Have you ever found a book with an interesting cover?
The blurb on the back got your attention, the first few pages of the book snagged your imagination and you just had to have it?
Most of us have run across those and in fact, that's what all authors want. It ensures you'll buy their book.
All too often however, after you get the book home and settle down to read, you discover that the author put most of the effort into the first few chapters. Long before you reached the end of the book you found other things to do.
The book sat, unfinished, on your bookshelf for a while and then probably made its way to a second-hand bookstore.
The author never noticed, since you already paid for that book, but did you buy another by the same person? Or did you start to, then think 'oh that first one was horrible, I think I'll pass.'
It's very important for an author to capture new readers, but even more important to retain existing ones. There are many ways to do this, from marketing hype to cliffhangers at the end of every chapter.
The best way to accomplish this however, is to give your readers a story so engrossing that they lose themselves in it. For a while, as long as the book lasts, they step into your world and become a participant.
Transporting your reader somewhere else is easy. All you need is a good description of a few trees, a building or crowd of people.
The hard part is getting the reader emotionally involved. For that, you need a character.
The character might be anything. A magical bird, a crazy monkey, the poor milkman, a battered robot or a brave little toaster.
That character is what gets your reader out of their chair, off the couch, and into your world. That character is also what's going to keep them there and make them want to come back.
Don't make the mistake of thinking that the only character you can use as a transporter is the hero of the story. Different readers have different personalities, and not everyone likes the hero. Some prefer the villan.
Don't fall into the trap of believing that your story can only have one main character either. Every character who has more than a minor part in the story can become the transporter for the reader, if you do your job correctly.
I read a story recently which was published many years ago. A sci-fi story and obviously in the category of pulp-fiction. It started off wonderfully with a nicely detailed setting, believable characters and action, which immediately sucked me in.
However just as I got attached to the main character and started particpating in the story, the author removed him from play. He came back much later in the story, but by that time I didn't care about him any more.
The author repeated this travesty several times.
A character would be introduced as the main character, I'd get interested in it, I'd start to identify with it and want to see what happened to it, and then the author would remove it from the action and introduce a new main character.
I made it half-way through a 200 page paperback then threw the book in the trash.
It's fine to have a number of important characters. It's fine to bounce your reader back and forth between them, allowing them to share the posistion of main character between themselves, but don't completely remove them from the action.
An example of a story with several characters sharing the hero's posistion is star wars. At one time or another, Luke, Han, Leia, Obi-Wan and Vader all are the focus. They swap the role back and forth continually for all three of the original movies. The audience is invited to use any of them, or even all of them, as a transport vehicle to become involved in the action.
Yet even when one of the characters isn't activly on the screen, we still feel his or her presence. Instead of becoming bored because our transporter has vanished and we now need to find a new one, we sit on the edge of our seats, watching the action and waiting for our hero to reappear.
George Lucas, being the brilliant story teller that he is, makes sure we never have to wait too long. He swirls the scenes of the story between places, and characters, with rapid precision. We never get the chance to stop participating.
Cardboard characters are another problem which can prevent your readers from participating. Too many writers make the mistake of painting a wonderful picture of their character, then forgetting to give them a personality.
The poor character turns into one of those life-sized cardboard cutouts you see in movie theaters. From the front they almost look real. Walk around to the back though and you can see there's no substance.
Regardless of what shape they are, race they are or substance they are made from, the character(s) must be people and people have personalities.
They must live in the world that your reader is visiting, not just exist.
They must act, think and behave like people, otherwise they are simply a decoration.
Every character, even the ones that just have bit parts for a page or two, or maybe just a paragraph, should be a real person.
As you introduce new characters to your story, stop what you are doing and write a character sketch.
Put down what the character looks like.
Give it a name.
List what he/she/it likes and doesn't like.
Write out its history so you know where it came from and why its there.
Put as much detail into it as you can.
Then when you use the character in the book, you'll know how to use it correctly.
You won't have the street-smart detective walking into a trap that a first-grader can see. You might WANT to have him do that for plot reasons, but he's quite likely to look at you, cross his arms and say something like 'Are you crazy? I'm not going in there!' Which is exactly what he should do. You might have to change your plot, but the story will be stronger for it.
One of the most devastating mistakes a writer can make is not to do research.
If you are going to write a story about an ocean voyage, and you've never traveled over the ocean, you're going to make some mistakes.
You won't realize you've made mistakes but those readers who have traveled over the ocean will. And they will tell you about it. For the rest of your life.
A classic example of lack of research can be found in the original Star Wars movie. When Han Solo is first introduced, he has to brag about his ship. He expresses surprise that Obi-Wan's never heard of his ship and states 'It's the ship that made the Kessel run in less than 12 parsecs."
Obviously the script writer didn't have a clue about astronomy. Neither did anyone else apparently. A parsec isn't a measure of speed or time, it's distance.
Han was supposed to be saying something like 'It's the ship that made the Kessel run in less that 12 seconds'. What he actually said was 'It's the ship that made the Kessel run in less than 12 feet.' Convoluted arguments can be made that perhaps Lucas was hinting at hyperspace travel, however I sat there on opening night and heard all of the dialog. Han was boasting about how fast his ship was, not how far it could hyperjump.
I remember sitting in the audience on opening night, hearing Solo say that and bursting out laughing. Of all the stupid, idiotic things... I lost contact with the movie for the rest of the Cantina scene and I never completely reconnected.
My respect for Lucas and his story telling ability has never recovered to the point it was when the movie started. Go out to Google and search on "it's the ship" "Kessel run" . You'll find a lot of other people still laughing at him for that mistake, and that was 30 years ago.
Research is important.
Your readers must suspend their belief in order to enter your world. If you make a blunder like Han did, they will suddenly remember that they're just reading a story, not living another life.
You don't want that.
Once that happens, your transport vehicle is damaged and may never recover.
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Last edited by Tau; 09-22-2009 at 11:15 AM..