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Fascinating stories

In the midst of all the things we’re supposed to do as writers, sometimes we blow past the most basic. We work and rework our plot, deepen our characters and fret about pacing, to name a few story aspects.

But let’s step back and ask a simple–maybe stupid–question: Is my story inherently interesting?

Of course it is, we may (defensively) answer. Plenty of conflict, good characters, well written and it really moves along. That’s great. But I have to ask, is the story fascinating? Is the setting or the situation one that the reader will be drawn to in some dramatic way? Will he repeat the gist of it to a friend? And what, by the way is the gist?

Tell yourself in a phrase or a sentence what the most fascinating part of your story is. That’s the gist. It may be a high concept or it may be an insider’s view of some memorable place or era. And if a place or an era, is it really fascinating? In this simple exercise, we are trying to pinpoint the excitement of your current story or guide you to a better next one.

What kinds of story elements create fascination? It might be world building (Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series.) Or it might be a shocking premise (an abused women protects herself with violence in a self-satisfied culture–Steig Larsson trilogy) or a man’s experience in the witness protection program–Jess Walter in Citizen Vince. Each of these examples gives us a story to lean into. It seduces us by virtue of being exciting. It takes us somewhere emotionally and perhaps physically that we would never experience otherwise.

I’m on this kick today because I just spent the week traveling with friends, and though each of them was interesting, one person had stories that held us all riveted. Why were his stories so fascinating? Because he had met hundreds of celebrities. (He wasn’t trying to impress us. He’s a sound engineer, and his contacts were humble. But we were riveted.)

I’m not suggesting that your story needs cheap thrills.

What I’m trying to say is that this is the first off-stage glimpse I’d ever had of public figures like Jimi Hendrix, Peggy Lee, Elvis Presley and Madonna, and these were stories that I would never normally get to hear, and what’s more, they were ones that I would love to have been present for, even as a fly on the wall.

It struck me that there was something to learn about story here. How our next story can be better, and why seemingly weak stories sell a million copies.

And what I concluded is: Beyond the usual things we think of in building a story,  one magic ingredient is simply outright fascination. It may come from the smallest thing (celebrities I have touched elbows with) or it may be major (the Hogwarts school of wizardry) but it makes us lean in closer. We can hardly wait to hear. . . something. Something fascinating.

That’s my goal for my next story. I won’t forget all the components that add value to a novel, but underneath it all, there will be one element that is outright, undeniably, unabashedly fascinating.

It makes you lean in closer, waiting to find out what happens. It is an allure, a promise, an extreme, or an exquisite surprise. Furthermore, if it connects with readers in this manner, they will forgive other weaknesses in the story. Despite all that I’ve said in this blog about character and story execution, one great dab of fascination, and you may make the sale to an editor — and to a hundred thousand readers.

((And for those of you who are striving for such an allure in your world building, here is my post on the power of setting. ))


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