Raise your hand if you find yourself clicking all of those little videos on social media? Maybe you don’t even click them, but they start playing automatically and next thing you know, you’ve wasted five minutes on a baby smearing yogurt on their face, a goat “laughing,” or a SNL skit of the latest debate reenactment. I find myself increasingly drawn to these videos and I’m not sure why—I don’t even like TV much. In fact, I tend to get bored by it rather quickly. So what is going on here? Why am I—and most of us—drawn to these cutesy little gimmicks designed to grab our attention? What’s more, how can we apply that reasoning to our manuscripts? (Because, let’s face it, we need to draw our readers in just as easily, and delight them to keep their interest.) There’s something to learn from these videos…
Characters need rest (and so do readers): Your characters should be undergoing a series of tests constantly, but they do need a break from the shit-storm of tension and stakes, and the myriad of emotional horrors you’re throwing at them. These rest periods are true to life, for one, but the other reason is, your readers need a break as well. They need time to process what’s happening to the character, and time to watch the m.c. grapple internally with all that has happened to them.
For example, take the movie The Revenant with Leonardo DiCaprio. One horrific thing happens after another, so that by the time you hit the climax—or the supposed climax—you’re fairly inured to both the violence and the m.c.’s struggles. As the viewers, we haven’t had that real ‘coming down’ period to digest these traumas, or seen the protagonist digest them either. The events in that movie may have been true-to-life, but in fiction, we need transition scenes and rest periods to watch the character grow and deepen. Or, as I like to say, the m.c. needs “to catch a breath” and gather their strength for the next mishap headed their way.
Pacing matters more than you think: How long are most of the video clips on average? Those in my feed are consistently two to five minutes in length. The creators understand something really important: people are busy and don’t want to spend much time on them. This is true in fiction as well. When writing a scene, consider how long you’ll capture your reader’s interest. What makes this scene compelling? How can you create urgency to keep the pace moving along? If you don’t balance the pace properly, readers will close the book.
The hook is real: Take a minute to examine what it is, precisely, that drew you in to watch this video. Is it the topic? The way the video triggers an emotional response you can relate to? Is it a humorous snippet mocking a hot button issue? Whatever it is, you’ve become interested because you’ve connected with it in some way. Consider how you hook your readers with your book. You likely get that two to five minute window I mentioned above in “pacing” to hook a new reader with your opening scene, your jacket copy, and your cover. Maybe this is because we’ve devolved into a bunch of squirrels on crack since the advent of the internet, but it may also be due to the ever-expanding number of choices we have. All of those choices means, the competition for our time is steep. If your hook doesn’t STRIKE SOME INNER CHORD with your reader, you’ve lost them.
A sprinkle of humor goes a long way: It doesn’t matter what genre your novel is, humor is always an effective way to keep the reader’s attention. A touch of levity not only brightens a dangerous, tense, or difficult situation, but it can also effectively add depth to a character by demonstrating a new facet to their personality.
We, as human beings, can only take so much of the shootings, political hysteria, trolls and hate mail, and the constant bombardment of what’s wrong with our world. Sometimes we need rest. Sometimes we need something cute, or funny, or inspiring—just as our characters do. Beware of this ebb and flow in your protagonist’s world and throw them a life raft of something fun, addictive, or escapist for a change.
What are your favorite videos and why do they grab your attention? How can you apply the same reasoning to your manuscript?