Lately, I’ve been thinking about what makes a story interesting, both on the structural level and in the actual execution. What is it that grabs a reader’s attention and keeps him or her engrossed in a story from start to finish? Is it exciting action? Realistic and/or unusual characters? Sparkling dialogue? Or any of the other elements of a book an author can lavish their creative skills upon?
Yet many well-written books contain only some of these elements. Some books lack action. Some propel the story forward with dialogue of the most utilitarian kind. Some have boring characters but exciting stories. Sometimes the reverse is true. And, of course, the quality of the prose often has little to do with whether or not people find a book interesting.
So what’s the secret? I believe it comes down to what I think of as a twist. A twist isn’t necessarily a surprise or a cheap thrill. Instead, it’s a change of direction—sometimes big, sometimes small—that captures the reader’s attention. Humans are pattern-seeking animals, which means that we’re on the constant lookout for new information, information that expands or redefines the patterns of knowledge we’ve constructed in our minds. Provide us with a nugget of info that we weren’t previously aware of, and you satisfy a primal part of our nature. Especially if the info gives us a new perspective on what we already knew. Of a necessity, then, said information has to be relevant to the story. Random details or descriptions won’t cut it.
The concept of a twist can apply to every level of a story. On the macro level, it means that the author ought to seek to push the story in new directions, both as a way of advancing the protagonist’s journey and as a way of commenting on what has gone before. One famous example: Luke learns that he’s Darth Vader’s son.
On the micro level, it seems to me that a writer ought to strive to give each chapter, paragraph, and yes, each sentence a twist. Contrast between parts is much of what drives interest, although again, the parts must relate to one another or you’ll lose your reader in a sea of unconnected details: Bob says, “I love you.” And then Carol says, “ That’s what you think.” Great! Now we’re interested. But only if the proceeding (or following) sentences, paragraphs, and chapters support this moment and are filled with similarly intriguing moments. Or in other words, with more twists.
What this means is that writers must strive with every line, every word, to find ways of subverting expectations, echoing and building upon previous moments, and in all ways seeking to tickle the brain of the reader with a constant stream of interesting facts. Informational density, I think, is crucial. Even if what you’re writing is an aside from the main storyline, it should still contain as much pertinent information to that moment as you can cram in.
Do that, and I’m confident you’ll be able to maintain your reader’s attention, no matter what your story is about.
Oh, and if you want to write a bestseller, it’s hard to go wrong with a story that features the powerless gaining power. It’s wish fulfillment at its most basic, and it’ll never go out of style.
p.s. Of course I’d recommend that you write about whatever it is you’re most interested in. Trying to consciously write a bestseller is a fool’s game. If I’d done that, I would have ended up pumping out a mash-up of Tom Clancy and John Grisham. Probably something about a lawyer on a submarine who’s caught up events that could result in WWIII.
p.p.s. Mash-ups about dragons, magical swords, and evil villains are completely different, of course.
Note: This essay was previously published on Lytherus.com on March 22, 2013.