by Diane Holmes, (a) Chief Alchemist of Pitch University, (b) lover of learning, and (c) writer of fiction, non-fiction, and the occasional manifesto
The Story Behind The Story
From the reader’s perspective, you’re not writing one story, you’re writing two. The first is the story of what the reader knows based on what you’ve written so far.
But the second is the mysterious world of what the reader hasn’t been told yet. What she wants to uncover desperately enough to read late into the night.
This second story is the story behind the story. The story simmering underneath the prose, lurking in the corner and about to jump forward with sharp teeth.
That’s the story that captures your reader’s attention.
Look at any random page of your novel-in-progress, and then ask these questions.
1) What’s hidden at this very moment that the reader can’t see?
Everything is a Mystery Box to the reader: every character, every situation, every goal, every line of dialogue, and every action.
Or, it should be. The reader is reading to uncover the story and the characters. What will they do next? What will happen? Why are they doing that? How will they handle that? And on and on.
So your story isn’t about you telling the reader every motivation or explaining every situation like an analyst…. It’s about the reader uncovering it (along with the viewpoint character).
And it’s about that act of uncovering having a profound impact.
2) Is the answer to what’s hidden (out of all the infinite answers) mind-blowing-ly satisfying to the reader?
Don’t aim for ordinary. Ordinary is already taken.
3) Is the answer revealed at a time when the reader is still highly interested? Does the place of revelation create a “wow” or only an “oh, okay”?
Timing is everything.
Sometimes revealing answers immediately creates great forward momentum. Sometimes it deflates the interest before it even really got going.
4) Does the answer impact and change the trajectory of the page, scene, chapter, act, or the whole shebang? Does it raise even more questions?
If it doesn’t, then it’s really just a trick. “Oh, look, this is interesting… now it’s over. Move along.”
5) Is the answer revealed in a way that makes the reader care even more about what happens next?
- Does it generate more mystery about additional Mystery Boxes?
- Does it add complexity to what the reader already knows?
- Does it add higher stakes?
- Can it be used to move the story understanding ahead?
- Can it be combined with other knowledge to create a truly staggering understanding?
Diane writes two columns for Freelance-Zone: (1) Fiction-Zone: Leaps in Fiction Mastery and (2) Marketing-Zone: Marketing Yourself and Your Writing.