We’ve all heard – and I like to quote this one – that there’s nothing new under the writing sun. I’ve also come to know that if you rename something and view it from a new context it becomes startlingly fresh and powerful.
Such is the case with these three little magic pills of storytelling. They’re already embedded in everything we know about building characters and plotting stories, but when you yank them out and look closer, you’ll see a magnificent opportunity. One that you may not be fully seizing in your storytelling.
Take the Reader for a Vicarious Ride
Movie people like to describe tentpole pictures as a good ride. If you look at all the comic book flicks and count the tickets sold to otherwise sophisticated adults… if you wonder why books like The DaVinci Code and The Lovely Bones and Harry Potter crash through the tipping point to become literary phenomena… if the allure of science fiction and fantasy has heretofore escaped you… then you need to understand the power of delivering a vicarious experience to your readers.
The key word here is vicarious. Taking the reader someplace fascinating. Someplace dangerous and wondrous. Someplace delicious and forbidden. Someplace they’ll never really go in the real world.
That someplace can be the centerpiece of the story – in The Lovely Bones the reader was literally taken to heaven – or it can simply be the writer’s choice of setting, like Tom Clancy placing his story of intrigue and betrayal on a submarine instead of in a bakery.
And by the way, this is precisely why pornography continues to outsell just about every other genre of literature. Readers always respond to a vicarious experience.
As writers we have the power to go anywhere. Take your reader on the ride of a lifetime and everything else about your story will suddenly become more intense and interesting.
The Context of Hopeful Empathy
Character 101 tells us to make our heroes empathetic and our bad guys despicable. Good enough, but perhaps not enough.
A better strategy is to make the reader invest hope in the character’s fate, by sending them on a journey that the reader will feel in the deepest crevices of their psyche. We know the reader needs to root for the hero, but when that rooting is representative of a personal hope– survival, romance, wealth, saving the world, etc. – then the hook is set even deeper.
Save the World. Literally.
Not all stories are tentpole in scope or ambition. But if you want to crank your chances of selling, then consider going there. Make the stakes of your story bigger than the characters themselves. Make the survival of an entire community, or even the world itself, the thing your hero must achieve.
Less is more goes out the window here – think huge.
I coached a writer once who had a killer idea about a young woman who was visited by the spirit of Joan of Arc. A good start, perhaps interesting enough in its own right. But when we hit on the idea of having Joan summon the young woman to a mission with apocalyptic stakes, the story suddenly exploded into a whole new realm of possibility.
The real indicator that her story had legs was the fact that when she pitched it to her critique group it commenced a rousing debate about religion that went on for months. Dan Brown, for one, can attest to the power of that, and he has about a billion dollars in the bank to show for it.
Heroism plays better on a bigger stage.
Writer’s Live and Die by Their Choices
There’s nothing wrong with small, personal stories that dive into the mysterious microcosm of the human spirit. Hey, there’s great Chinese food and there’s great Moroccan, there’s a market for both out there. Except, one is huge and the other, not so much.
If your stories aren’t working as well as you’d like – which could simply mean that they’re not selling – then consider these three subtleties and see if there’s a way to make the reading experience more vicarious, more hopeful and more universally consequential.
FOOTNOTE: A QUICK APOLOGY
My last post went out to subscribers riddled with typos. I apologize for this, and will crank up my proofreading efforts substantially.
In the case of that post, I was unaware of specifically when the Powers That Be actually distribute the entry to the subscriber base. When I write a post I always proof the hell out of it, then come back 5 to 20 minutes later and proof it again from the Storyfix page itself. That always results in catching more glitches, which are then easily edited away using the miracle of WordPress.
This time, though, the distribution occurred moments after the original post, meaning I didn’t get the benefit of that online proofing phase.
My bad, won’t happen again. I’m not promising a completely typo-free piece every time, only that I’ll do my best to make it happen.