Assumptions we must SMASH
Before we do, though, dive into those six elements one by one, there's something else that we need to do. What I want to do is I want to smash a tacit assumption that we all have. Not all of us. Not all of us have it, but some writers, and most writers, to some degree, have it. It's the assumption that when somebody starts to read your book, and they've read the first line, somehow you're in it together with them. The two of you are there and you've got a pact. It's now their obligation to read forward. Somehow it's their job to finish reading it. It's not that you think that literally, but that's the notion of it. It's sort of like now I own you. Then writers often, I hate to say it this way, but it's like they're playing with the reader. It's like they're tricking the reader. It's as if you're writing with an eye toward manipulating the reader, rather than telling the story. You should never be thinking about the reader when you're writing the story. What writers will do, and the iro...
ny is is that while they think that they own you, and by own you I mean that you already care enough, that you are going to read forward, they think the way I'm really going to make this person care is that I'm going to hold back what's actually going on for a reveal. You start reading the book and you know that something isn't quite right, like all is not as it seems, and they give these very vague little hints about what it might be, but nothing specific, because if they give you something specific, it might give it away. They think just the curiosity of them being vague is enough for them to own you and pull you through. The truth is what happens then is we don't see the story anymore because there is no story. All we see is the writer, and it feels like the writer is teasing us, and it feels like the writer is saying, "I know something you don't know, and if you keep reading forward, maybe I'll tell you." It is so annoying. It is more annoying than my voice just was, and that was so annoying I couldn't say it all the way through. Yet writers do it all the time. They hold something back for a reveal later thinking that's going to pull the reader in. The irony is they end up holding back the very information that would lure us in. Let me give you a very sad example of this. A number of years ago I was working with a writer and he was a very, very accomplished fine artist. A painter. Very accomplished. He was writing a young adult novel. The main character was a girl, and she was and the novel began, it was a week before her senior year began. What we knew about her, first person mind you, first person. What we knew about her was that she also wanted to be a painter. She thought a lot about painting, and she thought a lot about the autumn leaves and the beautiful gold and red and green. I mean she thought about that and painting it all the time. The other thing we found out is that something really bad had happened at the beginning of the summer. I mean capital R, capital B. We had no idea what it might be. There was a tangential mention of a hospital, but it wasn't really clear if she had been in the hospital or been visiting someone in the hospital or was a candy striper. You didn't know. It was just a hospital. It went forward, and it was all very vague. She went to an elite girls' school, so when school started, it wasn't like she was going to classes. The entire class was going to go on a camping trip. They're going toward the camping trip, and her parents are saying, "Are you sure you really want to go?" She's like, "Yeah. I definitely want to go." The school lets her go. Her friends are a little bit odd when she gets onto the camping trip. They don't really talk to her. They don't say anything about her. She basically, we're in her head, and the most she's thinking about is painting these beautiful leaves she's going to find once they go away camping. Everything was vague. Everything was general. You had no idea why anything mattered to anybody except you knew that she wanted to bring enough paint to be able to paint the beautiful leaves. Finally it got to about half way through the book and we found out that at the beginning of the summer she tried to commit suicide. Now think about that for a minute. Think about that. That means that something was really wrong in her life. Something was bothering her. She would have been thinking about it. Her parents, I don't think they would have let her go on that trip. I don't think the school would have let her go. Her friends would have said something. She never thought about it at all. When we were reading forward, the worst thing we thought that could have happened to her was that she would get all the way camping and not have enough red paint. That was basically the worst. When I said to him, "Why did you hold that back "for such a long time?" He smiled. It was heartbreaking. I can still see his face. He was smiling like he's done a good thing. It was like, "Yeah, I held it back because "it was a big reveal for the reader." I wanted to say, "Dude, nobody's going to read that far. "I wouldn't have read that far except you paid me." The problem when you do that is that your characters can't think about what they would be thinking about because you'd be giving it away. Nobody can do what they would be doing because you could give it away. When we get back here, not that anybody would get there, mind you, but let's say that we do, and then we play it back to what we've seen happen up to that point, we're going to go, "Well those people would have done "completely different things." Now we don't believe anything. As opposed to making it better, now you've just invalidated every character. Here's the thing. When we read, while we're very picky about both what's happening in the plot logistics and the internal life of your characters, as readers and as viewers, in terms of movies, we're far less picky about some sort of external plot glitch than we are with a character who now emotionally and psychologically is not acting in accordance with the way they should, given what we know about them. That makes us bail immediately because now that person isn't a real person anymore. Now I can't learn anything from them anymore. Really, the thing to keep in mind is ... There's other ways writers do this, too. If you're writing with an eye toward manipulating the reader, "If I put it here, the reader won't know." "I'm going to lure this in over here." "I'll hold back with this." Don't ever do that. Chances are you're holding back the exact things that would lure the reader in, and the reader doesn't form a bond with you. I hate to say it. The reader doesn't even think about you when you're reading. That is the thing. As readers, we read at it at our own pleasure. You would never go into a bookstore and pull a book off a shelf and open it and read the first page and go, "You know? This is really kind of boring "and I have no idea where it's going "or what it's about, but I'm sure the writer tried "really, really hard and thought they had something "really important to say, so I'll buy it "and read it and recommend it to all my friends." You never do that. You put the book back on the shelf and keep pulling books out until you find one that does pull you in. Again, if you're thinking about the writer, you're not involved in the story. As readers you should never be thinking about the writer, ever. You should just be experiencing the story. What is it that we need in order to pull us in?