Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Enticing Your Readers

Some time ago I asked a question in the Speculative Fiction Group forum on AgentQueryConnect: As a reader, what do you hope to find in the beginning of a novel?

The answers, you can imagine, varied all over the place. I noticed a parallel too, since it was writers who were doing the answering, that people hoped for the same kinds of things they liked to write. Some people favored immediate action, others (since we're speaking of speculative fiction) had an emphasis on world-building and setting, some liked an immediate theme, or interesting characters, the author's voice or style, or the specific genre tropes used.

My conclusion? There are many many ways to hook a reader, depending on what that reader likes. And, writers can easily set up blinders next to their own eyes by assuming everyone else wants the same thing they do.

I took a walk down the aisles at a Barnes & Noble last week, gravitating to the YA, children's, and speculative fiction sections more so to do some current research than anything else. There are a lot of books out there and all vying to capture the attention of as many readers as they can. I felt a bit lost in the deluge. (As I mentioned on Twitter last week, if you write speculative fiction and have any kind of say in the cover design, go for a bright color rather than the dark ones because those covers are rarer and attract the eye faster.)

So what's a writer to do to stand out from the pack? There is no one-size-fits-all or guaranteed step-by-step guide to entertaining someone else with your prose.

Say you need to establish your setting at the beginning of the novel, to ground the reader and introduce them to a place unlike anything on Earth. Does your setting sound like well-known alternate worlds other writers have used? It's okay if it does, but chances are if you've got a world that sounds a lot like Pern or Middle Earth, readers don't need you to spell everything out in the beginning. You're using a fantasy trope, which lessens the amount of work you need to do. Give some details built-in to the action and choose another element to be the focus of your beginning.

But...if your world is very different from popular tropes, you may have a valid reason for setting a lot of groundwork. The trick is to use your setting as a subtle character or antagonist, and the more show you can do intermixed with the plot or characterization of your protagonist, the better. Avoid the travelogue, especially if there are no characters interacting in your opening setting.

Say you want to focus on your protagonist at the beginning. Are they an every-man type character, the average person who is going to have amazing things thrust upon them? You'll need more than establishing character for a beginning then. A day-in-the-life of the average Joe or Jane is going to equate to boring. Readers have normal lives and they don't pick up a speculative fiction book to read about normal life. What you might need here is your inciting event at the get-go. Something to throw a monkey wrench into average Joe or Jane's life at the start. Explaining their average-ness is completely unnecessary.

But...if you have a main character who isn't average, their quirky, off-beat, or eccentric-ness will give a reader that not-normal vibe. Because, a character like that is pro-active, makes things happen, and everything they do, say, or think will be entertaining.

Say you want to grab your audience with action, okay, what kind of action? Is Commander Joe heading into space combat - just routine for him - and all the high-tech and flash is sure to make a reader sit up and pay attention through the play-by-play?...um, no. We're not invested in the character yet to care whether he lives or dies. We're not invested in the conflict to know what's at stake both publicly and personally. Action for the sake of action often fails to grab a reader's interest. It's all special effects with no substance.

But...if your action scene is either the inciting event, or propels your protagonist towards the inciting event you'll need to make sure the reader is armed with a few other things. They need to bond quickly with the protagonist so the conflict needs to be something readers might have experienced or fears to experience. Maybe the protagonist is sprinting down a hallway, late for an important meeting that will get him out of the basement and finally out in the field to prove his theories and establish his career. While he's racing down the hall, dodging other people and obstacles, he's thinking of his family and how badly they need this promotion. He needs to prove to his wife that all the time he spends at the office hasn't been wasted so she doesn't drag him to marital counseling.

Say you want to create the right mood or set the web of your theme at the start of the novel. This one's trickier, since by itself, stating a theme can turn away readers if you're too obvious. Or an extremely depressed mood might turn them away also, even if that mood lightens in the next chapter. Your opening is an invitation to your story. A theme or mood woven into one of the other elements works best: action, characterization, plot, or world-building.

Many genres come with reader expectations. They stick with that genre because of the tropes and they love it when writers have a fresh take on them. Readers in this case want the familiar. Kind of like eating ice cream. They want chocolate and because it's so good, they want it again and again. But not exactly the same as the first time. Maybe the second time they want sprinkles on it. Maybe the third time they'd like some nuts or chunks of chocolate mixed in. Maybe the fourth time they'd like some vanilla mixed with the chocolate.

As a reader, what do you hope to find in the beginning of a novel? Which story element is your essential ingredient to reader happiness?

1 comment:

  1. I realllyyy hope to find the setting, as you said. I don't like not knowing where we are or in what time frame we are. It's frustrating and I keep reading to see WHERE the setting is. It's like being lost.

    But I love to see some action and some characters that I'd love to spend time with :) Character interactions are the best, I feel. Just really getting to know them. But I need some action as well.

    Great post!