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You know that feeling you get when you read a novel and become completely lost in it? You can’t put it down, so you lose track of time. When you finally finish, you wish it would just keep going.
Isn’t that the kind of story you want to write?
Over the past year, I’ve read only a few books that I couldn’t put down. Unfortunately, several of the books I started to read didn’t keep my interest past the first few chapters. There was a time when I forced myself to finish every book I started, no matter how boring it was. But I don’t have time for that anymore. My book pile is big and my reading list is long, so if I’m not compelled by the time the second act gets underway, I move on and find something more intriguing.
As a reader, I’m on a perpetual quest for better stories. What does that mean for writers?
The Best Fiction Sticks
I’ve been thinking about what makes some books so easy to put down and what makes others impossible to let go of. After reading The Catcher in the Rye, for example, I had the strangest feeling that Holden Caulfield was a real person. I expected him to come walking around some corner and start mumbling about the lousy week he was having. This sensation lingered for a few days, both times I read the book.
But let’s go back further. I read Charlotte’s Web when I was about six years old. Then I read it again. And again, and again. I watched the animated film over and over. No matter how many times I read the book or watched the movie, I always cried at the end. To this day, quotes from the book and scenes from the film get me choked up. It’s a story that sticks.
A few years ago, I couldn’t put down The Hunger Games. I’m a science-fiction fan, so the dystopian world intrigued me, but what really kept me glued to the page was the heroine, Katniss Everdeen. She wasn’t fearless, but she was brave, strong, and honorable.
Stories like these haunt readers, lingering in hearts and minds. These are the best kinds of stories.
Writing Better Stories
If we want to write better stories, we need to read the best fiction and figure out what makes it so excellent. When I’m absorbed in a book, I always try to keep one corner of my mind focused on what the writer is doing so brilliantly to keep my full attention on the story. Some things are obvious: compelling characters, an interesting plot, realistic dialogue. Other elements of the best fiction are more elusive. Here are some observations I’ve made about how to write better stories:
Give People a Reason to Read
If I get to the third chapter of a book and still don’t care about it, I’ll probably put it in the donation pile. The characters have to want something badly enough to go out there and try to get it. They must have purpose, an objective if you will. The characters’ purpose gives me a reason to read their stories. Intriguing mysteries and unanswered questions are also good reasons to keep turning pages.
Don’t Bore Your Readers
Pages of description, minute details that are neither interesting nor relevant to the plot and dull scenes that have no essential function to the story will bore readers. Keep the conflicts coming and the action moving, and your readers will stay up to read your book rather than reading it to help them fall asleep.
It’s the Little Things
Too much detail and description gets boring, but the right details can make an otherwise average scene extraordinary. One-liners that make readers laugh, subtle (or overt) pop culture references, and symbolism that has deeper meaning keep readers stimulated.
Stimulate Imagination, Provoke Thought, and Pull Heartstrings
Speaking of stimulation, it’s one of the main reasons people enjoy reading so much. Sure, lots of readers are just looking for escape and entertainment, but plenty of us want to engage our imaginations and have our intellects challenged. Get readers emotionally involved, and not only will they enjoy your book; they’ll also become loyal fans of your work.
Do Something Different
Forget about trying to be completely original. I doubt that’s possible anymore. Every story is the result of stories that have come before. But that doesn’t mean you can’t put your unique stamp on the canon. Give old story premises new twists and your stories will feel fresh and invigorating.
Write Smooth Sentences That Make Sense
This one is last on the list for a reason. One of the best novels I recently read did not have the best sentence structures. In fact, some paragraphs were fragmented and disjointed — not so much that I couldn’t understand what was going on, but it was jarring at times. The story was strong enough that I didn’t care that much, but this type of oversight can mean the difference between a four-star and a five-star review.
How Do You Write Better Stories?
When you’re reading and writing fiction, do you think about the little things that make the difference between a mediocre story and a mesmerizing story? What was the last book you read that you couldn’t put down? What was it about that book that made it so potent? How do you apply what you’ve learned as a reader to your own fiction? How can authors learn to write better stories? Share your thoughts and experiences by leaving a comment, and keep writing!
I am reading the Three Musketeers right now. I’ve never read it before, but I have an audio tape of the story since childhood. Now, the tape told the entire story in an hour while the book is a thousand pages long on my iPad. So, of course, I kept thinking “wow, the tape sure left out a lot of details” while reading it.
I noticed that it’s like many of the classic books in that it has lots of descriptions. Nowadays, an editor would probably read it and ask, “what’s with all the descriptions? Why is it so slow?” Tastes and attention span of people sure have changed. I just read a chapter that described the servant of every Musketeer. And right after that, it’s something along the line of “Okay, now we are done talking about the servants. It’s time to describe the apartment of every Musketeer.” It’s hard to imagine a book nowadays being published that way.
I’ve noticed that older books are dense with description. I have a theory that because we didn’t have photos and videos back then, descriptions were necessary. For example, nowadays, if you tell an audience in middle America that the story is set on a tropical island, they automatically have an idea of what it looks like due to their exposure to media. However, a few hundred years ago, the people in that same location would have no idea how to imagine such a setting without a ton of description.
I don’t know if my theory applies to the example you gave, since the descriptions deal with people and apartments.
that’s probably it. i like abridged versions or whatever. the shortened version. but i agree. we know so much from media that it’s pointless to write tons.
‘Better’ fiction is surely a matter of taste, though. One of my favourite books is The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro – I didn’t want to put it down, even when I finished it – but there are plenty of reviews out there that say it’s dull and nothing happens and the reader couldn’t get through the first few chapters. Similarly, you mentioned The Hunger Games as an example of ‘better’ fiction but I’ve heard it’s terribly written (although, I haven’t yet read it, so might love it too.)
Kelvin’s not a fan of classics but I generally prefer them to contemporary novels. To me, they’re just better written – and yes, sometimes a classic does seem to be in need of a good edit (The Brothers Karamazov springs to mind – I don’t need a back-story every time you introduce a new character, thanks Dostoevsky) but only ever for cutting. Whereas The Hunger Games is riddled with typos and grammatical errors – sometimes I wonder if contemporary fiction is edited at all.
I would agree that there are spots in The Hunger Games where the text is a little fragmented. In my opinion, the quality of the story outweighed those issues. I wouldn’t say it was riddled with typos and grammatical errors. The style of writing was different, and for all I know, the author did that intentionally since the voice of the narrator belongs to a teenager in the distant future (who would not write or talk the same way we do).
Taste is definitely a factor, but there’s nothing an author can do about that. I wanted to focus on the techniques we can use to write the best stories possible. In the end, no matter how good a story is, some people won’t like it (and conversely, no matter how bad a story is, some people will like it).
I don’t think The Hunger Games is poorly written. I have to agree with Melissa; the language reflects the teenage character. I did find a few typos spread throughout the three books, but nothing jarring enough to make me want to stop reading.
LOL! If you’ve heard from others the books are poorly written, suggest they give the Fifty Shades trilogy a try. Talk about poorly written! They’re so cliche-ridden and so full of poor sentence construction that anyone who has any sense of writing skills at all would be very hard pressed to read more than five pages without groaning (if not laughing out loud!). Of course, the author is laughing all the way to the bank…
I thought about reading Fifty Shades but decided not to. There’s just nothing about it that matches my tastes and interests, based on its synopsis and all the reviews. I am sort of curious to see what all the fuss is about though.
The last one I couldn’t put down was King’s “11-22-63.” Vivid characters and interesting plot, interesting subplots and enough sensory details to put you in the scene. Kelvin (above) hit the nail on the head, though. Past literature was full of beautifully painted pictures – JRR Tolkien, in particular, comes to mind. He paints such detailed portraits of his characters and landscapes you can “see” them in your head. Today’s editors and publishers would toss the manuscripts of “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Silmarillion” into the trash bin after reading the first chapter – if they bothered to venture that far. Ann Rice’s “Lasher” and “Blackwood Farm” would have never been printed if it hadn’t been for the popularity of “An Interview With a Vampire.”
Melissa, what did you think of the ending of “The Hunger Games”? The end of the final book left me literally saying aloud, “Really?” I read all three in a week’s time. The end of the final book (for me) felt as if the author lost interest in her own story! Here we had a heroine just as you describe and, suddenly, the revolution is resolved in a single, short chapter and a sedate life of marriage and children is the perfect pastoral existence. I was highly disappointed.
I think the ending could have been better, but I also think that is a matter of my personal taste rather than quality of the story. My opinion on the matter is steeped in feminism. First of all, there are not enough strong female heroines in literature (and pop culture in general). Then when we finally get strong female characters, they save the world and then settle down in marital maternal bliss. It’s like our culture just can’t let go of the fairy tale (“happily ever after”). I have a hard time imagining someone who’s been through what Katniss endured would be able to settle into a domestic life (and she never really wanted that life anyway, from my understanding). As much as I love the Harry Potter series, I also had a hard time with how that ended (but for completely different reasons). Again, I don’t think this has to do with the quality of the story so much as my personal preference with regard to how I’d like to have seen these tales end.
I happily endorse Hunger Games because it contains some refreshing and much-needed insights about our culture, which is something that most fiction is sorely missing these days. Most recent phenomena in literature have been entertaining but few have actually provoked thought or concern about who we are as a society (and where we are going), and that is something I require from a story if I’m going to give it more than three stars. I also think the story itself was quite ambitious, and I’m willing to give authors a little leeway when they are tackling such complex concepts. There are a lot of interesting ideas packed into the Hunger Games, and I can sleep easier at night knowing that while some young girls are fawning over YA paranormal romances, others are getting a taste of adventure and heroism via Katniss Everdeen.
I definitely agree with you about The Hunger Games. I loved the first book, the second was pretty good, but by the third book it was just not. And about classics having more vivid imagery involved, personally I like that better. Rather than assuming that the reader know what you’re talking about, tell them all about it so there’s no doubt. I’d they’re bored enough, they can skip the paragraph. Anne of Green Gables is still one of my favourite books because of its many descriptions. I love how Ms. Montgomery managed to get away with so many run-on sentences! Just read the first sentence! When I ‘step into’ a book, I expect the author to show me the characters’ most important traits rather than telling me (as all our Grade 3 teachers have told us). I find that this requires more descriptive words and imagery, with extended paragraphs to fulfill that.
That last book that I feel deeply in love with was Friends & Foes by Sarah M Eden. Sarah’s style reminded me lightly of The Scarlet Pimpernel. The time and language of the characters was elegant but clever and so engaging. She created the type of heroine that you not only root for but wish could be your best friend. So many leading ladies these days traipse around with perfect bodies, have all the money and connections and always get the guy, in a steamy too manydetails sort of way. Not this time and I adored it! I reread the ending three times because I couldn’t bear to leave the characters behind.
Lessons I’ve learned from Sarah (who by the way I’ve had the pleasure of meeting!) Give your characters time to fall in love. Let them say clever things and then turn around stuff their entire foot in their mouth. Let love triumph in the end. Detail the world so that you could stand at the bottom of the stair case and remember what happened on it that made you cry.
I’m trying 🙂 Thanks for the post 🙂
As much as I study the craft of writing, I think the best way to learn is to find your own mentors and read their work. It sounds like you’ve found yours, which is awesome!
I always feel it’s a risk saying some fresh, popular work is well-written or an excellent read. It always seems that there is some person ready to scoff at my choice of read–sometimes they haven’t even read the piece in question.
Much like you Melissa, I found the Hunger Games Trilogy to be a great read for many of the same reasons you stated: vivid characters, masterful plotting, and *substance*. I fully enjoyed the ending; I thought it was just disgruntled enough to avoid resolving *all* the conflict into a nice tidy package. You know, the type people can just pack away and never think about again.
I think many people put all their faith in the classics simply because it’s a safe choice. Of course it’s good, it’s stood the test of time. Someone dares challenge the quality of the writing? They must not have the mental faculty to really “get” the author.
I think the first few chapters of a book are like a first date. I need the author to give me enough to want a second date, but not so much that i feel like they’re trying to take me home to meet the parents.
Likewise I think every reader “interacts” with the writer through the writing. Just like people, every match isn’t made in heaven. In fact there’s people (and authors) I can’t stand to be around. However who doesn’t like to be around articulate, good looking people that are easy to talk to? I think that’s what the tips Melissa has written here are trying to help us all be as writers–articulate and easy to be around for the reader.
Thanks, Robert. It sounds like we’re on the same page in our approach to reading (pun fully intended). I find it quite interesting when people criticize books they haven’t read. On one hand, we need to pass some kind of judgement to decide whether we want to read a book or not. On the other hand, going around openly criticizing something we haven’t read means we’re forming opinions without being informed (never a good thing, in my opinion). I love your analogy of a first date. Henceforth, I’m going to consider the first few chapters of new books as if I’m being courted by the author.
I think that ‘Stimulate Imagination’ is the top advice. The reader must use his imagination. Often books are written drily and overly realistically. Of course, if this book is about First WW or something like – it is ok. But not in the fiction. Book should help to fly away from this world.
I agree. The best books take us away to another world and we get lost in it. Those are the ones I can’t put down.
Writing better stories is obviously far easier said than done, and what makes a compelling read is totally subjective, but still some good insights, Melissa.Thanks.
I agree that it’s easier said than done. Writing stories is hard. Writing good stories is even harder. But I think there are a few things we can do to improve our work. Thanks for commenting, Rod.
I loved The Hunger Games when I first read it but I keep trying to reread it – it’s short and I know the plot so it shouldn’t be too much to tackles, I tell myself – and find both the writing and characters bland.
I noticed something you said in response to another comment about finding your mentors and studying them and I must say, that’s what I’ve been feeling & failing to describe from the moment I picked up my first book by the historical fiction author Stephanie Dray, especially her Cleopatra’s Daughter trilogy.. There’s just something about how she turned certain historical events, such as the death of Drusus and Augustus never visiting Mauretania, into what seems like logical explanations that match both her plots and history itself. Now that was a series I couldn’t put down. I was crying so haard at the end that I had to reread the epilogue after spending a week recovering from the shock an heartbreak, as well as writing depressing fanfiction for my favorite couple.
Another nice read, one that I only finished a couple of hours ago actually, was What If It’s Us by Adam Silvera & Becky Albertalli. It wasn’t as remarkable, although I suppose I did ship the couple it was about..
I think that even more remarkable than the books you can’t put down is the ones that you can’t finish because you dont want them to end but finish anyway so you can see what happens to all of the amazing characters. I litterally had to reread the first 2 3/4 books of Cleopatra’s Daughter for that reason… 🙂 Writing this has improved my day. Happy technically-not-Easter-because-insomnia.
I also loved the Hunger Games when I first read it. I find it interesting that it didn’t hold up for you the second time around. I tend to wait many years before rereading a book, to give myself time to forget the details of the story. That way, I can rediscover it. Thanks for sharing some of your favorite reads!