Monday, January 28, 2013

It's All About The Story

Have you ever put down a book after reading it and asked yourself, “How did this ever get published?  And where was the editor?”  Have you ever said, “I write so much better than this.  My dog writes better than this.”  Have you ever wondered how these books, and these authors get published, while you’re sitting there with a technical masterpiece that no one shows the slightest interest in?  If that’s the case, you may want to look over your masterpiece one more time with an eye not on the writing, but on the story.
Most readers, adult or children, do not read books because they can’t get enough of wonderful metaphors.  Those who do are probably picking up literary novels, not commercial best-sellers.

Most people read for story.  They want to be able to fall into the life of someone doing something exciting, or different, something they would probably love to do themselves, but never will.  People who read romance are in it for the romance.  People who read historicals want to be brought to another place and time.  People who read horror want to be scared.  And people who read adventures want the adventure.  Your job as a writer is to give them what they want, in whatever genre you choose to write in.

So what is your story about?  Is it something new and exciting, or is it the same old stuff writers have been writing about for ages?  If it is the same old stuff, have you given it an original and exciting twist, something that makes it stand out from the rest?  Does it contain tension and suspense?  Is there conflict, a reason to keep turning the pages?  Do you make your reader feel what the main character feels?

Look at the success of the Eragon and Twilight series.  Neither is particularly well written, but each writer told a story that worked for millions of readers.  Millions, not thousands.

Eragon was a hero’s story, a boy goes on a quest.  It’s been done a million times.  Why was Paolini’s such a big success?  Because everybody dreams of being a hero, everyone wants to win, and he gave them that opportunity in the pages of his books.  And there is something about dragons that appeals to so many.  But the biggie, I think, is because he followed a formula that so many best sellers seem to have - the chase, the escape, then rest, think, regroup.  The chase, the escape, more rest, rethinking, and regrouping.

Paolini’s characters do this continuously throughout the story until the climax.  It’s Tolkien’s formula in Lord of the Rings.  It’s the formula used in so many suspense thrillers.  The tension and suspense never let up, and the conflict continually grows bigger and bigger.

Was it a conscious decision of Paolini’s, or had he simply learned it through osmosis while reading others?  I don’t know.  But it’s there, and it works.  For millions.  Constant action, constant movement, and always a new problem.  The reader has to turn the page because they’re involved in the story, and they don’t care if Paolini used lay instead of lie, or if his infinitives are split.

Meyer also used an old story that’s been done a million times – boy meets girl – a typical romance.  But she gave it a great twist.  The boy her heroine falls in love with is a vampire.  And she didn’t stop there.  She didn’t make her vampire a typical vampire.  She reinvented the vampire to suit her story.

So, how many teenage girls are there who don’t love a romance?  And how many romance readers, teen and adult, are there in this great big world of ours?  Enough to keep Harlequin in business for years and years and years.  And how many of them are going – A romance with a vampire?  That’s different. I gotta check that out.

Then there are the horror readers.  A vampire falling in love with a human?  And a love triangle between a human, vampire and werewolf?  I gotta see what that’s all about.

And let’s not forget the paranormal readers, who like to delve into the lives or vampires and werewolves and anything else unexplainable.

Meyer gave readers something they hadn’t seen before, something that appealed to a broad range of people - people who bought the book on just the promise of a story, and once they started reading, they didn’t care about her overuse of adverbs and bad dialogue tags.

Now this isn’t to say you should just write your story and forget about the quality of the writing.  I believe Paolini and Meyers were writing to the best of their abilities at the time they wrote their books.  It seems evident when reading the sequels, where the writing gets progressively better.  The point is it really is all about the story.  If no one is interested in what you have to say, the fact that you say it in a lovely way doesn’t matter.  Put a very well-written, okay story on an editor’s desk, along with a badly written but fantastic story, and I think an editor will choose the better story every time, regardless of the writing, because the writing can always be made better, and it can be done easily.  It takes far more work to make a dull story exciting.   

So what’s the lesson here?  Well, there are several.

Even if you’re a beginning writer, if you have a great story to tell, you can get published.

If you’ve been writing for a number of years, and your writing skills are pretty good, but you still can’t seem to sell anything, perhaps you should reconsider what you’re writing about.

And when you do write that great story that everyone wants to read, take the time to rewrite it as well as you can because, if a great story, badly written, can sell a million copies, imagine how many copies a great story, wonderfully written, will sell.