My post last month sprang from research at the University of Pennsylvania into what causes online readers of The New York Times to e-mail articles to friends. Those researchers have done fiction writers a huge favor. They have decoded what generates word of mouth.
The most important finding regards what inspires in the reader a feeling of awe. The researchers defined awe as an “emotion of self-transcendence, a feeling of admiration and elevation in the face of something greater than the self.” Stories that inspire awe have two important dimensions: 1) Their scale is large, and 2) they require of readers “mental accommodation”, meaning they force the reader to view the world in a different way.
Now, I know that some of you right now are racing to congratulate yourselves. My book is long! It’s multi-POV! I’m good on that scale thing. And hey, I rock my readers’ world view! They’ll be shaken to the core!
Oh yeah? When was the last time you read a manuscript or published novel that left you literally shaken to the core? Some time ago?
Let’s first talk about the reality of scale. High story impact does not come from length alone. It occurs when every character in a novel embarks on a profound journey and every plot layer and sub-plot becomes a novel unto itself. Most novelists don’t work that hard. How do I know? Same way you do. I read the results.
To write on an awe-inspiring scale demands not supreme commitment (everyone with a complete manuscript has that) but the commitment to craft every piece of a novel’s thousands of components with high artistry. That’s work. And that’s the easy part.
The greater challenge is to pull readers into alternate ways of looking at things. This can only be accomplished through characters. First, the reader must bond with them. (See last month’s post.) Next, the character must himself or herself have a unique way of looking at the world.
It’s no wonder, then, that so many commercially successful protagonists are forensic experts, snipers, underwater salvage specialists, surgeons, scientists or vampires. Even a made-up profession like symbologist can involve us in an alternate world view. See the current New York Times best seller list.
But it’s not just about a protagonist with a cool job. Plenty of ordinary people also can capture us. Again, look on the current Times list. There are best sellers about suburban parents, a Southern daughter, a front line soldier in Vietnam, and a seventeen-year-old. Okay, I’ll admit that there’s also Abraham Lincoln (hunting vampires) but you see my point.
Any protagonist with strong opinions, deep convictions, tidal emotions and profound self-regard can transport us out of ourselves as effectively as a Nephilim-fighting nun. But again, it’s work. How to do it? Here are practical tools to help. Ready? [Read more…]