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That Certain Something, Part II

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Nov. 7th, 2007 | 06:44 am

In an earlier entry, I talked about characteristics that might make a story rise above other stories, that make it stand out. To sum up that entry: really effective writing doesn't just do the job well, it also offers experiences that the reader craves and doesn't get elsewhere.

That craving part is the key in this entry. A good story is compelling; we already know that. Once you start reading, you're so wrapped up in the characters or problems or experience that you don't want to stop. But recently I'm coming to think consciously also about a story being attractive.

Here's what I mean: what would you say to a really well-written story with sympathetic characters, about a plumber trying to get enough customers to stay in business? Let's pretend that this hypothetical story is well-written in every respect: the characters are interesting and believable, the plumber's plight in trying to earn enough money to keep his family from falling apart constitutes meaningful stakes, the description is sharp and evocative ... still not interested? Well, maybe you are (in which case, it's a bad example), but I'm not. This might be a story that, after you've read the first 1,000 words, you can't put down because you've gotten so involved with the characters, but where it might fail is in getting you to start reading it in the first place, and then once you've read it in having delivered such a singular experience that you recommend it to all your friends. Because even if the story keeps you interested, who wants to spend their time wallowing in a plumber's financial woes? (Someone, surely, but not many people.) 

So the thing that's lacking in that hypothetically brilliantly-written story is the element of the attractive. The story needs to offer something that readers know they want. 

It might be wish-fulfillment: a down-on-his-luck plumber comes up with a new kind of faucet that makes him a millionaire overnight.
It might be a certain emotional experience: A plumber who has become cold-hearted from years with a badly-suited wife begins to remember what made life worth living for him when he befriends a deaf teenager. 

Or it might be a mystery or a puzzle: A plumber whose business is on the verge of failing finds a human finger in a customer's drain pipe, and has to figure out who the murderer is and who the victim is before the murderer realizes what he knows.

It might even be an entertaining voice, or a setting that makes people happy, or any of a number of other things.

How is this different from what I was saying in my earlier entry? The earlier entry was about what makes your story not just good, but remarkable. This entry is about what makes your story not just remarkable, but attractive

So a lot of things that can make a story remarkable can serve as an attractive element, but not everything that's remarkable is necessarily attractive, and not everything that's attractive to you is necessarily attractive to a wide range of readers.

The test for an attractive element is to imagine a casual reader getting a friend interested in the story. If someone were enthusing about the story to a friend, what would they realistically have to enthuse about? This is similar to a logline, a one-line movie pitch, but it's not about summarizing the story; it's about summarizing what makes the story worth reading. Here are some examples: 

"I just read this story about this plumber, and the character kept saying these crazy things ... it made me laugh so hard I almost threw up."

or 

"I read this beautiful story ... it's really painful at the beginning, but by the end I felt so uplifted I was practically dancing." 

or 

"Hey, you have to read this story I read about this plumber who finds a finger in a drain, and there's this complete murderfest going on, and he has to be like, this detective to find out who's doing it before they kill him and chop him up and, like, shove him down a drain. It's really gross, but it also like, makes you completely tense and paranoid until you get to the end." 

Probably not all of these appeal to you, but I hope that even if the examples fall short, the point is making it across: if you can't realistically imagine someone getting another friend excited about the story with a simple explanation of what they liked, then maybe there is no attractive element to your story.

You might notice the similarity of these enthusiastic recommendations to cover blurbs, and this is not coincidence: cover blurbs are an attempt to simulate a recommendation from a friend by having a (one hopes) well-known and revered person enthusing about your story on the cover of the book. There are few things that can sell a book or get a reader to read a story as well as having someone whose taste you trust recommend it to you with a reason you find meaningful.

There are some attractive elements over which you have no control. For example, a really good picture of a vampire on the cover is enough to sell a book to some readers, but very often authors have no control over the presentation of the book. Having the following as an author is also sometimes enough in itself to sell a book (think Stephen King or John Grisham), but for your name to have that effect, you have to attract a lot of readers and please them in the first place.

The attractive element is particularly hard to find because if you get someone to actually read your story, they may find that they like it a lot, that it's really good. But since you're putting your story in their hand and they're reading it because you wrote it and gave it to them, they aren't like normal readers. Normal readers might give your book or story a second or two of consideration, and if they don't find something that they really want, they will generally just move on. If your story has an attractive element that appeals to them, and if they get some glimpse of that attractive element, there's a good chance you will have snared them and get them to read the story, which if it follows through on its promises and is compelling, might get them to start telling their friends.

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ericjamesstone

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from: ericjamesstone
date: Nov. 9th, 2007 05:37 pm (UTC)
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I think this is a very good analysis, Luc.

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