Thursday, September 14, 2017

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Readers Are Hungry for Conversation

 When we pick up a book, we start reading it provisionally, wondering, “Am I actually going to read this whole damn thing?” And our answer is always the same: “It all depends on whether or not I fall in love with the hero.” So we’re waiting for a scene that will let us make that decision. Specifically, we’re impatiently waiting for a scene where your hero has some dialogue with another character in the book’s present.

It’s tempting to begin your book with pages upon pages of your first-person hero telling us all about himself. And that’s fine. Sometimes those pages are very charming and they win us over…sort of. We can decide we mostly like a hero, but we’re still not going to fully commit.

We know that everybody is great in his or her own mind. Anyone can claim to be one of the good guys and argue persuasively for that. But only dialogue tests us. It could be that, once you leave your house, everybody you talk to says, “No, you’re actually an unbearable loser.” Is that going to happen with your hero? We want to know as soon as possible.

If we’re going to decide whether or not we like your hero, we’re going to need to listen to a conversation, which is the same way we decide whether or not we like somebody in real life. You can only find out so much from reading the resume, then you’ve got to sit down for the interview.

This speaks to another issue: Get to your “present” as soon as possible. It could be your book is mostly set in 1971 but your first three chapters cover the first twenty years of your hero’s life from ’51 to ’71. Well, we’re going to want to hear some actual ’71 conversation as soon as possible, so you either have to shoehorn some in before flashing back to cover the hero’s life heretofore, or squeeze that preamble down to about 20 pages and arrive in your book’s “present” so that we can finally meet the present-day-hero and decide if we like him or her enough to stick around and actually read this thing.

In fact, 20 pages is a good deadline. It’s great to have dialogue on the first page, but if not, try to have it by page 20 at the latest. And make it authentic-sounding dialogue that is appealing in one way or another. We don’t have to like your hero, but we have to believe in him or her, and we have to start to fall in love with him or her. Maybe we’ll start to fall in love with his or her strengths, or with his or her weaknesses.


James Kennedy said...

This is really good advice and something I have found to be true.

Matt Bird said...

No, James, we're supposed to disagree about everything and fight about it on our podcast! How else are we going to keep getting that sweet, sweet podcast money?

Mark said...

I read James's comment before I saw that Matt had responded and I was going to say the same thing - I can't believe James actually agreed with Matt!

James - can't we come up with some great examples from Joyce and Faulkner to disprove this advice?

James Kennedy said...

Burn acknowledged

Jonathan Auxier said...

This thread made my day!