Write well. Write often. Edit wisely.
I hadn’t planned on writing about the new Star Wars movie, The Force Awakens. I’ve actually been working on an article about correlative conjunctions (and apparently it doesn’t have my full attention). But I was struck by one of the reviewers’ comments and thought that fiction writers and editors might benefit from the reviewer’s observation.
The line was from Time magazine’s Stephanie Zacharek, and out of the many reviews I hurried through yesterday and today, it’s the one that stuck out the most. Not as much for her opinion of the movie but as a spur to others who deal with fiction.
Zacharek pointed out that while J.J. Abrams—director of The Force Awakens as well as co-writer of the script—worked diligently to get much of the production right, she felt that he’d missed in some areas.
“But somewhere along the way, Abrams begins delivering everything we expect, as opposed to those nebulous wonders we didn’t know we wanted.”
Those nebulous wonders we didn’t know we wanted—what a musical phrase. And what a result to work toward before a work is released to the public.
Many times I’ve reminded writers that one of a writer’s primary tasks is to satisfy the reader. I’ve also stressed that including genre conventions is necessary to meet reader expectations—some readers come to a particular genre searching for the genre elements that make a book enjoyable and satisfying to them. They read a particular genre expecting to find certain story elements.
And yet at the same time, stories shouldn’t be predictable. Readers don’t want the same story, they just want some of the standard ingredients that make great stories great. Beyond that, they do want new. And they definitely like being surprised.
We’ve talked about that as well, about surprising the reader.
Readers like satisfaction, but that doesn’t mean they want only the same plot or character types again and again. Satisfaction, soul-deep satisfaction, comes through universal truth that pierces the heart. For some of us, such truth may be recognized only when it’s presented in a new way, through a new voice or with a different approach.
We love those aha moments, those times when fiction speaks to us or moves us. But that doesn’t happen for most readers if the story they’re reading now is the same by every measure as the previous one.
Elements that are new or fresh or surprising grab our attention and help us notice what we’ve never noticed before. The truth might have been hanging around for centuries or millennia, but until we take it in and understand it, it means nothing. If we don’t get it, whatever the truth is, it won’t move us. Not to tears or to action.
The good news for writers is that there are many, many ways to include unexpected and satisfying wonders in story.
A character can surprise and delight. A plot may go in an unexpected direction, requiring all the reader’s attention. Dialogue may enchant readers, creating an unexpected affinity between those readers and a story and its characters.
Mood and the emotional impact might be what surprises readers, twining around them and grabbing hold in ways that change those readers.
A philosophy presented through the characters may open a reader’s eyes.
Even word choice could be a wonder, a delightful, captivating, stirring mix of poetry and prose that shakes a reader from complacency or boredom.
Nebulous wonders—I’m going with a definition of nebulous as not clearly defined or hazy rather than confused or vague—when presented in just the right way, can tease readers. They can prod readers. They can create an itch that needs scratching, an itch that must be seen to.
Wonders are natural attention seekers.
Wonders stand out as something different, as something other, turning the readers’ attention toward whatever you want them noticing.
And wonders, if they are true wonders, can satisfy. They can push a story over the top in terms of reader satisfaction.
If the expected parts of the story satisfy, meeting the reader’s needs, and then a mysterious, wondrous element complements the expected elements, a reader gets it all, gets the complete package from a story. Gets the oh, good as well as the oh, wow.
Satisfy your readers’ expectations, but not at the expense of surprising them. Meet the needs they don’t even know they have.
Meet the needs that your stories raise in them. Yes, you get to create the need and satisfy it.
Satisfy readers on a variety of levels.
When we write, one of our tasks is to create stories that satisfy but that do so in novel and surprising ways. We want to write a complete story that hits all the expectations in ways that are new and eye-opening and arresting.
Our task is to engage the reader in every way, to tap into the mind, the dreams, the memories, the fears, and the imagination of our readers. Our task is to present vibrant truth, yet not in a tired way that rehashes that truth, dulling what should be arresting so that readers no longer pay attention. No, we should be creating with a fresh approach that has readers sitting up and noticing.
Like the young child seeing fireworks for the first time, readers should find awe and wonder in fiction. And writers should delight in giving that wonder to them.
Nebulous wonders . . . Have you included wonders in your work in progress? If not, why not consider adding an element that readers didn’t know that they wanted until they found it in your book.
Satisfy readers, but don’t be predictable. And don’t only fulfill the readers’ expectations.
Do satisfy them, of course. But satisfy with the unexpected as well as the expected.
Give readers both what they want and what they need.