A Writer’s View: Audience Interest

(This column is posted at www.StevenSavage.com and Steve’s Tumblr)

One of the things I always worry about my return to writing is “will people want to read my work?”  My friend Serdar has analyzed this in one of his blog posts (with the winning title “If I Had More Time, I Would Have Written a Shorter Novel“).  He focused on novel length in many cases, and asked himself why some large works are worth the time and others are not.

What’s interesting is his next book is 230k words.  “A Bridge To The Quiet Planet” is probably clocking in around 110K.  But we both ask ourselves “Why do people care.”

We have to make it worth their time (and money), it must engage them.  I can think of two ways we may do this off the top of my head:

Something To Care About

Serdar hits on one by noting:

. . . the trick, I guess, is to package them up and offer them in a way that other people can pick up on, in their own way, what the interesting things are. Anime and manga have whole subgenres that revolve around the mastery of a skill (a sport, a game) or the deep investigation of a mundane everyday occupation. They take something that to an outsider would be meaningless and they invest it with the urgency of The Great Work Of Life And Death. It makes a striking contrast to stories that involve casts of thousands and the fate of nations but evoke little more than a gurgling snore.

You have to write about stuff people care about or make them care by getting them invested in the characters, the setting, etc.  If you can connect people to the work (often through characters) then they will buy into it.  They will give a damn.

For my own example, let’s take Yuri On Ice, the gay romance men’s figure skating drama you didn’t know you wanted, and that is a runaway hit.  I have watched it twice because I like the characters, I like humor, and I like all the substories.  I felt like things were happening to people, and thus was engaged on a subject that I frankly didn’t care about – skating.

OK I didn’t like Chris, he’s a creep, but anyway.

Something To Learn

I am a very detail driven person – which makes sense as I write books on Worldbuilding.  I love bits of revelation and backstory as the world comes into focus, as we learn more about the characters.  Even if the details aren’t relevant to the story, they help you understand things.

You can also get interest if you’ve got plenty of things revealing and being found out and pace yourself.  If people keep learning, keep finding out new things – plot-related or not – they’ll be interested.  The best things of course are revelations that tie to the plot, but having fun little details also just makes the story and characters real.

An example I’ll give from this is the under-appreciated military-sf-horror film Spectral, which I strongly recommend (warning, link has spoilers).  You get slow revelations over time, and only truly get the full story in the last five minutes.  Each little bit, each finding about the horrors the characters face, each choice to fight back, each revelation as they try to out-think the forces against them, kept me hooked.

Keep People Engaged

You can make a 10 page short story a slog and make a 500 page novel that people loose track of time reading.  It’s all how you can get them engaged.  And it determines if it was worth their time.

(Remember I do all sorts of books on creativity to help you out!)

– Steve

A Writer’s View: Complexity And Convolution

(This column is posted at www.StevenSavage.com and Steve’s Tumblr – and hey, think this should go on the Sanctum too?)

Working on “A Bridge To The Quiet Planet” is interesting as in some ways it’s very complex, a tale of a world of science and sorcery that survived a world-shaking war, and the lives of those centuries after the trauma.  In other way’s its simple – it’s a heist/chase story that goes Cohen Brothers, just with a sarcastic sorceress and a disreputable used bookseller.

Complexity in stories is a challenging area of discussion, because it often seems what people say is complex is anything but to me..  As my friend Serdar notes in his blog:

Now, Steve did specifically say complex stories. That could mean one of a number of things, not all of them what you might think. Complexity in a story is too often assumed to be convolution, as in a plot that is very knotty and full of double-reverses and whatnot. I tend to stay away from such things if only because I am not nearly smart enough to pull them off, but also because I have a different idea of what kind of complexity is relevant in a story. For me a story is complex if the pieces in it have a lot of thematic richness, or if the characters are multidimensional and humane. It’s not if I need a map in the endpaper and a list of dramatis personae.

This pretty much hits the division on the head for me.  A story can be convoluted but not complex – a Wile E. Coyote mess of tricks and craziness can exist atop a simple set of characters and tales.  A story can be complex with deep richness and many facets, while being straightforward.

What I realized in my writing is that complexity and convolution are not the same thing, and separating them in your mind is valuable for a writer for several reasons.

First, to separate them is to ask what you’re wanting to write.  Do you want to challenge the audience with double-backs and twists or do you want them to experience richness?  Or both?  To separate complexity and convolution is to help you set goals.

Secondly, to separate them is to ask when is one or the other appropriate within a story.  One part may need complexity, one part may need convolution.  It is possible what seems to be appropriate may, at later examination, not be – a complicated murder plot may be more interesting from the viewpoint of a character who has it figured out, so you can explore their character.

So I’m writing a story that’s complex (in characters) but the overall plot isn’t overly convoluted (it’s straightforward) once you know what’s going on.  This is actually important because if I added convolution to the story, the book might be longer but also more confusing due to the setting’s many unusual elements.

Complexity isn’t convolution.  They may exist together, but can be happily apart – and keeping that in mind will enrich your writing either way.  Plus, it’s OK to write one, both, or none – just know what you want.

(Oh and if you need some other creative boosts, check out my book on Creative Paths!)

– Steve