The accepted wisdom is to ignore readers at your own peril. Good advice, since—as writers—we’d be nowhere without an audience.
That said—screw readers.
Wait! Hold on, don’t leave yet. At least hear me out.
I love readers, love them. They’re the gooey nougat in my Snickers, the velvety caramel in my Rolo‘s, the, uh…
You get the point.
But sometimes, my beloved, tasty readers, you don’t know what’s good for you. And before you think ol’ Daddy Nic is getting high and mighty, just know I’m including myself in this category. I’m as voracious reader as you’ll find.
1. The Hero’s Backstory
Alright. Let’s start at the beginning.
Your hero has a past, and how much you choose—or don’t choose—to reveal will drastically change the pace of your story. Your hero might be a broody, melancholic bad-boy with a mysterious eyebrow. Or a pampered débutante with the body of a ballerina and the scars of a cage fighter (hmm…I kind of like that one). As the reader, holy crap I want to know where those scars/eyebrow came from!
Tease them. Tantalize them. Give them just enough to satisfy the surface itch (“The ballerina comes from a school that staged fights in order to win the lead role), then leave it alone.
Remember the mistake Papa Lucas made. The world doesn’t need another Phantom Menace.
2. I Want the Protagonist to Date my Daughter
The reader (hopefully) loves your character. That’s well and good. And the reader wants your character to succeed, which is also good. But beware, beware, the temptation to make your protagonist too…damn… likeable.
I know that’s weird to hear from a guy purporting to give writing advice: “But Nic! Don’t we want the reader to like our main character?”
Yes. Obviously, if your character isn’t likeable your story’s D.O.A. But you’re equally likely to kill it by making your protagonist the nicest, most friendly chum in the world. A man who takes in strays, saves damsels in distress, and volunteers his free time at the Children’s Hospital.
Sometimes readers want their protagonist absent of flaws (whether they know it or not…I’ve been guilty of this on several occasions), and that makes for one hell of a boring character. So fly in the face of your audience and give that MC some meat. Some messed up, serious, unlikeable issues that aren’t easily resolved.
Your readers (myself included) will thank you.
3. The Smoldering Lovers Get It On
There’s nothing better than good, old-fashioned romantic tension. Lancelot and Guinevere. Tristen and Isolde. Sam and Frodo. Love stories based on the desire, the need, the bone-numbing desperation to make with the, uh…whoopie (let’s keep it PG13, folks).
These stories are great because of the inherent drama behind a lowered glance, a trembling caress, a quivering chin. Small, subtle movements that telegraph the characters romantic turmoil without broadcasting their need to get it on (I’m looking at you, E.L James).
Can you imagine how different the Arthurian Legend would be if Lancelot and Guinevere had jumped in the sack right away? “Hi, I’m Lancelot. I’m taking you to meet your future husband. “Why, Lancelot…is that a sword on your hip or are you just excited to see me?” (start porn music)
It’s OK to make the reader wait. The payoff is worth it.
4. A Safe Haven
Your characters are on the run. They’ve just escaped a coven of undead jackalopes and need a place to hide, and…oh! Oh! Didn’t I read earlier that Billy has an uncle with a bunker sprayed in jackalope urine? That’ll keep them safe. Hurray!
Look, sometimes pacing requires a time-out. A moment for the reader to catch their breath, reflect on the jackalope carnage, and recharge. Be wary, though, of giving your characters a Free Pass. A “Rivendell.” A place stocked with food, ammunition, and wise elves.
Your readers really, really want it. WHY WON’T YOU GIVE IT TO THEM? ARE YOU A SADIST!?
Yes. All writers are sadists.
Allow the readers to catch their breath, but not for long—there are more jackalopes around the corner.
5. Tall, Dark, and Handsome
Hey good-looking, have I seen you here before? Ooh, you sparkle—I like my protagonists sparkly.
Here’s the thing—I have nothing against attractive characters.
They exist in the wild, afterall, so why shouldn’t they be in your story? Your protagonist, though…that’s different.
If your main character is unusually hot, your story loses credibility. It’s unrealistic, self-indulgent, wish-fulfillment—the worse kind of Mary Sue—and you want no part of it.
It’s not fair, but it’s true.
Unless your characters are vampires. Obviously.
6. More Magic!
This is for my fantasy writers. Feel free to replace with the appropriate noun if your story doesn’t have magic (“mystery,” for Mysteries, “action” for Thrillers, uh…”science” for Science Fiction? I don’t know, I’m not a scientist).
There are two schools of fantasy writers: I’m of the school suggesting less is more when it comes to magic. (What’s that? The other school? Why are you obsessed with school? It’s summer).
Magic is ephemeral. Mysterious. Its power lies in subtlety and careful application—notfireballs every other page.
This is tough on the reader, because, dammit…they want to know. They want to see the supernatural, to experience the otherness that attracts them to fantasy in the first place. But you’ll hold their attention longer—and beef up the atmosphere and mood—if you keep the magic felt, not seen.
George RR Martin (whom I consider the all-time master of fantasy) is a perfect example. Keep the story fantastic, but the magic mysterious.
7. You Can’t Kill my Favorite Character!
Oh, but I can. I CAN! I’m God, and my killing pen flows with swift, terrible justice.
Also, I stay young by swimming in reader’s tears.
But really, narcissism notwithstanding , you want me to kill your favorite character. You may not admit it (go ahead, deny. I can wait. There’s a Twilight marathon playing), but in your secretest of heart-spaces you want a martyr. A death you can feel in your colon. Something memorable, worthy of reminiscing with loyal fans over tea and crumpets.
What is Harry Potter without the death of (SPOILER!) Dumbledore? Or (MAJOR SPOILER FOR GAME OF THRONES) A Song of Ice and Fire without beheading Ned Stark?
Sometimes a character has to die for the story to run its course. Not all the time, but as writers, when that moment comes, we can’t hesitate. Even if it means hatemail.
Like, a lot of hatemail.
8. Answers! Answers! ANSWERS!
No matter how many questions you answer, how many clues you give, how many mysteries you tie with a pretty bow, it will never be enough.
Never, ever, ever.
So stop stressing for a moment and allow a few questions to remain unanswered.
I want answers as much as any reader, but sometimes I have to accept that what I want, and what I need aren’t the same thing.
A great example is “The Dark Tower.” Give it a read. Then proceed to curse Stephen King. Then praise him. Then curse him again.
Stories are a series of mysteries strung together by bubblegum and duct tape. There are big mysteries and little mysteries, and in order to keep the reader’s attention you have to keep a few unanswered until the end.
The problem lies in how to answer them when you get to the end, because any time you’ve kept a reader guessing for several hundred pages—and I mean, head-scratching, spreadsheets-of-possible-killers guessing—they’re going to have large expectations.
You have to give them something—probably a lot of something if you want to avoid getting a brick through the window—but keep a couple of secrets for yourself. Spread some breadcrumbs and allow the reader to search for their own answers. You’ll be surprised at what comes back.
9. A Happy Ending
Who doesn’t love a happy ending?
You don’t, you heartless bastard!
This is the ultimate betrayal, the moment when your reader leaps from their chair and throws your book against the wall. “What do you mean the jackalopes win!?”
Well, sometimes, no matter how you force it…the bad guys win. That’s why Shakespeare wrote tragedies, folks, and I studied that stuff in school, so it must be good. Your book isn’t a Disney fable (unless it is, in which case enjoy your buckets of cash and remember to hire me for the sequel), so don’t pretend you have to write it like one. Your loyalty is to the story, and nothing else.
Remember Romeo and Juliet? “For never was a story of more woe, than this of Juliet and her Romeo.” Shakespeare wrote that, and it’s true…because Shakespeare’s a boss! He wasn’t afraid to kill some lovers, some cousins, some wives, mothers, sisters and brothers. He knew that sometimes the best ending is one drenched in the tears of your audience.
And in the end, is there any greater compliment?