Only the invisible bears us up; we speak together in the shocking darkness, each carrying the other somehow, unseen.—Derek Raymond
Here’s the thing about storytelling, folks: it has to have a purpose. Why are you telling this story? I mean, what’s your point?
If your point is that writing fiction is one heck of a fun and entertaining way to spend your leisure time, then I say, “Good for you.” Have yourself a field day. You’re enjoying your life! That’s what it’s there for.
However, if your point is that you expect to sell this story and make money off other people reading it, then I say, “Know thy audience.” Thy audience is not entertained by watching you hang out at your desk laughing hysterically at your own in-jokes. They are not moved to weep when you get all blue inside. They are not cast off the rainbow into epiphany by you leaping to your feet yelling, “Eureka!” They’re still sitting there stolidly waiting for it to matter to them.
And if you can’t give them that. . .well, don’t be holding your hand out waiting for the cash registers to start ringing.
There is only one purpose to storytelling, and that is to get to the CLIMAX. So if your novel’s CLIMAX is boring, redundant, more trouble than it’s worth—forgettable—then you have a problem that no amount of marketing hype can overcome.
This is the simplest technique ever, but aspiring writers rarely know about it. Resonance is that wonderful reverberating feeling inside the reader that makes their whole body feel like it’s been gong’d. Gonging a reader is putting them between two large brass gongs and giving it a hearty whangngngng. Great novels always have resonance. The reader reels back in their chair at the end shrieking, “That was toooooooo fabulous!” Then they’re desperate to read it again. Or, better yet, to read the very next thing this author writes.
You create resonance by putting a subtle but clear clue to your CLIMAX somewhere near the very beginning, then spending the rest of the novel drawing the reader’s attention away from it. This is why mystery writers have to put the culprit in the first 1/4-1/3 of the novel.
The simplest technique ever.
This is the part pantsers love doing but rarely know they have to follow up on. You know what we call fuses that aren’t followed up on? Loose threads.
When you pants loose threads without knowing they’re supposed to be fuses, you get to the end of your novel. . .and it doesn’t end in all the fuses coming together to make an almighty explosion, but in you, personally, getting bored. Sadly, the writer is the last person who ever gets bored. Guess what that means? That’s right. All your readers have already died of boredom and turned up their toes long, long before you finally meandered into your ad-hoc, how-can-I-get-out-of-this? WTF-ever ending.
That’s not a CLIMAX. That’s just a fizzle.
Go ahead and amuse yourself to the eyeballs with the fruitful, verdant abundance of your random imagination. Lots of fuses! Boy, howdy!
Then spend some lengthy, intense, brain-breaking hours figuring out exactly how all those wild ideas can come together in the most thrilling, wonderful CLIMAX ever, the reason your legions of future fans are going to love this novel and read it again and again and again.
You all know about cause-&-effect, right? Because you’ve been listening to me rant about it for ages, on this blog, on my advice column, and in my books?
Readers do not read for the honor of watching you sit around all your days scratching and drinking coffee (as fascinating as that might be). No. They read for logic. Their minds are steel traps. IF a character were to have this personality, AND they were to find themself in that impossible predicament, THEN how would they cope?
Every single event you put into your story must be tied inextricably to the other scenes. What’s your CLIMAX? And what caused that? And what caused that? And what caused that? And what caused that? And what caused that?
You know the old E.L. Doctorow saw about writing a novel being like driving a car at night where all you can see is whatever’s within reach of your headlights? That’s actually backward. Writing a novel is like backing a car up at night where all you can see is whatever’s within reach of your taillights.
Readers stop reading when they stop being addicted to your story. When it stops surprising them. When their curiosity dies.
“What’s that? Something just fell out of me onto the floor. Oh. My curiosity. DEAD.”
Not only must every single page inspire your reader’s curiosity anew, keep it fat & healthy, thrill it with unending surprises, keep your reader helplessly addicted to you and your story. . .your whole reason for telling this story had darn well better be the most surprising, curiosity-inspiring, addictive part of the whole thing.
“How’d that author DO that?” You want them desperate to keep reading your novels to find out, “What kind of magic are you WORKING here?”
At the same time that your CLIMAX must be surprising it must also be inevitable. Deus ex machina is cheating. And readers with minds like steel traps hate cheaters. Do you want your readers to hate you? No, you do not. Not if you want their money you sure don’t. But how do you make your novel’s CLIMAX both surprising and inevitable? Both unexpected and familiar? Both shocking and ringing impossibly true?
All three parts of the braid working together: Resonance. Fuses. Impeccable, inescapable cause-&-effect Logic.
Lock it in.
And when you’ve got all three aspects of the novel locked in (HOOK, DEVELOPMENT, and CLIMAX), remember to stick those 4 Essential Post-Its up over your writing desk.
MOST HILARIOUS COMMENT:
I might have this tattooed on my forearm. The entire post.—Jessica
39 thoughts on “5 Ways to Make Your Novel Unforgettable”
This was such a great post. Its important for me to make sure I’m hitting all the hot buttons for the reader. Thanks for hitting the important points with such clear descriptions. My WIP thanks you!
Edge of Your Seat Romance
Oh, Raquel, I hope your WIP feels itself bursting into fully-realized life. There is so much buried in these stories that live inside us.
Great post! I think these hot buttons are so often neglected by authors. As a book blogger, I run into so many books I LOVED LOVED LOVED right up until the author dropped the ball on one of these! As a writer, when someone reminds me of these things (as you have so eloquently done) it’s more of a *headdesk* reaction, but that’s a different issue! =) Thanks for this!
So many times I”ve read posts about testing story arcs, tracing the threads, checking all those little balls have slots to fall into. Usually there will be comments afterwards from people who are appalled that anyone would do something so calculating to an art form. But unless, as you say, you’re writing only to please yourself (and nothing wrong if that’s what you truly want), structure is part of the art.
Lustily expressed, as ever, Victoria.
This is so great!!! Love it. 🙂 You always make everything sound so clear and simple!
GREAT article! Couldn’t agree more with, “Here’s the thing about storytelling, folks: it has to have a purpose. Why are you telling this story? I mean, what’s your point?” So many stories tend to fit into the “So What?” bucket, meaning when you’re done reading one of them you’re left not sure of not only what you have gained from having read the story but what you were *meant* to take away from that story.
Wonderful tips to help ensure that not only does the “So What” not happen, but that the journey to discovering it is thoroughly enjoyed by the reader!
What fantastic advice! It sounds so simple when you write it out like this – if only it was something we writers could master that easily. I particularly like your advice about inspiring the reader’s curiosity anew on every single page. Will definitely be concentrating these points as I revise my manuscript.
Great post! The Resonance one really “resonated” with me (yes, haha, not funny). Seriously, though — I understand the concept of resonance and I can point at the books on my shelves that achieve it. All the same, I never knew how I could achieve it, but you’re right! It’s simple, and something I will apply to my novels from now on. Thanks for sharing this info!
Why didn’t I read this before I sent you my manuscript?
In my WIP I am almost to the point of the climax. Your points will help me crank up the heat to write what I’ve been wrestling with and wanting to take the chicken’s easy way out. In an effort to stay clear of the “So What” bucket, I will bookmark this post keeping it close at hand to guide me as the words spill out on the page. Thanks!
Maggie, isn’t it awful to follow all those fuses on the edge of your seat only to discover. . .they’re just loose threads, after all? This is why using them properly sets your novel apart from the rest. And it seems so simple when you realize what’s really going on.
Absolutely, Roz—“checking all those little balls have slots to fall into.” That’s such a great way to put it. It can be so hard for soapbox pantsers to understand it’s not an either/or question. You need both pantsing and plotting, both creativity and logic, both flesh and skeleton. Otherwise all you wind up with a Ray Bradburyish puddle on the floor.
And if you’re only in it for one half of the game. . .well, have fun, people, but don’t think only playing one half of the game is going to make you money. Readers are simply more demanding than that.
Thank you, Michelle! It’s such a wonderful, profound, complex art. Anything that can show writers how it all fits together makes it just that much more valuable to everyone. And it DOES all fit together. That’s what’s so addictive about it.
Yes, Chick Lit Stories—it’s the “So What” bucket. That’s a wonderful term! That bucket’s like a compost bucket these days, so full of contemporary published fiction and yet so important to avoid.
And it’s true: the whole point is the reader’s journey. That’s what they pay for because that’s what they love.
Rachael, that idea about “curiosity” is a direct result of Donald Maass’s idea of “tension on every page.” It makes so much sense when you realize he means, “Your reader had damn well better have a good reason to turn the page. . .or they won’t.”
It does sound kind of self-explanatory when you think about it, doesn’t it?
Actually, Susan, that is funny! And one of the best exercises a writer can do is look in every one of those great resonant novels on their shelves and find the clue hidden in the HOOK.
Oh, Kathryn. You have until Monday to send it again.
D. Jordan—how fun! Yes, now is the time to spend some long, luxurious hours with your WIP going though the whole thing looking for burning fuses, subterranean threads, significant details before you design that CLIMAX. It’s one of my favorite parts of the whole process!
I might have this tattooed on my forearm. The entire post.
It will be a long and painful process… but well worth it.
Thank you for this.
Wow, coming from a pantser, that second part about fuses makes so much sense to me. I have a bad bad habit of doing so, and couldn’t figure out why my manuscript seemed so choppy. Great article Victoria.
Love this. Totally posting it on my links so I can keep reminding myself of these things.
PS: I’m reading a book right now, er, NOT reading a book that totally lacks #4. Bored out of my freaking mind. But I just keeping telling myself, this is how NOT to write a book. So…I’m learning something.
It’s great to see this all laid out so clearly. How come so many writers don’t seem to get it? Maybe because even if you know it, it’s not to easy to do. Resonance is so vital but I think it comes from more than just planting a clue early on. I think it has a lot to do with what the main point of the novel is. Is it relevant to people, inspiring , moving, poignant etc? Is it worth saying?
For me it has to be, either to write it ,or if its someone elses, to have it resonate with me.
“When you pants loose threads without knowing they’re supposed to be fuses, you get to the end of your novel.”
You mean “When YOUR pants LOSE threads”. Hard to take writing advice seriously when I read typos like this. A little more proofreading please.
Um, that’s “pants” as a verb, John. And “loose” as an adjective. I’m not even sure where pants losing their threads would fit into this piece. But, hey, thanks for the careful reading!
Tahlia, writers don’t know about this stuff because it takes years and years and years of studying scores of novels to figure it all out. That’s why I bring it to you guys. It’s my gift to you!
And, you’re right. None of it is easy to do. That’s why writers have a reputation for drink. 🙂
Yes, Kerrie, the lack of surprise is a problem with a lot of contemporary novels, as the craft of shaping plot for epiphany continues to fall by the side of the road.
I just spent the last three weeks explicating The Time Traveler’s Wife on the magazine around this issue because of the heavy-handed foreshadowing. Not only was it no surprise how the guy died, by the time he got around to it I was ready to kill himself.
Isn’t it wonderful, Nevea, the thrill of coming up with fuses to lay! Then when you reach the point of writing your Climax, you realize just how rich the material is that you’ve created for yourself.
This is absolutely the most knowledgeable, sensible novel-writing advice I’ve ever read. I agree with Jessica – I believe I’ll have it tatooed on my arm too. 🙂
Thanks so much for this Victoria!
This post = life-changing. “What’s your CLIMAX? And what caused that? And what caused that? And what caused that?”
I think you just taught me how to plot or something. Thank you!
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