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Catching and holding readers' interest

Started by DerynifanK, August 24, 2020, 03:37:51 PM

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This advice was written by Evie as a reply to a question about writing about "everyday things".It was in reference to the story "The Healer's Inheritance" As a brand new fanfic writer I found it very valuable and asked her if I could share it with other writers. She graciously gave her permission so here it is.

"You can absolutely write about "everyday stuff" as long as there is something happening within the context of that "everyday stuff" that provides the basis for an actual story, and not simply a laundry listing of things that happened during an average day.  In a story, something has to happen.  That "something" doesn't have to be a major event--it needn't be something as earthshaking as a war, a death, or even two people fighting--but it needs to capture the readers' interest enough to give them a reason to keep reading.  Even if it's simply some internal conflict or question that has to be resolved by the protagonist, there needs to be some sort of action going on for it to be a story, because conflict is the heart of story.

For instance, let's look at your story.  Sure, on the surface of things, we have two newlyweds going through the course of (for them) everyday events.  But now let's look at what is really going on, the stuff that makes it a story. Early on, you show that Jessa is feeling insecure about how to fit in with this new role in life. She hasn't figured out yet how to fit in with the other Court Ladies.  This revelation creates sympathy in the reader.  Now we want to know more about her.  Is she going to succeed in learning how to fit in with the other ladies, and in learning how to be a suitable consort for Wash?  We have a reason to root for her now.  Similarly, she is having to learn how to balance her desire to learn how to use her Deryni powers and her need to use them responsibly.  The readers now have another reason to keep reading.  Will Jessa end up learning how to balance these things, or will her actions inadvertently lead to Cynfyn's downfall in some way?  I've had the benefit of reading ahead of everyone else, so I know that Jessa is soon to learn something that is going to shake her up in a major way.  How will she deal with this new revelation?  Will everything turn out all right for her in the end?  (Yes, we've read the end of your last story, so we know how their love story will eventually turn out, but what we don't know is how many bumps in the road there are going to be from the earliest days of their romance to the end of their years together.  This new obstacle throws in some short-term suspense as the readers wonder how this new revelation might impact the newlyweds' happiness in the near-future, even though we may already know how things will turn out in the long run.)

These internal conflicts, and the questions they bring up for the readers, which they can only find the answers to if they continue reading--these things are what make a story.  The fact that they happen in the course of everyday events is perfectly fine.  Nearly all great dramas do, at least in real life.

Now on the other hand, here's an example of telling a character's everyday events in such a way that it does not tell a story:

Duncan McLain woke up.  It was a fine spring day, nice and warm, and he was content to roll out of his purple silk sheets to face the morning.  He went to his nightstand and began cleaning his teeth with a willow twig, glad he had not partaken of the garlic sauce the night before, because he would be listening to confessions later that morning, and no one wanted a priest to breath garlic breath all over them.  He opened up his linen chest.  Only two pairs of braies lay folded within. He would need to send his dirty clothes to the laundress again.  Tossing his silk-embroidered white linen nightshirt to one side, he stepped over to the close-stool, glad he had such a convenience handy and didn't have to sit on a cold wooden board in a drafty garderobe.  Perched over the chamberpot, he softly hummed a tune to himself....

Now, I adore Duncan, but if I have to read too much more of that kind of "everyday stuff" without something happening, I'm going to pitch the book across the room.  If it's an electronic book, that's going to be pretty hard on my computer!   ;D  By the time I'm a few paragraphs in, something darn well better be happening besides Duncan deciding whether he wants bread and cheese for breakfast or leftover frumenty!  Either Alaric better be sending him a distress call via Mind-Speech, or Duncan needs to look out the window to see some masked marauder galloping away with Helena, or the Basilica needs to be on fire...something!  Even if it's some small, internal conflict, like him wondering if he really did receive some strange call from God to preach the Gospel to the donkeys of Llannedd, or if he just dreamed that because he had too much sauced goose the night before, please PLEASE let something arise that has me wondering what the solution to the problem is going to be.  Without that, there's no story!

So write about everyday things all you please, just don't forget that your end goal is to tell a story, not just to tell us what your characters did on an average day.  From what I've read so far, it doesn't look like you're in any danger of doing that, but you'd be surprised how many "stories" are out there in which nothing really happens to keep a reader caring enough to flip the page."

Thank you so much Evie for this very valuable advice and for being willing to share it with us.
"Thanks be to God there are still, as there always have been and always will be, more good men than evil in this world, and their cause will prevail." Brother Cadfael's Penance



As I recall as this conversation carried forth. Some one wrote that our Dear Duncan while perched on the close-stool inadvertently triggered the ancient portal stone that was under his feet and ended up teleporting to the Anvil of the lord. What started out as a humdrum morning became very fascinating. LOL  That is what makes round story telling so much fun.
May your horses have wings and fly!


I have always knows that I am "weird", but sometimes it is the little differences between me and others that really catch my attention.  I Loved reading the "everyday" example of Duncan's morning because of the richness of detail into how he lives his life, and feel no need for something to "happen".  Evie suggests that it is conflict of some form that makes a story, and certainly that is true of most published stories, but the conflict part isn't what makes me want to read a story, nor what makes me keep coming back to the same story again and again. No, it is is the every day life glimpses I get--hints of a world in which I would enjoy living, that make me enjoy a story. The conflict part is often stressfull and unpleasant, and so I tend not to enjoy the first read of a story as much as I do subsequent reads, when I already know how the conflict will be resolved.


God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.
(Psalm 46 v1)


Kareina--- I very much agree with you about glimpses of other, different worlds.


Telling of mundane things and giving description of the normality around a character is what I consider to be culture building and character defining. It is not the reason we read the story, but it is the reason we care about the characters in the story. It is the background, a visualization of the world we have stepped into. When you know what is normal, than when something happens, you will know that it is something in contrast to normal and therefore a reason for the story to exist.

Evie's paragraph tell us a few things about Duncan. Purple silk sheets? He is a man of wealth and prestige and maybe a little self indulgent. The wealthy men of this world might sleep in silk sheeting, but for the fabric to be purple? First off, he has to have a high rank to even be allowed to purchase such a color, and he has to not have other expenses that would be more important than this little personal pleasure. Also we learn that Duncan washes his teeth and he wears clean cloths.  So cleanliness is very important. As for the closed-stool, tells us that we are in a pre-modern world. No flushing toilets as yet.  Drafty garderobes indicate a hole in a castle wall. So with just this one paragraph we know something about the World we have opened the book up to.

This kind of description is very good in small doses, as Evie has indicated.  Tid bits of mundane events tossed in here and there throughout a story are what make us reread stories and love them. I think this is what Kareina is saying and I agree with her whole heartedly. My most favorite older stories are filled with this stuff. Of the early writers, Tolken is so very good. However, I feel that James Michener uses a bit too much description for the modern reader.  I think a lot of writers from the 70's and 80's struck a good balance between world building and adventure.  I think that is why we all love KK so much.  For the more modern writer of the last decade or so,  the trend  has been to get rid of all description and just go straight for action. I agree this is too thin and cold.  I want to be able to see the scene in my minds eye and learn what the characters would be normally like if all the action was not going on, but I also need that action and some kind of conflict to hold my interest.

It is a tough balance that is hard to get right.
May your horses have wings and fly!


Thanks Laurna for adding to this. I agree that a balance between description of mundane things that allow us to see the scene and the characters in it is really important and something that, as a fairly new writer, I am working on. I know that I especially love stories that let me into the characters everyday life as well as to the conflicts. Alkari did a great job of that both in Gryphon by the Tail and St Camber's Tiger. St Camber's Tiger really illustrates what you are saying because I love the descriptions of Alaric and Richenda and the children at home, especially Alaric playing with the kitten. And actually, Evie does a great job with it in Maidens of Mayhem. And I liked your desciptions in Healer's Inheritance. Jerusha does it so well in the triplet tales. We could start a writing class here. There are so many great stories in the fanfic and these are a few of my favorites that I do go back and read again and again.
"Thanks be to God there are still, as there always have been and always will be, more good men than evil in this world, and their cause will prevail." Brother Cadfael's Penance