For the past few weeks, I’ve been shoving my story ideas into the “traditional” story structure (a.k.a. Three Acts/Four Quadrants). The idea is cool and technically, the story works. I have the ~5-10% “inciting incident,” the 25% “point of no return,” the 50% midpoint/turning point, and the 75% “all is lost” milestones. But it isn’t working for me on an interest level. So what gives?
After whirling on this for several nights, I thought I would approach this from a different angle. Let’s forget about the technical stuff for a moment. What stories have I really enjoyed and why? Here are my thoughts:
AN INTRIGUING PREMISE (NOT THE SAME AS A CONCEPT)
Maybe I’m in the minority, but I don’t read books by genre. All I care about is the PREMISE of a story. (I will elaborate on the difference between premise and concept a little later.) If a premise is unique, I will pick up the book from a shelf in the bookstore (because I’m an old fashioned person who still goes to Barnes and Noble) or buy the ebook from Amazon. If it’s REALLY good, I may also buy a hard copy. Double sales for THAT author!
Now, there’s a HUGE difference between a novel’s concept and a novel’s premise. A concept is just an idea. For example, in The Hunger Games, one could argue that the basic idea is a David vs. Goliath story. For me, as a reader, that’s nice but hardly unique. It is the PREMISE of the story that makes the Hunger Games so interesting to me. (And why I have both the ebook AND the hard copy.)
A story’s premise is much more specific than a story’s concept. There is conflict in a premise. In Hunger Games, the premise is one girl’s fight against an evil post-apocalyptic government. Let’s thrown in an annual gladiator match with children from each district, and one young girl offering to take her little sister’s place in these barbaric games. Now, THAT is an intriguing premise that will make me as a reader part with my valuable TIME and MONEY!
READER CONNECTION WITH THE PROTAGONIST
I’m going to run with this Hunger Games example because quite frankly, I think Suzanne Collin’s execution was pretty close to perfect. For those of you who haven’t read this book, Katniss Everdeen is the hero in this story. It is set in a post-apocalyptic U.S. that has been divided into thirteen districts. Katniss and her family are from the poorest district and struggle to survive. When her younger sister Prim is chosen for the Hunger Games, Katniss volunteers to take her place.
All of this takes place within the first two chapters of this book. Now, I have nothing in common with Katniss. I’m not poor and I have plenty to eat (some would argue too much to eat.). Her personality was a little on the surly side, so I don’t even think we’d be friends in real life. But I was still emotionally invested in Katniss Everdeen by the end of the first chapter!
Why? She is smart, honorable and loyal, but such an underdog. There was something visceral about her impoverished situation that moved me. Whenever I meet a great, hardworking person in real life who is a victim of circumstances, I want to help him or her in anyway I can. That’s how I felt about Katniss. And that’s how I want readers to feel about my protagonist.
Not every protagonist you create has to be an underdog from page one. But I think the best novels are the ones where you’re rooting for the protagonist to win against the odds.
MAKE EVERY WORD COUNT
I don’t have a lot of free time, so when I am blessed with a few minutes to look at a book, I just want the author to get to the point. So I skim. A LOT.
Call it ADHD if you want to, but I will lose interest in a story if it has too much technical jargon or too many flowery descriptions. This is the main reason I just can’t get into the second book in Hugh Howey’s Wool series. And I won’t be buying the third book.
I know I keep bringing up The Hunger Games, but it really is one of the best books for pacing and information exposition that I’ve ever read. I didn’t have to skim that much of it. With the exception of the cat descriptions (which were unnecessary in my mind), just about every single word moved the story forward. This is something to consider when you write your book. Make every sentence count.
A DASH OF ROMANCE
I used to be a voracious romance reader in my late teens and early twenties for two main reasons. First, my parents strictly forbade any “smut novels” in the house when I was growing up. So, of course, the first year I lived on my own, that was all I read. Second, I was searching for “Mr. Right” so I could empathize with the women in these novels.
Honestly, I read so many of them that I’m now sick of the entire Romance genre. But, I do admit that I still like seeing a SMALL thread of romance in every novel that I read. In Hunger Games, Katniss is in a love triangle with two infatuated boys (Gabe and Peeta). It wasn’t the main focus of the story, but I do think it added another level of interesting tension to the entire story.
TO MY READERS: What are your favorite books and why? What was it about them that caught and held your interest? Are there any books where you own both ebook and hard copy versions? Please let me know! I’d love to hear your thoughts!