“I like a story where I can’t guess everything in the first 20 minutes.”

Fiction-Zone: Leaps in Fiction Mastery by Diane Holmes

The 20-Minute Test – Why We Need It

captain obvious Novelists are often oblivious to what makes a story work (or worse, almost work, but not quite) when it’s their own.

We only know what we’re trying to do, how hard we’re working, and the hundreds of techniques and plot/character details we’re trying to pull off in any given scene.

This blind spot is a key reason we (a) re-write ad nauseam, (b) rely on critique partners who are equally blind, and (c) are constantly waffling between trust in our skills and the sure certainty that we suck. And it’s why we don’t know if we’re not selling because our writing “isn’t good enough to get published,” or because we’re still looking for that right agent, editor, or reader. The ones who get us.

It doesn’t take long for career writers (those who treat writing as their profession–unpublished or published) to lose their ability to be readers. Oh, we read, all right. But we read like writers who read. We are aware of every technique, every word, every cog turning. It becomes a rare event to read “ravenously, emotionally, viscerally.”

And the loss of our reader’s compass at the time we need it most (determining if your character, your scene, or your entire story works) requires a clever solution. My clever solution is named Scott.

The title of this post is what my husband said to me when I asked him why he liked one debut TV show vs. another TV show. Instantly, he had an answer. (He’s fully prepared for a pop quiz at any moment. Twenty-two years of being married to a fiction writer has *so* prepared him to provide discussion points.)

The 20-Minute Test – How it Works

Stories take place inside the reader’s mind.  Vivi Andrews over at Damned Scribbling Women calls books “a living space” for the reader. Every action, every event, and every line of dialogue implies a “world” to the reader.

And herein lies the AHA technique. We may not be able to fully judge our own writing, but we can certainly re-read a scene asking the following questions.

  1. Based on this (action, event, dialog, thought, decision, outcome, etc.), what will a smart reader expect to happen next?
  2. What will the smart reader know about the story?
  3. How will the smart reader expect that to play out to the end of the book?

And here’s the test: If the reader’s expectations are pretty much correct, you have just bored your readers by providing a “living space” they’ve already visited.

For the reader, your story doesn’t work, because they’re reading a new book (your book) for a new experience.

As Alyx Dellamonica says, “I also consider a book not quite good if its story or protagonist bore me, even if the prose is beautiful.”

Alyx and Scott would get along great.

Don’t bore the readers with an obvious trajectory, because while you’re busy writing, they’re busy unfolding the story in their mind’s “living spaces” and hoping they can’t out-think you in 20 minutes.

Diane Holmes Crop 1 Diane is Founder and Chief Alchemist of Pitch University.

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7 thoughts on ““I like a story where I can’t guess everything in the first 20 minutes.””

  1. Between your post and all the ranting lately about how the publishing world is changing and self-pubbing/ ebooks are ushering in a whole new class of book/ writer/ reader, I just keep visualizing this scene…

    On an all black set sits an author with Charlie Rose interviewing her. He’s talking about her novel, and he says (in his long-winded way) that it was boring. Then he says (10 minutes later and without having taken a breath), “Why did you write such a boring and predictable novel?”

    She answers, with her body pitched forward and hands gesticulating wildly, “The whole concept was to mess with readers by creating a novel that was totally predictable. One which held no surprises, and that causes the reader to skim only, because he knows what’s coming without investing time in my words.”

    I believe that self-publishing is a good thing, I really do…but I am so concerned about this initiation period we are going through right now. It’s like a hazing or something. Hopefully your post, and others like them, will get through to the majority of authors and will help create awesome work instead of failed experiments.

  2. Best. Comment. Ever.

    Readers who skim, unite!

    Made me giggle and shake my head at the truth of it. I, too, am conflicted about the mass rush to throw manuscripts up on the Kindle and call them published.

    I love that great writing not currently published finally has a doable venue. But…. And you know where I’m going, so I don’t even have to go there.

    I once co-owned a small press. This was back in the day, *before* ANYONE could sell ANYTHING on the Internet. (You could, however, post a phone number. 😉

    Anyway, it was a business. We had to do everything (and we didn’t publish our own works. We were too busy editing and marketing and shipping.)

    Anyway, it’s ALWAYS been possible to become a publisher and business owner (which is what you are if you publish your own book). But now, instead of needing $10,000, you need…. an internet connection.

    So, that’s pretty cool. You know. If the book is great.

    Meanwhile, the thing that matters is what’s always mattered: great stories thrilling readers who love them so much they shout it from the top of their FaceBook pages. And if the reader is Charlie Rose, then there’s a black set involved. 😉

  3. It’s hard–no book is ever going to be universally pleasing, but as a self-pubber, I think it’s vital that we create and impose our own barriers to entry to ensure that we aren’t just adding slush to a publicly accessible pile.

  4. This is such a great point. The captivating element is what makes readers feel like it’s a new experience. That’s it in a nutshell, since there are only so many plotlines.

    Excellent advice!

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