Rethinking Your Story: Take the Reader for the Ride of Their Life

The Third in a Series on What Elevates a Story to Greatness

If sports analogies aren’t your cup of tea, then allow me to apologize in advance.  But today’s case is a great example of how thinking differently can make the difference between a bench player and a superstar. 

Which is also true in writing.

I’m going to make the safe assumption that not many of you know who Stephen Strasburg is. 

He was the first player taken in the first round of Major League Baseball’s free agent draft last June.  A very big deal if you’re a baseball player.  Sort of like having your first novel picked up for a seven figure advance with a Spielberg movie deal attached, all before anyone outside of New York knows your name.

Strasburg signed for a draft record $15 million deal.  He’s been called the next Nolan Ryan, due in large part to the fact that he can throw a baseball consistently between 98 and 100 miles an hour (he can gas it up to 102 on occasion), not to mention that his curveball breaks like a hair-pin turn at Monte Carlo.

All that, and they just sent him to the minor leagues. 

Even though he had by far the best spring of any pitcher on his team (the sorry Washington Nationals).  Even though yesterday he struck out eight hitters in four Grapefruit League (spring training) innings.

Why?  Because he isn’t ready.  That’s a direct quote from the people who made the decision.  Why isn’t he ready?

Because of the way he thinks. 

He thinks like a rookie.  What made him successful at the Division-1 college level — he just reared back and blew the ball past everyone — won’t make him consistently successful at the professional level.

Just like what makes you the darling of your critique group won’t get you published.

In Strasburg’s case, how he thinks translates to how he does certain things – subtle things, stuff than only experienced pros usually understand – on the pitching mound.

The moral of this story:

At the major league level it isn’t just about your astounding talent or, if you’re a rookie, even your statistics.  It’s about doing things a certain way, the proven way, the expected way, the right way. 

A way that says you’re ready.

Once again, this holds true with writing, as well. 

The higher you aspire, the higher the bar.

Last post we looked at one of the ways to think differently about our stories — create an “arena” within which a story unfolds that is, in and of itself, as compelling and mysterious and fresh as the character and plot elements you use.  Invite us into a new and fascinating world.  Allow us to experience this place, this culture, this dimension, this state of being.

Here’s another one.  Similar, but slightly different.  Because with this little piece of storytelling gold, you throw in the realm of relationships and consequences along with setting and ambiance.

If you discard this notion because of the fact it seems obvious you’ll be missing an opportunity.  Because applying this principle is precisely what successful authors do in great stories, so much so that it becomes an essential criteria for a great story.

This’ll sound like telling a basketball player to play better defense.  Or a chef to pay more attention to presentation.  Or a doctor to work on her bedside manner.  Notice how, in all these examples, the forthcoming advice in question doesn’t pertain to core talent or skill, it is directed toward a nuance, a sense of application. 

It allows them to become more effective at what they do.

And as writers, this simple edge might be the very thing that elevates you toward that tiny percentage of authors who publish.

All that said, here’s today’s way to think differently:

Strive to give your reader an exteme vicarious experience.

Look up the word vicarious: experienced or realized through imaginative or sympathetic participation in the experience of another (Mirriam-Webster).

Make us fall in love.  Make us feel terror and elation.  Make us taste the moment along with the characters.  Transcend the mere observance of an experience by allowing the reader to, as much as possible, actually be there.  Make it easy for the reader to believe this moment is about them.

This embraces the entire storytelling experience. 

It is bringing your characters to life with depth and realism that is tangible and visceral.  It is a writing voice that imbues each moment with urgency without smothering it with useless shades of purple.  It is the subtle and sometimes diabolical psychological manipulation of reader emotions and images through context and implication. 

It is an understanding that less is more and that anticipation is the sweetest foreplay of all.

There is no formula for vicarious writing, other than delivering each of the six core competencies of successful storytelling at an incredible high level of proficiency.  It can be learned, but before that happens it must be chosen.

It’s like telling a rookie to play better defense against Lebron James.  Or telling Stephen Strasburg he has to be quicker to the plate out of the stretch or players like Jacoby Ellsbury will steal him blind.

Once understood, once embraced and once mastered, vicarious storytelling is the key to reader enjoyment and the ultimate success of your story.

The sooner you begin thinking about it – choosing it – rather than waiting for it to simply show up in your stories as a result of all your practice and study, the quicker it will manifest as a key element of your writing playbook.


Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)

10 Responses to Rethinking Your Story: Take the Reader for the Ride of Their Life

  1. Re the less is more: With writing, we want and need to allow the reader to contribute to the experience.

    This is the difference between, “Watching the fiery sunset, we kicked back and chatted a bit” and a three-paragraph discourse on the effect of atmosphere and clouds on the setting sun.

    John Olson calls this effect, “writing in the shadows.” No spoon-feeding your reader, please. It’s not only a bit insulting, but also slows the pace, kills the mood you’re working hard to create and throws the reader’s attention off the story.

  2. Martha Miller

    I think you’ve got something really important to tell us here, Larry, but I’m not quite getting it yet. A little more, please? Maybe a reference to a book or author particularly good at this nuanced way of writing?

  3. @Martha — as I mentioned, this is close to “arena” in terms of delivering a vicarious experience. It’s obvious how taking us to a “new world” or environment creates such a vicarious journey. What I’m suggesting here is to strive for that beyond arena, and do it in terms of relationships, stakes and urgency.

    You probably don’t watch reality shows, but go with me on this one: there are three reality shows that are orders of magnitude more successful than others: The Bachelor, Survivor and The Amazing Race. Why? Because other reality shows are more like a zoo, we are looking in and simply observing. But these three shows “draw” us in, they makes us feel what it would be like, make us care about what it would be like, they deliver a “vicarious” experience.

    It’s really that simple. You could say this is about simply writing a more powerful story, and you’d be right… but this is a way to explain how to get there, what to shoot for. Shoot for a great ride, one that puts you in the seat, rather than a great zoo, or an interesting voyeuristic experience.

    Maybe it boils down to take. When a voyeuristic experience becomes powerful enough, it becomes a vicarious one. It’s a qualitative discussion, therefore one that defines formula or “the X steps to getting there.” We have to feel our way toward it.

    The Lovely Bones did it well… we felt heaven. Jurassic Park did it well, we ran from those monsters. The Davinci Code? Not so much, that was more a fascination and a curiousity than a vicarious ride.

  4. I loved this post, sports analogies and all. In my circles, we’re always talking about unpublished writers who win contests and garner accolades, but aren’t published. Why? I believe some of the ideas you’ve been offering up in this series are why, and especially today’s point.

    @Martha, I agree that specific examples would be helpful. For me someone who does this really well is Suzanne Brockmann, especially in her Troubleshooters series.

    Thanks, Larry!

  5. To all… I think it would be fun and productive if everyone could recommend an author or a specific book(s) that deliver on this count, that are successful not only because of their compelling stories, but specificially, because of the “vicarious ride” they deliver for the reader.

    Interesting to note, too, that this is only one of many ways to make a story great. My favorite author is Colin Harrison, but not because of the ride he creates, but because of the astounding voice he uses. Mysteries are hard on this count, the puzzle is as much the attraction as the ride.

    The first book I can remember that took me for a ride was “Endless Love” by Scott Spencer. Shows you how old I am… that was at an impressionable time in my life, which is why some “rides” hit us stronger than others.

  6. Steve

    Thanks Larry. Not hard to grasp, just really hard to comment on. One thing I seem to keep holding on to though, is the depth of a character is equal to the depth of their relationship with other characters and the world in which they “live.”

    Don’t write a story about a three dimensional character in a two dimensional world?

    Amazing Race: Real people, real relationships, real places, real consequences.

    Big Brother: Real people?

  7. Pingback: Rethinking Your Story: What’s Your Favorite “Vicarious” Ride?

  8. Supernatural has me believing I can slay demons. The characters are so real I can predict what Dean or Sam will say next. The West Wing had me believing I could happily sit down with Josh, Toby and the others and contribue something to an electoral campaign. Everwood had me wishing I lived there. Jane Eyre? A hymn for all us plain but smart and resourceful women. Any TV drama that hooks you and any book that left you slightly disappointed to find yourself back in your own armchair when you finished the last page is one that took you on the right kind of ride.

  9. I’m a bit late, but would like to offer up Adriana Trigiani, a multi-talented author who started her career writing for The Cosby Show and then screenplays before realizing she wanted “her whole story” to be told, not just bits and pieces chosen from the screen world. I suggest starting with her first series, Big Stone Gap. I love the characters more than any other aspect of her works, but she has IT where all aspects of novel writing are concerned. I found it hard to believe, when finishing all three books in the BSG series that this was fiction. The stories felt that real.
    Now on to part 4 – thanks Larry!

  10. Larry, you jolly old soul, I will say this: I just finished reading the first two books in Stieg Larsson’s Girl trilogy, and those two books transported me into an arena like nobody else has that I can remember. Absolutely fantastic.

    I feel similar about Vonnegut, regarding a lot of what you’re talking about here. In every paragraph he wrote, I was feeling and thinking exactly what he meant for me to be feeling and thinking. And even though he never drew conclusions for me, I always drew the conclusions he wanted.

    Not sure how to say it better than that.