3 Not-So-Secret Yet Spectacularly Effective Ways to Blow Readers Away

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.


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.


Filed under Six Core Competencies, Write better (tips and techniques)

4 Responses to 3 Not-So-Secret Yet Spectacularly Effective Ways to Blow Readers Away

  1. Some good ideas and well explained.

    Thanks for the post.

    I’m enjoying following your articles here.

    Your method of editing posts is remarkably similar to mine. 😉 It’s funny how those small typos, ackward sentences become so clear after the publish button is clicked.

  2. I notice my typos best in the preview screen, too!

    This was a stomper, Larry. I have a friend who’s a well respected TV presenter, literary critic and author. But although I love her dearly, she’s literary snob and almost vomits if I mention Dan Brown or J.K.Rowling to her. (It’s actually wicked fun to do it on purpose. ;)) But I think she’s missing a huge point, unless she’s deliberately chosen to have the respect of a few other other academics and literary critics instead of posts of cash and popularity. The points you mention above are the golden keys; they make millionaires out of good writers. I adore the Harry Potter books. She writes brilliantly, but our whole family re-reads them because of their cinematographic qualities, and because of the points you make above. We are totally engaged with the people -the world -she has created. By far the biggest reason for films that flop is writers thinking they don’t have to do what you suggest above. take Burn After reading, for example. I hated it. The plot was intriguing enough to carry me for a bit, but couldn’t empathise with or give a shit about any of the characters.

    Keep them coming, Larry! I’m adding a link to this site on my blog. If all the folk who enjoy me discussing writing jump ship and come here, I’ll probably have to ‘retire’ and take up knitting, but at least I’ll know they’re in good hands!

  3. PS Any chance of you getting the Ajax Comments Editor plugin? You’ll attract writers over here, and most of them appreciate the gesture. I keep leaving horrendous typos in your boxes, and smileys don’t ‘take’ so they just look like punctuation gone haywire.

  4. Larry,

    The farther back I dig into your archives, the grittier the tone, the more essential the gear. We’re talking steal and fire here. You have made me believe that I CAN be a writer. You have made me believe that the conflict that has kept me awake until 3 am (and made my wife come drag me out of my office to bed) is a STORY.

    This is for you, not your readers… to hell with your proofing. I have caught countless errors in years of articles. None of them mattered when I got the take away. Yeah, professionalism. Stay REAL. Spit it out. Pour it out. We’ll take it. If your readre can’t auto correct while reading, well, they should do more reading (and this is coming from an AC repairman, [with a BA in philosophy, figure that out]). Point is, you’re spilling your guts and we all get it. That’s why you can write. We all know about spell check, now it’s spell and grammer and did you fully wipe check.

    Don’t worry yourself about it. Thank you for the work you are doing. It is so very helpful. What kind of story teller am I? I take after my father. After 35 minutes and atleast 10, 30 second plus pauses, everyone in the room is uncomfortable and looking at their calendar, and if you have the intestinal, saint-like fortitude to pull thru… ugh… the life-changing POINT. You have honed my edge. I’m a planner and plotter. Outlines and diagrams and pre-writing interviews with each and every extra in the book. I would not have known how to hit dritical speed without your disections. Keep it up.