Six impossible things

Little things

The subject matter of a story is seldom what really makes it interesting to a reader. A great idea that can be summed up in one tantalizing sentence may attract attention, but what keeps the reader going past the first page is a combination of the subject matter, the way the story is told, and whatever the particular reader brings to the story in terms of life experience, curiosity, prior knowledge, personal taste, and a dozen other things. The writer can only control two out of those three things, the subject matter and the way the story is told, and of those two, the subject matter is the least important. Done right, the hero/heroine’s struggle to save a stray dog or repair an old house can be riveting, while his/her desperate attempts to save the universe can end up being dull and boring.

Yet a lot of writers, especially genre writers, seem to believe that the only stories worth writing are “big” stories and/or wildly original ideas. They act as if no readers will be interested unless the hero/heroine isn’t dealing with shattering, life-changing events…preferably large-scale events that affect the whole town, the whole country, or the whole world.

Which is fine, if that’s the kind of story the writer is interested in writing. It becomes a problem when writers think they have to write about something big…especially if they define “something big” as Saving The World, when what they really want to write about is the way their main character deals with finding a birthday gift for their kid after a car breakdown has just wiped out the family budget. And it’s a problem because, in my experience, 95% of writers do a better job when they are writing about things that interest them, things they love reading, things they want to write about.

Doing the best possible job is important because, as I mentioned earlier, it’s actually more important than the subject matter. A well-told story is more likely to sell and be read than one that is clumsy, regardless of how original or dramatic the fundamental idea or situation is. It’s just a bit less obvious to some folks what “well-told” means when the central story problem is small, quiet, and personal rather than world-changing.

The basic technique for getting the reader involved is the same in both cases: presenting the reader with a character who is interesting and/or sympathetic, and for whom this particular small, quiet, personal problem is important for reasons that are understandable and believable. It isn’t necessary to exaggerate the importance of saving a puppy into something that must matter to the whole world, or even to all the other characters in the story. In fact, when the writer suddenly throws in the fact that the alien starship will destroy the Earth if they don’t get that puppy back in good shape, it usually doesn’t work very well (though it would be a fine twist in the right sort of comedy).

The reason upping the ante with an alien threat doesn’t work is that what the main character has, presumably, been caring about in the story so far is the puppy, not the whole Earth. Sure, anybody worthy of being a main character ought to care about the Earth being destroyed, if only because they will go up with it. But if the writer has done a proper job of getting the reader involved, the reader is already invested in the well-being of the puppy. Yeah, we also care about the Earth not getting blown up, but that’s not the story we thought we were reading. The focus of the central story problem has shifted so abruptly that it gave everybody mental whiplash.

Usually, this kind of thing happens either because the author got cold feet halfway through the story and decided their original small idea just wasn’t enough, or because the author got to a point in the plot where some major twist had to happen, and to them “major” means that it must be large-scale, regardless of the context so far. But “a major turn in the plot” always has to be considered in the context of the story that is being told. If the plot revolves around an eleven-year-old kid trying to get a pet puppy, the big twist has to be “big” in the context of the story. It needs to introduce an obstacle that seems insurmountable to the eleven-year-old protagonist. Getting mugged by the school bully, who takes the money the kid was going to use to buy the puppy, would work just fine, because it is a problem that is in the same scale as the story. A sudden threat to blow up the Earth is a lot harder to make work in a book about saving a puppy, because it’s almost always too big for the story so far. Sometimes, proper foreshadowing and setup can make it work, but only when the aliens are the real central story problem…in which case, the book isn’t actually about saving a puppy at all.

The other common reason for this kind of whiplash-inducing shift in mid-book is that the author has had a great new idea halfway through, and never goes back to harmonize the two parts of the story. When this happens, one can go back to the first half and put in some setup, so that the change in focus is more gradual and satisfyingly foreshadowed; one can tone down the second half so that it is closer to the tone and scale of the first half (OK, the aliens aren’t threatening to blow up Earth; they just want the puppy as a pet for one of their kids); or one can separate the two ideas and write one story about an eleven-year-old who wants a puppy, and a different story about an eleven-year-old who saves the world from alien invaders.

Of course, there’s a long tradition of opening books with a relatively small problem that leads the main character deeper and deeper into the weeds, until the true, world-shattering threat is revealed. Unfortunately, this really only works when the world-shattering threat is meant to have been the central story problem all along, and has been properly foreshadowed. By the time Frodo gets out of the Shire, I doubt that there’s a reader left who really believes that the central story problem is getting the Ring to Rivendell, even if they couldn’t guess from the number of pages left.

  1. And of course whether a reader considers it to be a major plot twist may also depend on the experiences of the reader. My husband recommended “Anathem” to me. I found it quite jarring, because there was so much world-building followed by a bizarre (to me) plot twist where “aliens” appeared. My husband, with his scientific background, caught on to much more of the foreshadowing and was totally unsurprised by the twist. He found my complaint that “I didn’t think this was an alien book” completely ridiculous. But as a reader, I felt betrayed.

  2. That drives me a little crazy, to be honest. I LOVE a good, quiet, elegant story. And I usually have to go to indie published authors for it, because publishers aren’t taking a chance on them anymore (that I’ve found lately).

    It’s what I love so much about Josephine Tey’s ‘The Franchise Affair’. It’s quiet, and slow, and though the stakes are reasonably high, you never feel oppressed by them.

  3. Perhaps I’ve just seen some poorly-chosen examples, then. Either way, none of my books are that! Even the one that’s not small and quiet isn’t easily summed-up.

  4. We just got a puppy. The vaccine shots, food, training, etc. are adding up fast. Not a cheap alternative. 🙂

    • I adopted a couple of kittens once, feral orphans two weeks old. They cost me thousands of bucks in medical bills before they were done. “Free kittens” is like “jumbo shrimp.”

      • I joke about “free cats” every time I pay the bill at the vet’s office. They’re worth it, but they’re only free in the sense of “The first one’s….”

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