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A Cautionary Tale: 3 Writing Rules that Can Derail Your Story

photo by ToastyKen via Flickr [1]
photo by ToastyKen [2]via Flickr

Last year I had occasion to read a batch of ten page manuscript submissions in a hurry, one right after the other. What I noticed was startling in its consistency.

All of the writers had clearly spent time learning their craft. All of them had something to say. And all of them, by meticulously following what they’d been taught, had rendered their stories mute in the exact same way.

It was heartbreaking, given the talent in the room.

So, using this as a cautionary tale, let’s take a look at the three seemingly common sense rules they diligently followed, and explore why the result was the definition of irony: rather than hooking the reader, they locked the reader out.

The rules are:

  1. Start with a bang, leap into action.
  2. Give us specific details, especially sensory details, to bring the story to life. 
  3. Hint at crucial information, but don’t reveal it right away, the better to lure the reader in. 

So what was the problem? [pullquote]In every case, the dramatic events that unfolded on those first ten pages were clearly intended to have great meaning, but the author hadn’t given us a clue as to what that meaning was. Or why it mattered. To anyone.[/pullquote]

In every case, the dramatic events that unfolded on those first ten pages were clearly intended to have great meaning, but the author hadn’t given us a clue as to what that meaning was. Or why it mattered. To anyone. Except in the most general, generic sense. Which isn’t to say that specifics didn’t abound. They did. Everything in each scene was described to the nth degree. Sometimes beautifully. But all you wanted to do was bat those details out of the way to get a glimpse of what the heck was really going on. Trouble is, that was something the writers were keeping off the page – on purpose.

The result?

If it was a battle scene, other than a designated “good” and “bad” side, we had no idea what they were battling over, what would happen as a consequence, or what anyone’s death would mean other than, you know, that they were no longer alive. But we could sure picture the armor they wore.

If it was a mystery, a sinister meeting full of portent took place, but we had no idea who anyone was, or why they were acting so strangely. Which can have the unfortunate side effect of making everything sound slightly melodramatic. But we could taste the metallic tang of blood wafting from the bike messenger’s tattered blue raincoat.

If it was a thriller, strangers met in the fog with upturned collars and had cryptic conversations about . . . well, who knows, but I’m guessing it was important.  Especially since we could feel the silvery intensity of the fog, like a protective cloak, shrouding the mountaintop, hemming in closely held secrets.

If it was a sci-fi fantasy, an angry wizard was livid, furiously raging that his latest spell didn’t work, and as a result . . . I have no idea. But I bet it was something pretty bad. At least as bad as the putrid smell of molten flesh emanating from the glistening beaker that . . . oh, never mind.

And here’s the killer thing: in each of these stories, deep down, I saw a potent seed that was slowly being smothered. Something that, had it been allowed to take root and poke its head above the bland surface, just might have blossomed into something genuinely compelling.

Why didn’t it? Let’s dive into these oft-misunderstood rules one-by-one and find out:

1. Start with a bang, leap into action.

This is great advice. I give it myself. It goes like this: The first goal of any story is to make the reader want to know what happens next. The only way to do that is to make sure something is happening in the first place. When we start reading a story, we’re jonesing for the feeling that something out of the ordinary is happening. We crave the notion that we’ve come in at a crucial juncture in someone’s life, and not a moment too soon. What intoxicates us is the hint that not only is trouble brewing, but it’s longstanding and about to reach critical mass. Shhhh! our brain hisses, something big is about to happen here, and I don’t want to miss it . . .

What this rule is often (mis)taken to mean

The authors of the submissions I read all took this piece of advice to heart. Very wisely, none of them made the rookie mistake of giving us reams of backstory so we’d understand what was going on by the time the story actually started. Instead, each writer leapt in at a crucial juncture, when something seminal was happening.[pullquote]When we start reading a story, we’re jonesing for the feeling that something out of the ordinary is happening. We crave the notion that we’ve come in at a crucial juncture in someone’s life, and not a moment too soon.[/pullquote]

Which is good, right? Trouble is, they took it a little too literally. So they zoomed in and gave us a clear blow-by-blow of said encounter, as if we were watching it in extreme close up. So we had no overarching context — no yardstick — by which to gauge what the encounter meant.

It was like watching a random mid-tournament round of a grilmax game. Can you imagine? Of course you can’t, ‘cause I just made that game up.  That’s how it feels when we’re plunged into a battle, a conversation, even a make-out session, without context. Sure, we can see what’s happening, but we have no idea what the point is, or why it matters.  And so, it doesn’t.

What it Really Means

Here’s the thing: nothing means anything all by itself. A beautiful cloud free day means one thing if you’re planning a lavish outdoor wedding, and quite another if it’s the 1000th such day of a worldwide drought.

So rather than just diving into “something that’s happening” the goal is to ground that “something” in an ongoing reality – a context — that gives it meaning. The reader needs to grasp that reality, and have a sense of what the consequence of the event might be, from the get-go.

And here’s the key ingredient: we have to care about that consequence. The only way we’ll care is if we’re experiencing it through someone’s point of view (read: the protagonist’s). That is, the person who will be affected by it, because that’s what we’re affected by. [pullquote]We don’t root for situations. We don’t even root for people. We root for a person.[/pullquote]

We don’t root for situations. We don’t even root for people. We root for a person.

2. Give us specific details, especially sensory details, to bring the story to life. 

This is also great advice. ‘Cause the story is in the specifics.  And specifics are something we can, indeed, visualize. If we can’t see it, we can’t feel it. “Images drive the emotions as well as the intellect,” says cognitive scientist Steven Pinker, who goes on to call images “thumpingly concrete.” Abstract concepts, generalities and conceptual notions have a hard time engaging us, because since we can’t see them, feel them, or otherwise experience them, we have to focus on them really, really hard, consciously—and even then our brain is not happy about it. Anyone who’s ever tried to read the tax code, or a textbook on string theory, knows exactly what I mean. We tend to find abstract concepts thumpingly boring.  Thus it’s no surprise that an effective story takes a general situation, idea, or premise and personifies it via the very specific.

What this rule is often (mis)taken to mean

The writers had definitely given us lots and lots of very visual specifics. The problem was, they hadn’t realized that there’s more to it than that. Here’s the irony: they gave us general specifics. What is that, you might ask, other than an oxymoron?

It’s this: general specifics are details about the background – not backstory – but literally, the background. What things look like, in detail, as if it were a painting. What things taste like, in detail, as if we’d never tasted a strawberry.  What things feel like, in general, as if we don’t know that a soldier on the battlefield is afraid he might die, and, um, not want to. [pullquote] What made the submissions I read so uninvolving was that they gave us a slew of specifics, but no context to let us know why we needed to know any of it.[/pullquote]

What made the submissions I read so uninvolving was that they gave us a slew of specifics, but no context to let us know why we needed to know any of it. This tends to lead to that feeling we used to get back in elementary school: Uh oh, looks like there’s gonna be a test . . . at which point we do what we did back then. Bail and see if there’s anything good on TV.

What it Really Means

Here’s the scoop: everything in a story needs to be there for a story reason, including descriptions of weather, the protagonist’s tousled auburn locks, and the sumptuous taste of a ripe, red strawberry. We don’t care about anything “just because.” And this is exponentially true on the first few pages, when we’re trying to get a bead on what the story will be about. We’re looking for that “yardstick” by which to measure the protagonist’s progress. That means that every single detail must be rooted not only in the specific scene we’re being yanked into, but in the overarching story as well, so we begin to understand why, specifically, what’s happening matters beyond this particular scene.

For instance, going back to that fearful soldier on the battlefield, the question isn’t: Is he afraid of dying? We all know the answer: You betcha! The real question is: what does dying, at this minute, mean to him? For instance, who will he leave behind who needs him now more than ever? What won’t he accomplish that he swore on his mother’s grave he would? What burning promise won’t he be able to keep? What wrong must he live till dawn to set right? [pullquote]It always comes back to this: what do these events mean to the protagonist, given what his agenda is?[/pullquote]

Yep, it always comes back to this: what do these events mean to the protagonist, given what his agenda is? If we don’t have an idea of what that might be right there on the first page, there’s only one answer we can come up with: they don’t mean much of anything.

3. Hint at crucial information, but don’t reveal it right away, the better to lure the reader in.

Of the three rules, this one is the most treacherous – and the least true. In fact, it’s often what causes writers to wildly “misuse” the first two rules. But before we get into that, what is this rule, exactly?

It’s rooted in something we all know to be true: a story must incite a sense of urgency that makes the reader want to know what happens next. And the way to do it, this rule implies, is rather than letting us in on what’s happening, much better to hide it and hint that “something big” – and largely unspecified – lurks just around the next bend. Because then surely the reader will read forward, dying to find out what’s really going on. Makes complete sense, right? Trouble is, writers often take it so to heart that it ends up undermining their story out of the starting gate.

What this rule is often (mis)taken to mean

The problem with the submissions I read, was that the writers had held so much back that we had no way to anticipate what might happen next, largely because we had no real idea what was going on, period. In fact, writers often do such a good job of keeping it secret, that readers have no idea there even is a secret. What these writers tend to forget is that first readers have to want to know the secret (not to mention know that there is one). Here’s the irony: more often than not, it’s the very information the writer’s withholding that would make the reader care.

Here’s the double irony: instead of giving us specifics to clue into what’s actually happening – and why it matters to the protagonist — the writer instead supplies myriad specifics that amount to an up-close view of what’s going on physically. Have you ever read six pages of in-depth play-by-play description of a stagecoach nearly falling off a sheer cliff, and all you knew was that Miss Belle was trapped within? Who is Miss Belle you ask? I just told you! See what I mean?

There is little that’s more boring than a purely physical description of, well, anything – the more detailed, the less involving.

And it doesn’t matter a whit if ten pages later we learned that Miss Belle is an out-of-work saloon gal betrothed to the stern sheriff, and his reckless but good-hearted kid brother had staged the whole stagecoach near-disaster, the better to save Belle and win her heart.[pullquote]Here’s a handy rule of thumb that’s self-evident when you think about it: if the reader doesn’t know there’s intrigue afoot, then there is no intrigue afoot.[/pullquote]

Here’s a handy rule of thumb that’s self-evident when you think about it: if the reader doesn’t know there’s intrigue afoot, then there is no intrigue afoot.  So although the writer knew where the Belle-stagecoach thing was going, the reader not only didn’t know, but didn’t care.

And one final thing about the danger of withholding key info early on with the sole intent of luring the reader in: You’re not fooling anyone. The reader can see exactly what you’re doing. It’s as if the writer’s standing right in front of them taunting: “I know what’s going on, and you don’t. Ha ha!” How annoying is that?

What it Really Means

Don’t be afraid of grounding us in what’s actually happening. In fact, don’t be afraid of coming right out and telling us where the story is going. My favorite example is always the opening sentence of Elizabeth George’s brilliant What Came Before He Shot Her: “Joel Campbell, eleven years old at the time, began his descent toward murder with a bus ride.” Right there she tells us that Joel is going to be involved in a murder. First line, she steps in and gives the whole thing away! And that’s what makes the novel so riveting.[pullquote]Here’s the skinny: we don’t come to story simply to find out what happens, we come to find out how and why.[/pullquote]

Here’s the skinny: we don’t come to story simply to find out what happens, we come to find out how and why. Why would a kid like Joel (who we quickly come to love and root for) get involved with a murder? How would that happen? We’re dying to know. That’s what keeps us reading madly for six hundred pages, until the murder actually occurs.  And breaks our hearts on so many levels at once.

What broke my heart about those submissions last year was that maybe, just maybe, if they’d opened with a line like that – if they’d clued us into what was really going on – right now you’d be reading them, too. Maybe next year.

But now, what about you? What’s your secret for luring readers in and having them at hello?

About Lisa Cron [3]

Lisa Cron is the author of Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers From the Very First Sentence [4] and Story Genius: How To Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel (Before You Waste 3 Years Writing 327 Pages That Go Nowhere). [5] Her video tutorial, Writing Fundamentals: The Craft of Story, can be found at Lynda.com [6]. Her TEDx talk, Wired for Story, [7] opened Furman University’s 2014 TEDx conference, Stories: The Common Thread of Our Humanity. A frequent speaker at writers conferences, schools and universities, Lisa's passion has always been story. She currently works as a story coach helping writers, nonprofits, educators and journalists wrangle the story they're telling onto the page; contact her here. [8]

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