Monday, June 5, 2017

Hooking Readers, or Why 50SOG Beats My NaNovel

Review: Wired for Story and Story Genius by Lisa Cron

Like many amateur writers, I thought knowing how to write beautiful language (English, in my case), following the rules of grammar and including the occasional poetic passage, was the key to producing a winning novel. NaNoWriMo showed me I could produce the volume of words needed to successfully do that.

I have spent months of concentrated effort, writing and plotting and editing and rewriting, but my NaNovel is still a flat thing. So uninviting, my spouse wouldn't read it. Worse, if I hadn't written it, I wouldn't read it.

Meanwhile, so many poorly-written novels full of one-dimensional characters and grammatical errors galore—Fifty Shades of Grey is the iconic example—top the charts and capture the reader's dollar. Yes, even mine.

Fortunately for me, I latched onto these two works by Lisa Cron, They not only tell me why my fiction books are not absorbing, but provide a step-by-step plan to help me correct the issue.

Wired for Story

Why does the engaging story pull us in, over the bumps of typos and plot errors, kludgy scene development and character description? In short, why does Fifty Shades of Grey with its oft-reviewed flaws and derivative nature top the charts and launch a successful movie series on top of its publishing success? Cron argues that our brains are prepared to listen and heed stories of a particular kind. More, that our own brains reward us when we spend time absorbed in such a tale.

But it isn't just any story. The tale that rewards us is one that promises a lesson—and then delivers. The protagonist must confront a choice that matters to his or her life. Whatever choice is made, the consequences that follow are the lesson our brains reward us for learning. Such learning, even through the mythical lessons of others' success or failure, is a survival mechanism.

So: Should Joe have bacon or kippers for breakfast? Not a world-shaking or life-changing choice.

Except... what if choosing bacon meant that Joe would soon be in a battle for his life, because of a mutated pestilence that had infected the swine from which the bacon was made? To catch the reader's attention, the story must show right from the beginning the serious nature of Joe's breakfast choice, and then incorporate the consequences in a way that rewards the expectant reader.

According to Cron, it isn't the obviousness of the dilemma, but the way it is presented—the way it is written—that absorbs that survival skill in the brain, and rewards the ardent listener to a well-told story.

Story Genius
If story is the critical element of a successful, engaging novel (using the brain science presented in Wired for Story), how do we write to reveal the heart of the story? That's the thrust of Cron's second book on story creation, presented as a series of steps for us writers, with a chapter-by-chapter example of story development from real life that follows these guidelines.

Think of that old joke, "What's the book about?" "Oh, it's about 350 pages.." If you cannot summarize the key thought, the chief dilemma, in your novel before you write it, chances are good it will not be there to inveigle the reader after it is written, either.

I was so taken by these concepts that I have planned my Camp NoNo project around it for this coming July. If Cron's instructions can resuscitate the story structure for my ailing NaNovels, I'll be ahead of the game for November.