"And Then What Happened?" – What makes for compelling stories

I won’t “James Michener” you and talk about how at the beginning of language, people were sitting around bonfires telling stories. Let’s all agree that they did. The oral tradition goes back as far as we do, certainly, and probably further back to the Neanderthals, Early Modern Humans. We tell stories for a variety of reasons, to pass down rules or parables, to give warnings, to present modes of behavior, to entertain, to explain the unexplained, and for myriad other reasons. Yet, if those stories don’t compel the listener/reader, we won’t get a chance to finish presenting them because our audience will wander off. They will vote with their dollars or their attention and go to some other compelling bit of prose, a TV show, a movie, etc.

So, how do we keep them? How do we make our audience want to turn the page to see what happens next?

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you, “the cliffhanger.” Let’s think about that word for a second. Imagine the following scene.

Trevor’s sword flew out of his hands and crashed on the rocks below.

“I have you now,” William slashed a fatal blow.

Trevor stumbled backwards and careened over the edge. He lashed out a hand hung suspended. His fingers searched for a hand hold along the pebbles at the edge of the world.

“Still alive? Let’s fix that, shall we?” William put the heel of his black patent leather shoe on Trevor’s scrabbling fingers and pressed.

Trevor’s scream echoed off the canyon walls.

Trevor is hanging by his fingernails. He is scrabbling to survive! Will he live? Will he be safe? What’s going to happen? The music swells, and the screen goes black. “Tune in next week for the next thrilling episode of …” whatever they want you to watch next.

Hollywood has been doing something like this for over a hundred years, and other storytellers have been using that technique to keep people excited to see what’s next for much longer.

Any time we can bring that sense of urgency to our writing our readers will be thrilled to follow along.

She whirled at the scrape of a boot along the charred floor. A shadow filled the doorway.

“Maria,” Nathan growled.

“What are you doing here?” She gasped.

Do we want to know? Do we care why Nathan is there? Why he is growling at her? Why is she gasping? Are they friends? Lovers? Enemies?

If we don’t want to know a little something more about what is happening, some part of us will check out, and we might never progress and finish the work. I think the same thing can be said for non-fiction, although from a different perspective. The narrative must be fascinating in some respects. And we are never more fascinated than when we see a story’s relevance to our own lives. Now, chances are we aren’t spending a lot of time hanging off a cliff, but we all know what it’s like to not know the resolution and to desperately want to know. This works best if the character has already been presented as someone we want and need to care about. That’s one of the best ways to make something relevant. Make the characters interesting and then put them into situations that test them. If a writer does that successfully, the readers find themselves being tested right along with the people in the book.

I’d love to hear what you all think about these thoughts. Do you agree that investment in the characters and then stressing those characters is a way to write compelling fiction? Do you think there are other ways to do it? Sound off below.

Thanks for reading. Tomorrow, there will be more to this story.

Sending you all of my love.

Z


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