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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » What makes an engaging story

   
Author Topic: What makes an engaging story
robertq
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On another thread Kathleen stated:

For my part, when a story is so engaging that I don't notice the meandering dialog (or other stylistic picadilloes), I am not only pleased but grateful. You see, as I have learned more and more about writing, I have had a harder and harder time finding books that will engage me so that I don't notice how they are written.

It has gotten to the point where the best thing I can say about a book any more is that I was eager to get back to it (much less being able to find ones that "I just couldn't put down").

And right now, I am at a point where I'm not reading any fiction, because everything I pick up is extremely easy to put back down and never pick up again.

(Woe is me!)

---------------------------

So, folks, what DOES make an engaging story? (I must admit I'm somewhat in the same boat as Kathleen.)

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extrinsic
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For me, an engaging story has credible characters suffering credible major problems wanting satisfaction in credible settings portrayed from a vigorous, credible, settled, and close narrative voice; character, plot, setting, and voice all together, that excites my empathy and curiosity.

Oh, and appreciable transformation; change, in other words, preferrably personal growth, though a poetic justice personal decline works for me too.

[ June 13, 2012, 04:25 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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rcmann
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Real characters who act the way they are presented. If they are presented as idiots, let them act like idiots. If they are merely foolish, let them be foolish. If they are intelligent, don't have them stick their hands into a running wood chipper. If they are supposed to be expert mechanics, their car should run flawlessly. If they are doctors, their house should contain basic first aid supplies as a matter of course.

Also, consistency. If someone talks like a lawyer in one chapter, I don't want to read them talking like a farm hand in the next one. Unless there is a plot reason for it. If they are in disguise, or trying to blend in somewhere, ok. But I don't like it when characters switch vocabulary, behavior, or moral codes in mid stream.

Consistently applicable internal rules are nice too. If gunpowder doesn't work, matches shouldn't work either. The reason for this is readily found in any encyclopedia. I get irritated when an author doesn't care enough about their own work to spend some elbow grease polishing it.

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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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All of those things help, but for me most of all, I really need to care about the characters, and that's darn subjective.

quote:
Originally posted by extrinsic:
For me, an engaging story has credible characters suffering credible major problems wanting satisfaction in credible settings portrayed from a vigorous, credible, settled, and close narrative voice; character, plot, setting, and voice all together, that excites my empathy and curiosity.

Oh, and appreciable transformation; change, in other words, preferrably personal growth, though a poetic justice personal decline works for me too.

And a price has to be paid for that growth, but that's something that comes more at the end, so how do you know it's worth reading at the beginning? I'd say that if the other things are all there, you can hope it that the ending will be consistent with them as well as satisfing.
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MattLeo
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Well, let's start by clarifying. I have no *criteria*, because if I did I'd be obliged to find anything that met the criteria engaging and anything that failed not! Sometimes things draw you in that you don't expect.

I'd say some things that certainly contribute to being engaged are:

(1) An interesting narrative voice. Some writers are the literary equivalent of Barry White; they can engage you by whispering sweet nothings in your ear. This is more apt to happen with writers who write cleanly, but not to the point of school-essay correctness. Madeleine L'Engle and Douglas Adams both have engaging narrative voices, although they're different from each other as could be.

(2) Clarity without extraneous detail. You can't get engaged if you don't know what's going on. As robertq points out in his ebook on story openings, you don't have to explain everything, but you can't leave a reader totally out to sea; he ought to feel he understands mostly, and then the bits he doesn't get yet are more likely to spur him on. You've got to manage the cognitive load so the reader feels like he's getting somewhere without too much effort.

(3) Identification. If I identify with a character's objectives I'll be more engaged. This necessarily requires clarity. It doesn't require that the character be perfect or even good. Sometimes a good writer can get you to root for a villain ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Francis_Urquhart ). It helps if the characters are vivid and believable (although not necessarily realistic).

(4) Pacing. I found *The DaVinci Code* engaging while at the same time detesting it start to finish. The plot kept moving and none of the writing was challenging. Note this break-neck speed works against vivid characterization; the characters in tDVC aren't very relatable.

(5) Awareness of uncertainty. This is where a lot of sophisticated readers shut down; when they think they can see what is coming.

(6) Suspense. This is highest where the reader knows something the character in question doesn't. I once wrote a scene in which the hero went to a confrontation armed with a pistol. He's confident he can use it because he shot at the bad guys in the window of a barn and believes he at least got the shot in the window. The readers know he missed the barn entirely.

Personally, I find knowing how fiction is put together hasn't reduced my enjoyment of reading it. In part this is because I maintain a strong distinction between "I wouldn't do it this way" and "this is a mistake." But even where I can spot things that seem like mistakes they don't bother me because I know how impossible it is to make something perfect.

If critiquing has turned you off reading for pleasure, you might just be burned out. A short break might be in order.

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robertq
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Nice points Mattleo, thanks.

For novels at least, engaging characters seem to be a huge part of the reading pleasure. Now it seems to me that the author must really enjoy the characters. And this may be part of the "conviction" which was touched upon in the Twilight thread, (and also what is missing from the Lightning Thief series---does Riordan really like or even give a crap about his characters?) Rowling has said she wanted characters she could spend years with. So the author has a strong relationship to the characters. It's almost like one asks oneself: what characters would I most like to see/read-about? And hope that its shared by readers.

My wife and I liked the Janet Evanovich Stephanie Plum series. We started with number Nine, which had massive and unnecessary plot holes at the end. Nevertheless, we found the characters so enjoyable, we went on to read much of the series.

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Robert Nowall
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I think back to my "first" science fiction---I'm sure it wasn't the first SF I read, but it's the one that stuck, the fulcrum on which my life swings. Space Cadet, Robert A. Heinlein.

But what about it engaged me so, what about it still engages me? What can I say, more than forty years later?

Well, the arc of most of Heinlein's "juveniles," this one included, was the journey from boy to man. This one had one central character---some of the others don't---who went to what I now see was the equivalent of our own "service academies." (Heinlein went to Annapolis, so he could write with authority about the experience.) The central character was surrounded by many interesting characters, some appearing briefly, some hanging around longer...one "villain," who helps divide some of the good-and-evil the characters wrestle with, even disappears for awhile and reappears later in the book.

The narrative is episodic---you can divide it into four separate parts ("qualifying," "the Academy," "ship duty," "Venus.")

The events of the narrative is colorful---a rollercoaster ride to test tolerance for high G-forces, space aerobatics, a wrecked ship and lost civilization in the asteroids, a not-so-lost civilization at equatorial Venus. The life the characters were leading was Not Mine, and it put me in a place I had never been before---but a place I was eager to revisit. (Within about two years I had acquired every Heinlein then in print---and had already moved on to other writers and the SF magazines.)

The science is worked out---orbital paths around Earth and from planet to planet, the ecology of Venus---all, near as I could tell when I was ten, correct. (See our discussion elsewhere right now for more on scientific correctness.)

And there's an element of growth in the main character---along the way, he learns how to conduct himself, that "you can't go home again," and what it ultimately means to be in the service. I think it was that, mostly, that appealed to me, that it was a journey I would have to make myself, and shortly. (I can't say I went in any direction Heinlein would have approved of, but I gave it my best shot, and I'm kinda still on it.)

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robertq
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Thanks Robert, it makes me think about my own first Spec fic reading experiences.

I recall as a teenager, how enthralled I was by Tolkien's implications of a huge "history" behind the events of the Hobbit and LOTR. I've always been interested in history, and that resonated with me. Dune, again the elaborate history and incredibly worked out universe. It was also like Robert N. says, a place I was eager to revisit. I've always had a fondness for Brin's Uplift universe and his planet Stratos in Glory Season. Again, there's a deeper appeal, something I'm eager to re-visit. Interesting.

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robertq
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Robert N.'s comments on the colorful events in Space Cadet reminds me of the number of colorful events in the entire series by Rowling. Again, something that tends to engage readers, IMO
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Robert Nowall
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Should'a summarized my thoughts...at this late date, I think it was some combination of (1) the story putting me in a place I'd never been and wanted to go to again, and (2) the way the basic plot would apply to my own life sometime soon.

For "place" I might also say "state of mind."

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rcmann
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All story telling is derived from sitting around the fire during long winter nights and hearing myths and legends of heroes long ago and far away. Plus some singing. That's what story telling is about. That's what story telling has always been about.

Occasionally, someone would come out with a good one on old Joe. Or old Thag, or Lucius, or whatever the name might be and how he got caught cuddling up to that sheep last summer.

Either way, a story is about someone doing something interesting, and what happened afterward.

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MartinV
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Folks, less frolicking and more reading and writing. That's my recipe for creating engaging stories (trying to give myself a new work boost, at least).
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Robert Nowall
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One "other" addition to my comments about Space Cadet---timing is everything. I read Space Cadet for the first time when I was nine. Likely it wouldn't have the same impact if I had read it when I was sixteen or thirty-two or sixty-four---and, just as likely, something else would have had a powerful impact on me before I reached that point.

...which slips into my next point. So far I have read just the first volume of Harry Potter---I've got all seven, but one thing crowds out another. And I was much older when it came out---and on the other side of not just Heinlein, but Asimov and Clarke and Tolkien and Lovecraft and Hemingway and Fitzgerald and others that have influenced me. I'm not so easily dazzled anymore---and, likely, if I had read Rowling when I was nine and didn't look at Heinlein till my forties---well, Harry Potter could've moved into my favorite, could've moved me as much, could've possibly changed my life. But now..."it ain't'a gonna happen."

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InarticulateBabbler
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Eric James Stone passed on a tidbit of advice given to him that really resonated with me, and gave me quite the epiphany, so I thought I'd share it:

Find what your protagonist wants the most, and what he/she fears the most, and then make him/her have to face that fear to get what they want.

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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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This is a link to a jpeg file (photo) that shows 22 writing tips from Pixar.

Some of them have been discussed here and/or elsewhere on Hatrack, but I think they are all worth considering.

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wise
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Thanks, Kathleen, the Pixar tips were excellent.

One of my favorite series that I love to read again and again is "West of Eden" by Harry Harrison. The reasons:
1. Clearly defined main character who changes and grows throughout the trilogy
2. A detailed and fascinating world unlike any I've ever read before (or since)
3. Credible conflicts that make me want to struggle through with the main character
4. A satisfying ending
5. Themes that resonate and are true to me
6. Great pacing
7. Twists and turns that on the first reading took me by surprise - what fun!

I could probably think of more, but those are some good examples of what is important to me. They aren't in any particular order, except for #1. A good story must begin and end with a main character(s) who I identify with and want to spend time with. Without good characterizations I lose interest and nothing else matters.

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Robert Nowall
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I'm looking forward to seeing Brave as soon as possible...
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Robert Nowall
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Just saw it this afternoon---great experience. Emotionally moving by the end, returning to some of the depth that was lacking in Cars 2. Plus a lot of neat stuff in between. Maybe too many false endings, y'know, like a Zemeckis film, but that's okay.

I didn't spot most of the traditional Pixar gags (A-113, the Luxo ball, the Pizza Planet truck), but John Ratzenberger did do a voice somewhere in it, and I leave the rest for the more keen-eyed until the DVD / Blu-Ray comes out.

Somehow one of the plot points eluded my early reading of the reviews---the reviewers explained it, but not maybe the most important part of it.

(Stay to the end of the credits: there's a gag right after.)

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hoptoad
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looking forward to it, RobertNowall.
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