I finished one of my favorite series’ last week for the second time.
At the end of it, I still wasn’t ready to leave that world, those characters. The adventures and the jokes, the romances and the rivalries. I just wasn’t ready. So I did the sensible thing. I picked my favorite book from the series and settled in for a third read. A day and half later, I was right back where I started, yearning for more books in the series, but knowing it was well and truly time to move on.
But what do you follow that up with? I tried a YA trilogy. Highly recommended. A best-seller. Gushed over by my friends. It sounded like a sure thing. And maybe it would’ve been had I not just finished reading these other books that I loved so very much. The fact is, it was built well. It had potential and probably was building up to something that warranted the hype, but I wasn’t enjoying the ride. After about ten percent of the book, I put it down.
What makes that kind of difference? What separates the great books from the great books you love to read over and over? By all accounts, this trilogy had what it takes to make it commercially. This was not a crappy book I discarded. But, as the line from Chocolat goes, “It’s not my favorite.”
Looking at those two books, of course, made me think about my own work and about what I’m trying to achieve when I create a story. I want to write books that people will enjoy time and again. But that means more than a solid character, a tight plot, and a great ending. It’s building the literary equivalent of a rollercoaster. It has to be more than structurally sound. It has to be a great ride from beginning to end. But how?
Think about it. It’s the same way we catalog the events of our lives into memories. When you think about your life, you don’t start with your birth and follow it through mentally, day by day, to the present. You don’t track your story arc or character shifts over the long haul. You don’t consider setting and theme. No. You recall an event – an important, emotional, or entertaining happening – and recount the story of that moment.
The first time I met my best friend, we were paired up in my beginning jujitsu class and she, with the superior strength and technique, subsequently (and very much on accident) gave me a concussion and a bloody nose. Her biggest concern was that I was bleeding. My biggest concern was that the aforementioned blood was staining my brand new, white uniform. And – blast it! – I didn’t know if that stain would come out.
Over the years, she and I have told this story, together and separately, probably a hundred times or more. Sometimes we recount it between just the two of us for the shared laugh and our own enjoyment.
We all do the same thing with fiction. We talk to friends and strangers alike about our shared love for a movie, a book, a show, bonding over these memories. What was your favorite part? Do you remember when they blah, blah, blah? Wasn’t it even better when they said blah, blah, blah? What a great line! We’re reliving our favorite moments, retelling our favorite lines, and we’re thrilled all over again.
It’s all about the scene and the payout. Done over and over, all in the same story. Again and again, finding the tension, the funny, the gut-wrenching, the triumphant. Writers looking for it like gold in a mountain stream. Here’s the scene; now where’s the payout?
And it can look like so many things. It’s Aslan breaking the stone table even as he breaks the hold of the grave. It’s discovering who Severus Snape really is and which side he’s on. It’s quietly chuckling with Wesley as Vizzini proclaims in all bombast that one should never go up against a Sicilian when death is on the line. It’s watching the clouds of vengeance roll onto the screen as Wyatt Earp prepares to ride out like death. “You tell ’em I’m coming, and Hell’s coming with me!”
So the challenge is to create more than just the overarching story work, but to create awesome moments. At the time of this writing I can honestly say, I have no idea how. This is just where I am in my journey. I assume it will involve rewrites. Lots of rewrites. Everything I learn does.
But imagine. To create scene after scene that actually reaches people , scenes that make them want to come back and settle into this moment or that moment, just one more time . . . It’s worth the attempt. More than worth it. As a writer, making that connection with the audience, it’s everything I could hope for, and that’s a star I want to go after.