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Reader Entry Point

Over the last six months, I’ve read about 10 books I didn’t like. Now, I’m not here to vent about the frustrations involved. And I’m not here to bad-mouth the stories; most of them failed by being mediocre as opposed to outright bad. But the experience got me thinking about what, for me, makes books “fail” in this way.

The Concept of a “Reader Entry Point”

I’m sure there are many different ways for a book to fail. However, the common thread I found in the aforementioned works was that they failed to engage me. Engagement is a complex topic, and I’m confident that readers will vary pretty greatly on when and how they become engaged with a story. However, over these last few months, I’ve tried to think through what need to find a story engaging.

I’ve decided to call this “thing” that makes me engaged my “entry point.” It’s the point in the story where I’m not just willing to be there but willing to become invested. Without that investment, I honestly don’t think a book can give me a satisfying experience. And the later in the story this entry point is found, the more I’m likely to find the book hard to push through.

Fundamentally, I think the entry point requires that I have something or someone to care about. And once I care about that single element of the story, I’m much more willing to follow the story, become emotionally invested, and be patient with the imperfections of the work. At that level, I’m confident that all readers are the same. But at the level below it — what sorts of somethings and someones will work for them — it’s likely to vary widely.

My Major Entry Points

Despite the highly subjective nature of this topic, I wanted to explore the things that tend to work well to get me into a piece.

  • A sympathetic major character.
    I don’t want or need this character to be perfectly good. I don’t want or need them to be charming beyond reason. In fact, I don’t even need to like them. But I do need to feel sympathy for them and the situation they’re in. I have to recognize something human in them that makes me want to push forward. If I have at least one key player who fits into this category, I’m much more likely to become engaged.

    In Neverwhere, I find the main character’s quirks, his mundane challenges, and his sense of the world to be highly relateable. As a result, the bizarre things that happen to him are far more intriguing, and it feel compelled to follow Gaiman as he presents the rest of his world and story.

  • A plot with meaningful stakes.
    I tend to disagree that every good story needs conflict, but I do believe that every great story needs something to be at stake. If you give me a plot where it’s clear what’s being risked, what might be gained, and those outcomes feel meaningful within the confines of the story, I’m likely to follow along even if I haven’t been won over on other fronts. And if you can do this starting from the premise of the story, it really amps up my engagement.

    In A Simple Plan, the early discovery of millions of dollars makes the stakes and the goal incredibly clear. I’m pulled into the story despite having no strong feelings about the characters or the setting, and that suspense follows for the remainder of Scott Smith’s story.

  • A fascinating setting.
    The setting has to be pretty damn good to win me over on its own, but it’s certainly happened before. Whether it’s the magic system of a fantasy world, the compelling politics of a sci-fi adventure, or the seedy underworld of a transgressive literary tale, the setting can do a great deal to win my patience while the plot and characters are gradually being introduced.

    The Name of the Wind got me interested through providing a well-developed setting. It took more than a hundred pages for the first intriguing plot point to happen, and it took even longer for me to like the lead character. Both eventually happened, but if the setting hadn’t interested me, I likely would have dropped the book before Patrick Rothfuss had a chance to introduce these other elements.

With these thoughts in mind, I’ve started to pay attention to this question in my own work. Who are readers supposed to care about? Are the stakes meaningful and clear? Is the setting rich and developed enough to bring the reader in?

But I also know that this list is incomplete. As a result, I’m very interested in a discussion of how the experience varies for you. In the comments, let me know what gets you to buy into a story, and provide examples where you have them.

Write on,

Rob

Melanie Rae Thon: Advice to Writers and Other Q&A Highlights

I had the privilege to attend a reading, Q&A, dinner, and workshop with the fantastic Melanie Rae Thon. (Don’t know who that is? Check out my spotlight entry.) This entry includes some notes, highlights, and pictures from the reading and Q&A portions of that event.

Highlights and Notes from the Q&A

Beyond reading a variety of her work, Melanie had some wonderful insights to share during her Q&A. Here are some of my favorites.

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Listening to Ghosts: Picking the Topic for a Personal Narrative

ask a writer

Recently, one of my blog readers wrote to ask me the following question (paraphrased):

Subject: How do you choose an autobiographical incident?

I am a student of a creative writing class and my professor assigned us to write a 5-page autobiographical incident. I don’t know what to write about. I know you have your expertise on this and I’m hoping you could suggest something.

My Response

Thanks for reaching out to me! I’ve certainly written many personal narratives. Choosing which experiences to talk about is tricky to explain. For me, the stories almost feel like they choose themselves. They are stories that feel important somehow, and telling the story is often my way of coming to understand that part of my life better. The experience often feels like it’s bouncing around inside me. When I first noticed this, the stories felt like restless ghosts unwilling to let me sleep. Then I learned they were just asking to be spoken.

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Poems Are Night Fires: An Interview with Rob Carney

I mentioned Rob Carney before when he was gracious enough to share a writing exercise with us a couple months back. Let me expand on what I said there.

Rob Carney is an astounding poet and a professor at Utah Valley University. When Carney’s class was recommended to me, it came with one of the strangest testimonials I’ve heard: That the class didn’t feel like learning but playing. Nevertheless, after the class was done, it was clear that students had improved their craft.

I had the chance to take this poetry class from Carney, to take another class on dystopian fiction, to read his work, and to see him perform in the local slam poetry scene. And now, I’ve also had the chance to interview him. Thanks again, Rob, for agreeing to this.

Now, let’s launch into my questions and his responses.


Rob Young / Blair

 

Rob Blair: For those unacquainted with your work, how would you describe yourself? What style and thematic qualities would you say define your body of work?

Rob Carney

Rob Carney: This might be an oddball way to answer, but I’m going to do it anyway. Sometimes I’ve started readings by saying something along the lines of “I’ll start with a poem that tells you a little bit about myself,” and the poem is this:

The Person You Love Is 72.8% Water

I don’t know if I’m going to hell,
but I like toast for breakfast,

and I can eat breakfast
any time of day.

A woman’s slender arms
make me wish I was a painter.

Cats belong in every bookstore. They’ll make the words
seep deeper in your bones.

If God and I were on a rocky beach,
we’d search out perfect skipping stones.

I’d tell Him my favorite miracle:
water into wine.

My favorite mood is Angry. That’s a lie.
My favorite sin is lying. That’s not true,

but it dresses up the story
like a good storm dresses up the sky,

like fire and fiddles take wood and make it speak.
I know, I know—water isn’t wine.

But at night, when someone’s thirsty,
you can bring it, cold as heaven. They can drink.

RB: If someone has never read your work, do you have a recommendation on where they should start?

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7 Tips for Writing an Altruistic Villain

Altruistic Villains

[Courtesy of flickr by Lucky Lynda]

Most stories feature a character or characters in opposition to the protagonist. We call these characters villains. Some villains are more effective at evoking sympathy and indignation from readers than others, which is ultimately the goal for many writers. Some of the more effective villains have good ideals that give shape to their actions. The main problem with their morality is usually that they push their ideals too far. “The ends justify the means,” is often an applicable statement in this regard. These types of villains are very compelling, because we can see where they’re coming from. In the sections that follow, I’ll discuss some concrete methods you can use to write an altruistic villain. Note that not all villains need to be this way. Some are extremely effective at being raw forces of evil and mayhem. The Joker is the most-often cited example. Now let’s get started!

1: Start out with an ideal that most consider to be a morally good one.

Examples include the ideals of freedom, honesty, equality, love, generosity, tradition, security, change, faith, aspiration, justice, independence, honor, redemption, and knowledge. These all sound like good things. But it’s easy to imagine how these could become problems if taken too far. Design your villain with one or more of these ideals in mind. It will eventually become the basis of their villainy. It’s often said that everyone is the hero of their own story. The same goes for villains. Usually, they’ll solidly believe that they are doing the right thing. This is easier to accomplish if their actions are based on a verifiably moral goal.

2: Develop your villain’s background so that it fits with their ideal.

Many villains had to endure some terrible event in their childhood or years before villainy. This will frequently shape their worldviews and instigate them to action. Interestingly, heroes and villains often go through the same sorts of instigating events in their early years. It’s how they react to these stimuli and what they’ve done in the time since that makes them a hero or a villain. So develop your villain’s history such that it reconciles with their malevolent state in the present.

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Can we write without empathy?

ask a writer

This is part of the “ask a writer” series. I received the following message from an aspiring writer named Doug. A lightly edited version is reproduced here with his permission.

I’m in Suzy V’s Seductive Beginnings [writing] class, and Chuck Palahniuk is doing a Q&A for us. In one particular question, he talks about emotional stakes in writing:

“A clever idea is amusing, but unless you have a personal stake in it, the charm evaporates.”

I’ve got pretty severe Asperger’s. I recently took an empathy test with a health care professional and scored almost ZERO. So, I’m basically a robot with a heartbeat, and I hate it.

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