Write well. Write often. Edit wisely.
I spent an hour or so earlier today working on an article about the purposes of fiction, and while I might get around to posting that at a later time, what I really want to focus on is just one of the major purposes of fiction, and that’s entertaining the reader.
No, entertainment isn’t the only purpose of fiction. But it’s an important one. In our day it may be the most important one.
We can use fiction to teach and inspire and remind and persuade, but readers come to fiction to be entertained. And that means that you have to do the entertaining.
It’s likely that you already know that you have to capture your readers in the early pages and that you have to satisfy them with the ending, but what’s vital is that you have to entertain, whatever entertain means for your genre and your particular book.
Whether you use humor or sorrow or disappointment or some combination of emotional tugs, your story will probably touch your readers’ emotions in some way. So you entertain by purposely creating emotional moments.
Your story will also likely feature characters that readers can identify with—the characters are similar to the reader or to someone the reader knows or to someone the reader would like to be. When a reader can identify with a character, the reader becomes involved. And when emotion and character are linked, the reader is hooked.
Your story may feature a mystery or suspense or events that unroll at breakneck speed, any of which can capture and hold the reader’s attention.
Or your story may challenge the reader’s beliefs, and this can definitely keep a reader interested and entertained; readers want to know what you’ll do with their beloved beliefs and they’ll read on to find out.
A story may challenge a reader’s mind; give readers a puzzle that needs to be unknotted and they may well stick with that story through the end.
Your story may revolve around a place or event that’s meaningful to a great many people; readers will be eager to see what you do with one of their favorite places or favorite historic events.
Whatever your story is about and whatever characters and events it contains, it needs to be a story that draws the reader’s attention and keeps it.
Readers need to care about characters and what happens to them. If you tease and entice readers just right with a story problem, they’ll have to read the whole story to see how you resolve the problem. Readers have to want to read more than the first chapter—they need a reason to invest time and imagination in your story. Give them reasons to spend time with your books.
And never doubt that readers invest in stories. They give so much more than time.
They try to solve the story problem.
They spend time worrying about imaginary characters.
They pull for one character over another.
They apply lessons learned in fiction to their own lives.
They talk about stories with others who’ve read the same books, arguing about events and meaning as if their arguments carry import for the real world.
Readers come to story already prepared to invest themselves. Still, you have to provide a story strong enough to make readers care beyond the excitement inherent in the first pages of an unfamiliar story. Otherwise they don’t get out of a story all that they expect to, all that they’ve come to expect from good fiction.
I don’t have a list of rules or suggestions for you to follow. Not today. I do have a reminder: make your fiction interesting. Don’t be so concerned with grammar and rules that you don’t write a rollicking farce or a layered fantasy or a head-scratching mystery. Don’t be so concerned with the rules of publishing that you shortchange the story itself.
There are times when you’ll need to focus on grammar and rules and publicity and on securing an agent, but there are also times when you’ll need to focus on storytelling; you can’t forgo telling a good story.
No matter what you’re working on right now or what stage the project is in, remind yourself that you’re a storyteller. Remind yourself that you’re sharing your story with someone whose attention you must keep. Remind yourself to make the characters, story world, and events fascinating and engaging.
If your rewrites and self-edits focus on rules to the exclusion of story, you’re missing a major component of writing. If the story itself—the events, the characters involved in those events, and the reasons behind those events—is weak and uninvolving, then you need to work on storytelling. If the story is flat, give it some life.
Write well, yes. But write a good story too. Make readers want to turn pages. Make them need to know what’s going to happen because they care about your characters and the adventure you’ve planned for those characters. Make readers care.