Monday, June 11, 2007

What Makes a Story Compelling?

I have seriously considered all comments sent by agents who have read all or part of my novel. After all, this is their business, to know what "works" and what doesn't. Everyone agrees that the novel is "fun." They all use that word, and that is exactly what I was aiming for--something that was fun to read. Lightweight. They all say, "It's fun, but....." The comments after the "but" are different, but I've come to the conclusion that the bottom line is Poison Spindle is fun, but not compelling. By that, I mean the first fifty pages don't leave you hungry for more. They don't make you miss your bus stop because you're lost in the story.

That is not to say the entire story isn't compelling. I firmly believe the last 3/4 of the book IS compelling. That's the part I wrote after I figured out two things: how to tell the story so I liked it, and what the story actually was (other than let's get Kate to meet every fairytale character ever so I can tell you what I really think of them). I have already condensed the first 100 pages out of maybe 200. The book is 70,000 words shorter than it started, despite the fact that I added 15,000 words to the last half of the book. For reference, many novels are about 70,000 words long. Total.

So I've been pondering how to fix this problem. But before I can make a story compelling, I have to know what makes a story compelling. This is entirely a separate issue from what makes writing good or a voice interesting. And, despite the fact that my writing is very plot-oriented, I don't know the answer. Research time.

Going to agent's blogs, I found a few things. Miss Snark, before her retirement, advised that writers include the main character and the main conflict in the query letter. She said that to make it compelling, the reader has to care about the character enough that we want them to come out on top in the conflict. Nathan Bransford said that every story must have a quest and a conflict, which I understand to mean the main character has to be trying to do something, and something has to be trying to stop them. The Comic Throughline suggests that there should be a conflict, but that it should be colored by what the character thinks they want and what they really want, or, in other words, there should be an internal conflict and and external conflict that actually also conflict with each other, and both have to be resolved at the end by the character choosing what they really want (resolving the internal conflict) and this magically makes the external conflict possible to resolve as well. Mom, the avid reader and excellent editor, suggested that every main character needs to have something (often in their past, but always internally) that makes them conflicted about solving the mystery/conflict at all--some secret in their lives that is holding them back and colors how they act.

So I've looked at my story. It does all this. Just not in the first 50 pages, which is what most agents read and make a decision based on. Like most first-timers (even though Poison Spindle is number 4), I wrote a slow-starter, and nobody can sell a slow-starter because nobody wants to read a slow starter.

So this is what I think about what everyone else has said about making a story compelling--they're all right. But there is something they missed: mystery. There has to be something the reader doesn't know that they want to know that keeps them reading, beyond just "do they resolve the conflict." At least for my stories.

So, for me, to be successful, a story must have:
a mystery
a character you care about who is round (not perfect)
a quest
an internal conflict
an external conflict

So I analyzed the Poison Spindle Problem:

The character is Kate. I hope she's likeable. She seems rather your normal over-intelligent girl to me, which isn't necessarily likeable. She's a little naive about life. She's a little over-confident in her abilities. She lacks any kind of street smarts or experience at all. Unfortunately, I wrote her as me, so I can't tell if she's likeable. Or if you care about her.

The mystery is what happened to both possible heirs to the throne and their husbands. This is interesting and compelling. It's not really defined well until the 60th page of the book.

The quest is for Kate to get home, at first, and then to solve the problems her grandfather caused when he "lost" Sleeping Beauty. In other words, to restore order to the kingdom.

The external conflict is between Kate (and eventually the princesses she sides with) and the witches (who want her out of the way so they can use her key to reach Sleeping Beauty) and maintain the new order they've established in the kingdom.

The internal conflict is between Kate and her overconfidence and inexperience. Kate understands things intellectually, but when it comes to actually making a decision and acting on it, she just floats. She is out of touch with the practical aspects of being smart, and she has to learn how to act instead of be acted upon.

So the internal conflict probably isn't terribly compelling--but it's something every young college-aged woman actually has to learn. Nobody is born a problem solver.

So my questions that remain:

What do YOU think makes a story compelling?

What makes you care about a character, and how can a writer get you there on page one, instead of page 65?

How much does a reader have to know about a mystery in order to want to know the solution?

I really need to get beyond, "Hey, that's definitely a conflict" to "I have to know what happens next!" How do I get there? What is it that makes a book a real page-turner, or "compelling"?

I really want to know what you voracious readers think. If you put it in the comments on the post, everyone can "discuss".


Bethany Huntington said...

okay so I haven't been thinking about this very long,and you may think I'm stupid, but your story goes under the same category as Harry Potter. Let's think about what makes harry potter compelling. Kate seems to me like a Hermione character who is not so proud and mean. I think characters in a book should be lovable. Harry Ron and Hermione are lovable characters in the first book. Introducing the conflict early I think is a huge compeller and then reminding the reader periodically. So maybe if you introduced the conflict when Kate gets kidnapped it would be better. I really haven't thought enough about this.

C. Wilson said...

I think the conflict has to be something unusual enough or stated mysteriously enough that it leaves the reader wanting more. Every kid loves a situation where something incredibly cool could be waiting just around the corner, or on the next page. Either that, or the character is so likeable and/or endearing that one automatically wants to know what is going to happen to them next.
I found Kate to be a smart, likeable character (though I have no idea how much the story has changed since the version I read), and the trash in the alleyway (or not the alleyway) drew me in pretty well. That part is the perfect mystery setup. The character Kate may not endear herself to all readers, as they may not all identify with the smart, bookish type, but then it's hard to create a character with universal appeal. One thing-in the version I read her character mostly seemed to be identified by things that she was not, instead of neat things about her that made you want to get to know her better. The way you introduced her did help one to get a good picture of her personality, but it also made her a little more of an acquaintance, and less of a friend. In fact, she seems like a loner who probably doesn't have any friends (not always bad in a character, but is that what you wanted). You don't want to draw out the introduction to the character too much, but a little hometown friends background
might help with her likeability.
The mystery surrounding her grandfather's death could possibly be played up a little more in the beginning as she enters the store and talks with the employee (parts of their conversation were slightly dull, anyway--you could add some conversation about her friends and the type of interesting, cool stuff she did with them at home here--did they solve mysteries together? Did they have inside jokes or poke fun at certain silly things?).
Mysterious objects, such as keys, notes, etc. could enter the story a little sooner (such as he was trying to get a message/object to her before his sudden disappearance), and spend just a titch less time on her nighttime fears or thoughts on the old bookstore and books (don't take them out--they are great and necessary features for building her character and setting up the story, but were just a few sentences too long). Also, when she was stranded on the roadside, the story seemed to lull just a little bit with the sisters and toad episode (too much detail on some parts, too little on others).
Again, this may have all been fixed in your newer versions. I would love to take a look at your latest version and give you my opinion!

Does anyone else have comments, or disagree with me? Perhaps someone who has read a newer version would have more constructive ideas!

(Remember, don't try to make the story so mainstream that it loses it's unique flavor, or stops sounding like your story.)