Monday, September 8, 2014

The One Secret of Great Storytelling to End All Secrets

There are plenty of tips and secrets to great storytelling, but I believe this one trumps them all. If you can do this, you can't fail as a storyteller. 

Disclaimer: Now, I'm going to say off the bat that I'm not going to go into detail about how to accomplish this secret--there are many and varied ways to do it--but only to tell you that, somehow, you must.

So what is the secret? You must make your readers feel emotion. Emotion of some kind. Any kind. It doesn't have to be good emotion, or the kind that makes them shed a tear. If they have any kind of emotional reaction to your story, you have succeeded.

For example, if Stephen King's readers cringe, or cover their eyes yelling, "Ooh, that's gross!" then he has succeeded. If they laugh at a joke or can't wait to see what happens next, he was succeeded. If they feel sympathy for one of his characters, yup, he has succeeded.

This may seem like an obvious tip, but it never ceases to amaze me how many authors don't focus on this. They focus on other details like action or description, which are important on their own, but always ask if what you're writing is evoking the emotion you're going for. If you want the reader to be afraid, is your imagery dark enough? Is your mood bleak enough? If you want them to be on edge, is your character jittery enough? Are your sentences short? Do they read fast enough? All these things are important to get your emotion across.

This is true for all aspects of the story. Let's take villains as an example See, in my opinion, there are really only two umbrella responses to a story's villain. 1) Either you have an emotional response to the villain--love or hate them, which means you want to see what happens to them in the end--or you react the other way. 

2) Meh. That's right. If you aren't having an emotional reaction to the villain, then you simply don't care, which means you'd just as soon be doing something else than reading the story. Of course, it's not just villains this is true of. It's also true of the hero/heroine, the conflict, or the plot in general. 

What not to do: I love George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire. I love most of the characters and story lines. But there's one that I don't: Theon Greyjoy. I just don't care about him. It's not that I hate him or love to hate him. And really, his plight should invoke pity, if not compassion. Yeah, I don't care. The only emotion I feel surrounding his story line is hating reading about it because it bores me to tears. I. Just. Don't. Care. Now, maybe that's just me. I'm sure there are people out there who like reading about Theon. I'm just not one of them. That said, Theon is not a hero. He's an honorless, low-life, somewhat perverted scumbag. The fact that he has no redeeming qualities has, I'm certain, a lot to do with why I don't care about him. I don't mean to turn this into a discussion of character, so bottom line, don't do this. Make your readers care. If you can accomplish that, you're golden.

As I said, I won't tell you have to evoke said emotion. It's a mixture of great premise, mood, characters, writing, editing, and everything else that makes a great story. But if you can make your readers feel true emotion, you've already succeeded. 

I remember when I was first writing Citadels of Fire, I workshopped one of the first chapters in a writing group. I was super nervous about it (I was a serious greenie then) and I worked and re-worked the scene before sending it. It was supposed to be a very melancholy scene, and I wasn't sure I was bringing that emotion across. 

We were required to read part of our pages aloud in the group, so I read the end of the scene, the last few paragraphs. As soon as I finished, one of the gals in the group turned the corners of her mouth down and she said, "Awww."

Oh the triumph! She felt what I wanted her to feel! It was the first time I remember succeeding as an author. Find that emotion, and your readers will keep turning pages.

What do you think? Agree? Disagree?


  1. Readers do have to connect on an emotional level. I'm still working on that with my current manuscript.

    1. Me too. Part of my editing process is to ask myself if there's enough visceral stuff, one way or the other, for my readers to connect to. :D

  2. That's the difference between good books and good movies. We have to care.