Three's a charm. I couldn't let magical Lesson 3 pass by without getting to this:

Story is King. It's all about the characters.

This is the best advice I can give you after clawing my way out of the slush pile over the past five years. What's the difference between rejections and acceptance letters? What's the difference between a story readers are willing to read and a story they care about? What's the secret formula to a truly successful story?


And story is characters.

That's it, friends and neighbors. If you read something and don't really care, why read it? If you read your own story and don't really care, why will anyone else?

And what do you truly care about? What moves your soul? Is it a cool science fiction idea? A great setting? Beautiful prose? All of these things are cool. I like them. But do they bring tears to your eyes? Do they piss you off? Do they make you depressed? Do they make you want to dance and sing at the top of your lungs?

Most cool ideas don't. Nor do most flashy metaphors and pretty turns of phrase and amazingly detailed and realistic settings. Not that any of these things are bad. But for most of us, they aren't why we read.

We read to encounter believable characters in compelling situations. We read to get to know these characters, and come to care about them. They don't need to be perfect people. In fact, probably shouldn't be. But we must want to know what's going to happen to them next and care about what happens to them next.

Everything else is trimmings. Yes, there are other factors that can make me love a story. Humor doesn't need to be compelling; it just needs to be funny. But it's even better if it is both compelling and funny. And occasionally an idea is so delightful that it can stand on its own. But it rises to the level of masterful if the delightful idea comes along with a compelling situation.

Writing a story that doesn't engage the reader's emotions is the biggest, most common flaw in the work of a beginning--and intermediate--and yes, expert writer. Not everyone is going to be moved by the same things you are. But someone has to be. A fair number of someones. And first and foremost, YOU must be moved by your own story and your own characters. If you accomplish that, your task becomes a technical one, a matter of mere skill, an area in which everyone can improve. All you have to do is learn how to write in a way that conveys the intensity of your emotion to the reader. But I have read many, many a short story that contains nifty ideas, nice prose, very few flaws on a technical level, follows all the rules... but I just didn't care. It didn't suck me in. It didn't make me forget everything else and plunge me deep into the life of another person, the life of someone who doesn't exist but at that moment is more real than everything else around me. Plot is nothing if the reader doesn't care. A cool twist, a delightful surprise... so what, if you have no stake in the outcome?

How do you do it, then? Fair question, but the answer would take a book, and I'm not ready to write it. All I want you to do right now is SNAP OUT OF YOUR ZOMBIE-LIKE TRANCE AND REALIZE THAT STORY IS KING... AND STORY IS CHARACTERS. Characters you care about in compelling situations.

I just finished reading "Drowning Ruth" by Christina Schwartz. By about halfway through the novel, you are wrapped up in the life of the main character, who is raising the daughter of the sister she may have killed and living with the sister's widower husband. This niece becomes friends with her biological daughter, whom she delivered in secret and gave away to a family in town. The widowed husband sees her biological daughter, who is the spitting image of his dead wife, and he begins to believe that his wife cheated on him and died in childbirth. The main character could tell him the truth, but then he'd know she'd had a child out of wedlock, and would perhaps begin to suspect that she was lying to him about how his wife died...

This is a compelling situation, with characters I cared about!

In Jodi Picoult's "Plain Truth", a murdered baby shows up on an Amish farm. The young Amish girl living on the farm shows some signs of having been pregnant, but she is in such emotional turmoil that she can't even remember giving birth, and she's now on trial for murder.

This is a compelling situation, with characters I cared about!

In Orson Scott Card's "Ender's Game", a child genius is taken to a special school to learn military strategy, but his teachers actively encourage the other students to hate him, and set him up for failure at every turn. He gets beaten and abused, and the teachers don't help him, and he's only seven years old. Any other student kind enough to try to help him suffers for it.

This is a compelling situation, with characters I cared about!

BOTTOM LINE: Wake up. If you don't care about your own characters, if the situations they are in and the things that happen to them don't move your soul, you're wasting your time.

NEXT TIME: Dig into writing technique on the micro-scale: turn lifeless words into writing with zip.

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