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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

Key Takeaways from the Science of Stories

science-of-stories

I recently had the chance to watch a video from Stanford’s MediaX program that explored a scientific study on how, why, and which stories impact us. The video itself is rather lengthy and a bit rambly (and uses Comic Sans in its presentation), so I wanted to save you the trouble of viewing the presentation itself and pass along the key takeaways—as well as make some of my own commentary. Let’s get to it!

1: Stories Are Deeply Rooted in Our Species

According to the research gathered and conducted by Kendall Haven and his team, stories are deeply rooted in human neurology and psychology, going back further than 150,000 years. As Haven puts it, “We’re hardwired for stories.” The notion here is that the transmission of knowledge, wisdom, identity, and beliefs was substantially aided by the structure of a story. As an increasingly social group, early homo sapiens were able to make use of story for both social and survival functions.

2: “Storification” Is Pre-Conscious Behavior

When we take in information, it isn’t our conscious mind that transforms that information into a narrative structure. Rather, when knowledge is communicated, the brain transforms it into a story before it ever hits the conscious mind. This “storification” process happens to almost all knowledge that is transmitted to us, and it happens through what Haven describes as a “neural story net.” That neural story net is a sub-region of the brain that helps us make sense of incoming data, and re-structuring fact into narrative seems to be one of its primary functions.

3: Storification Distorts Factual Information

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Procrasination, Stimulants, and the Creative Process

Neuroscience of Writing

 

 

 

Why do we, as writers, procrastinate so damn much? Why do so many of us depend on caffeine, cigarettes, and other stimulants? And why are alcohol and other mind-altering drugs so often used as creative crutches? These questions don’t have definitive answers, but a look at the neurological element can give us some insights into some of these less-than-ideal patterns.

Let’s take each of these items in turn.

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Write-Brained: The Source of Writer’s Block

Neuroscience of Writing

 

 

 

Some contend that writer’s block isn’t “real.” Often, I’m sure these people intend to say that writer’s block is self-imposed or all in your head. Both of these things are true, but that doesn’t mean that writer’s block is in any way less actual or problematic. In this entry, we’ll explore where writer’s block happens in the brain so we can develop strategies for combating it.

In previous entries, we explored two key ideas that are relevant here. First, that creative writing takes place in one’s neo-mammalian brain. And second, that the creative element of the process is distinct from the analytical process. To begin our discussion of where writer’s block comes from, allow me to introduce a third key idea: It is possible to get “locked out” of our neo-mammalian brain and our lateral thinking process.

To start our discussion, I will discuss how each of these “lock outs” can happen.

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Post-Apocalyptic vs. Post-Societal vs. Dystopian: How To Describe Your Weird Future

post-apocalyptic

Image via flickr by Abode of Chaos

So you’ve written a terrific science fiction story. Congrats! You’re excited to tell your friends. Some of them smile and nod, gently letting you know they’re not really into sci-fi. You keep telling people about your work until finally – success! You find a fan of the genre. Before you can get to the hook of your spiel, they hold up their hands in protest. “I need to know what kind of science fiction it is first. I only read certain types.”

Genres are tricky things. They provide handy shortcuts to make work accessible, but can also put up barriers to entry. Each person has a different opinion of what certain terms means. For some people, it’s not science fiction unless it features hard-bitten admirals flying fleets of spaceships into galaxy-spanning wars. Other people swears up and down that sci-fi is all about special bonds of friendship formed between humans and aliens. Still others care only about future-dwelling desert nomads or highbrow political satire pieces.

Identifying the sub-genres of your work is one way to improve your story’s reception. The goal is to target your work to the exact type of reader most likely to enjoy it. The more detailed you get, the better. I know exactly whether a “neolithic, noir steampunk romance set in a fantastical alternate universe” is right for me; a generic tale of “alternate history,” not so much.

Today, we’ll talk specifically about several related science-fiction sub-genres involving governments, world-changing events, and the future.

Post-Apocalyptic

Societies around the world have told tales of disaster and rebirth throughout history, often with religious connotations. The term ‘apocalypse’ originally meant ‘to uncover’ or ‘to reveal.’ It indicated a time in the future when ‘good would triumph over evil,’ ending life on earth as we know it – closely tied to the biblical concept of ‘Judgment Day.’ Over time, the term evolved to describe any global disaster (natural or man-made) with the power to permanently alter our world.

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Narrative Clichés and Other Tropery

clicheImage via flickr by Louis Bavent

You may have heard the term “narrative trope” before. You also may have associated this phrase with the more well-known “cliché.” If this is the case, then you’re absolutely right in assuming an association. Tropes and clichés are closely related narrative terms. But there’s an important difference that could save your life some day. Well, probably not. But it’s significant nonetheless, particularly for writers.

Tropes are recurring narrative themes that we see and recognize across many different works of fiction. Clichés are the same thing. It’s just that clichés are painfully overt and distract from the plot. Basically, a cliché is a bad execution of a good trope.

Predictably, tvtropes has the best definition of what a trope is. You should all go take a look at that. Essentially, tropes aren’t bad. They are useful tools that help tell good stories. Narrative patterns exist for a reason; they’re effective. Over the decades, writers have discovered methods of storytelling that are emotionally intriguing, thematically entertaining, and plot-advancing. That’s what tropes are.

Familiarity.

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