A few months ago, a friend of mine suggested that everything in a good (or great) story comes down to a writer’s ability to create a believable story world. More concerned with creating genuine characters and coming up with an acceptable plot at the time, I was somewhat skeptical, (because of my belief in Zadie Smith’s 4th rule of writing – Avoid your weaknesses (which for me had to do with setting). [More on that here, Rules for Writing.]
Of course, my problem at the time stemmed from the idea that a story is put together bit by bit, rather than something that is created whole. All in the same moment. Plus, I am a fly at the seat of your pants writer while my friend had a better grasp on undertaking the whole. Either way, in the last two months I have come across several novels that are so well put together that I am beginning to believe that even though having a believable story world matters, getting the reader into the story and keeping them there, starts inevitably through your delightful characters.
According to Donald Maass in his novel, The Fire in Fiction, you should use your characters (their experiences and opinions) to engage your readers, because that is what helps them to fully experience the piece. Don’t believe me? Try reading Uglies, The Maze Runner and Across the Universe. In each of these novels, the authors transport us to unimaginable worlds, by giving us characters we can root for, characters who are doing something from page, whether they are in the future, a secluded location or out of space. The location, setting is like the filler, the backdrop for the piece, that will help us get a deeper impression. But then every story required either more or less of this to feel whole.
Or maybe this is one reason why outliners seem to have an advantage over plodders, but hopefully, thankfully in the end after we’ve all worked out everything, we will realize that with our own group of merry men and women (our first readers), we get to see where we went wrong or what needs more work. Because after reading all those “how to write a novel” books, the only thing that will tell us if we have succeeded or failed is our readers, and while you cannot please everyone, constructing a tight story will be worth it for the reader(s) who gets our work, and can follow the entire story.
The reader will get into the story not just based on how believable the setting is, but also based on how our characters move around in the story world. They will observe what is happening to them, and if we do our jobs right, they will agree to follow these characters because something about their lives will ring out as true, even if they are faced with insurmountable odds. Because a story is crafted from beginning to end, even if we have to paint it a little at a time. So sustain the reader’s interest. Transport them to a place they haven’t been before and them keep them wanting more. This is the craft of a writer. Now, let’s begin!