Episodic Storytelling Is A Problem
The problem with episodic storytelling is that often the writer can’t really see the problem with it.
Stuff is happening to the main character, as it’s supposed to. Maybe even quite interesting stuff. Different scenes may not be directly connected, but they’re still happening to the same person, so it feels like there’s a connection.
But when you have a character who goes from one thing to another seemingly at random, what you end with is a character who has nothing better to do. It’s not very captivating when the story meanders and the main character doesn’t know what he’s doing.
Words: The More The Muddier
The idea that the more words used the clearer the meaning becomes is one that trips up a lot of writers.
Not that additional details are always a bad thing, but the ‘a little more information couldn’t hurt’ approach is very definitely wrong. It can very much hurt.
If I want to visit you then there is a minimum amount of info (street and house number), and an optimum amount (best route, which exit to take) that I need. And then there’s an excessive amount (the name of your neighbour’s dog).
On the other hand, what difference does it make if you mention the neighbour’s dog? It’s not going to make the address harder to find.
Putting Emotion In Story
The travails and adventures of your characters should have more than a superficial effect on the reader. Ideally, the impact should be somewhere between enthralling and devastating.
But how do you convert words on a page to tears in eyes, lumps in throats or hearts in mouths?
There are two basic ways to transfer emotion from page to reader: sympathetic and empathetic.
Good Story Requires Incomplete Exposition
Exposition is where you explain things to the reader in the text. It’s a necessary part of storytelling to help the reader understand what’s going on in a story, especially when it comes to stuff the reader won’t automatically know. The MC might work for a government department and the reader needs to know what the department does, so you have to find a way to get that info to them. When handled badly it can read very clunky.
But there is also another expositional technique that gives the reader information in a very high impact and emotional manner. This is where you reveal something that the reader is able to convert into an understanding of the situation without you having to explain it.
Chapter One: The Devotion of Suspect X
This is a continuation of my series of first chapter dissections where I analyse the opening chapter of a successful novel to find out what makes it work, how the author hooked the reader, which rules were followed, and which were broken to good effect.
The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino is a mystery novel of the classic ‘genius’ detective type. If you’d like to read the first few pages for yourself you can do so here.
The book opens as follows:
Two Sides To Every Story. At Least.
Tension is a key element of drama. Tension is a question. It’s an outcome you want to know. It’s anticipation. Tension comes in different sizes and shapes.
“There’s a bomb on the bus!” is a different kind of tension to “Are you waiting for someone?”
The big, explosive stuff (physical or emotional) takes care of itself. You may need to manage it, but tension will be present. My daughter’s been kidnapped! — very hard to underplay.
This post is about working tension into smaller, more intimate scenes.
Writing A Bottle Scene
There are times in a story when not much is going on. Your character is isolated or apart from everyone else, away from activity or the main plot.
Readers may find this sort of scene dull or pedestrian and the suggestion will be to zhoosh it up somehow. This advice will most times be right. However, sometimes you want a scene to be low key or concentrated down to a few ingredients.
There’s nothing wrong with this, often the strongest character moments come in the quieter moments. But that doesn’t mean you should have long scenes over a cup of coffee and endless banter, nor does it mean you need a bomb on a bus and SWAT teams flying in through windows to make it exciting.
One of the best ways to see how to make the most of a limited situation is to take a look at what TV shows call a ‘bottle episode’.
Making Your Readers Care Like Your Characters Care
In any story the main character will have something on their mind. They will worry and fret based on how important ‘the thing’ is to them.
Just because they happen to think this thing is worth obsessing over or getting upset about doesn’t mean the reader will also.
Showing the character really worked up about this thing won’t automatically make the reader feel the same way.
Not All Characters Deserve To Be In The Story
It’s pretty easy to overpopulate a story.
Usually, it’s to make things seem realistic (an office should have people in it, a party should be crowded).
Sometimes it seems like a clever ploy (with 73 suspects the reader will never guess who the murderer is!).
Or it can be a way to give different types of readers someone to root for. These characters are the love story, these guys provide the adventure, this one will appeal to older women, this one to comedy fans…
Too many characters often make a story hard to follow, confuse the reader and create unnecessary complications. But once they’re in, taking them out can seem daunting, like pulling at a single loose thread that ends up unravelling the whole cardigan.
It’s really not that hard, though.
Give Characters Interesting Anecdotes
If you want readers to know about your character’s past, put it in the form of an anecdote.
Don’t just tell them her parents split up when she was nine, have her remember how they bought her a talking doll before telling her the cat had been run over, a princess outfit before telling her Nana had cancer, and a bike before telling her they were getting a divorce. And now, every time someone gives her a present, she feels like running screaming from the room.
Fact and figures, names and dates don’t mean anything to readers.