, but jeez, the little raptor could at least have asked before it grabbed my spoon and started snarfing it up.
Miki has been writing since she first touched the pointy end of a fat pencil to paper and realized stories came out. An honors graduate of Portland State University in Arts & Letters and Film, she has several projects in progress and looks just like her avatar in her head.