Five Reasons I’ll Keep Reading Your Story
  • Actually, there are many reasons — many more than five — that I’ll keep reading your story, but there are also at least as many reasons I won’t.

    (For example: He had nothing in the way of a like God-concept, and at that point maybe even less than nothing in terms of interest in the whole thing; he treated prayer like setting an over-temp according to a box’s direction. Thinking of it as talking to the ceiling was somehow preferable to imagining talking to Nothing. And he found it embarrassing to get down on his knees in his underwear, and like the other guys in the room he always pretended his sneakers were like way under the bed and he had to stay down there a while to find them and get them out, when he prayed, but he did it. — David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest)

    Here, then, in no particular order, are five reasons I will:

    1. You can sustain a long sentence.

    I like long sentences that sing. I always have. It’s become cliche these days to talk about “simplicity in writing” and “clarity is king” and so forth — and it’s incontestably true that clarity is the principle thing: you must make yourself understood. But in delicate hands, long sentences are the opposite of unclear: they are the very acme of clarity. Here’s an example:

    “If it made any real sense — and it doesn’t even begin to — I think I might be inclined to dedicate this account, for whatever it’s worth, especially if it’s the least bit ribald in parts, to the memory of my late, ribald stepfather, Robert Agadganian, Jr.” — J.D. Salinger, De Daumier Smith’s Blue Period

    A writer who can sustain a long sentence is a writer who thinks clearly.

    2. You’ve given me something to fret over

    You’ve established a series of obstacles that in reason interest readers, and you’ve doled that information out gradually, feeding it to readers step-by-step, in a way that keeps us hungry for more. The obstacles your characters encounter are not inconsequential or meaningless obstacles — i.e. your lead character’s biggest conflict is not what color she should paint her nails — but you’ve instead asked yourself: are my characters’ values important enough for readers to fret over?

    3. Your plot shows your inexhaustible imagination

    Plot — true plot — is difficult. It’s plausible but unpredictable. It presents a sequence of events that progresses logically and builds toward a climax. Note that: your plot should build. It can build slowly, as in Anna Kerenina, or quickly, as in Raiders of the Lost Ark. This means, among other things, that your plot culminates in a climax. Climax is the point at which your plot brings together all the major elements of your story and then explodes. Good plots are not action alone. They are an integration of action and ideas. Good plots do not just raise questions. They raise questions and answer them, which in turn raises more questions which are in turn answered, and so on. That is partially what I mean when I say that plot is “a sequence of events that progresses logically yet unpredictably.” Good plots, through a process of satisfying your curiosity and then piquing it more, keep you wondering. They hook you and reel you in. “Good plots stem from characters under adversity,” wrote Crawford Killian.

    4. Your story is about something

    This means you’ve woven meaning into your story. (This, incidentally, is one of the many links between literature and philosophy.) That meaning can be purely historical, like Gone With the Wind, or it can be abstract, like Bladerunner. It can be a basic love story with a road plot, like Wild at Heart, or a love story with a horror plot, like House of Leaves. It is, in any case, a story about something — a story that appeals to things real within the body of the human experience, or “the human heart,” to use Faulkner’s beautiful phrase.

    5. Your characters are believable AND remarkable

    Readers like reading about exceptional people. We’re fascinated by antagonists like Hannibal Lecter and Mr. Frost, who are infernal but formidable, wicked but outstanding.

    Readers are equally or more fascinated by protagonists like Sherlock Holmes or Ellen Ripley, who are rarified but entirely human.

    Yet it’s difficult to create believable characters like this.

    Part of the trick is to develop a storyline (i.e. plot) that can showcase your characters’ virtues and vices. (It is in this sense that I refer to plot as a vehicle.)

    Another part of the trick is to be able to show your characters’ motivation. In a real sense, the process of creating memorable characters is nothing more — or less — than showing what motivates them. This means that you know your characters inside and out, every bit as much as you know, for example, the human heart.






About The Author

The sawed-off shotgun of literary pulp.

3 Responses and Counting...

  • Johi Kokjohn-Wagner 04.25.2013

    You forgot one.
    6. The presence of a violently green leisure suit.

  • Ha-ha!

    Actually, Johi, in your case, it’s absolutely true.

    Thank you for dropping by.

  • doc

    A fifth man, older, sat by himself in front of a bowl of peanuts, nursing a lifelong rage and a glass of rye

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