It’s Always the Story

Here’s a post from romance author Jennifer Crusie: It’s Always the Story.

I think every reader picks up a book of fiction and thinks, “Tell me a story.”

Not “give me beautiful writing” or “give me the psychological profile of a character” or “describe a setting vividly” or “dazzle me with a theme.” All of those things are good … but the overarching need of most readers who deliberately choose fiction is “Give me a story.”

I came to this conclusion while reading the opening page of a BookBub offering. …

The page in question was beautifully written in the first person, but it was losing me in the first paragraphs. They were set-up/introduction and again beautifully written but skim-able. And then she told me a story, just a short memory, and I read every word, it was riveting. Then the narrative went back to set-up, and I closed the sample.

Later I thought back on that and wondered why I’d ditched it so fast. Okay, I’m an impatient reader, but still, that memory scene was beautifully done. And I realized I just wasn’t in the mood for the kind of book where I had to skim authorial intrusion to get to the good stuff. Give me a story.

And here’s a post from Marie Brennan: Epic Point of View:

I’ve noticed that one of the things which makes it hard for me to get into various epic-fantasy-type novels lately is the way point of view gets used. As in, there are multiple pov characters, and shifting from one to the other slows down my process of getting invested in the story.

But hang on, you say; why “lately”? Why didn’t that bother you in your epic-fantasy-reading days of yore?

Because — and this was an epiphany I had at ICFA — the epic fantasies of yore weren’t structured like that. Tolkien wasn’t writing in close third person to begin with, but he pretty much just followed Frodo until the Fellowship broke at Amon Hen; he didn’t leap back and forth between Frodo in the Shire and Aragorn meeting up with Gandalf and Boromir over in Minas Tirith and all the rest of it. …

…character is my major doorway into story, and if I’m presented with three or four or five of them right at the start, I don’t have a chance to build investment in anybody. 

Marie is talking about switching pov, but what she’s also talking about is story. When she points out that Tolkien followed Frodo until the Fellowship broke up, what she’s saying is that Tolkien was telling Frodo’s story until he had a very good reason to switch to someone else’s story.

I agree, incidentally. It’s hard for me to stay engaged with a novel if the author switches pov too often or too quickly. Like most character readers, I’m drawn into the story with the pov character, and I want to stay with that character until there’s a reason to shift the point of view to someone else. Then I want to stay with the new viewpoint character for long enough to get involved with that character’s story. Shifting viewpoints too often was the reason that the Eternal Sky trilogy by Elizabeth Bear was not a big favorite of mine. I liked it a lot, but had a real problem staying emotionally engaged after the pov started shifting multiple times per chapter. Ditto for the later books in the Paksennarion world by Elizabeth Moon: too many viewpoint characters, and unlike Bear’s series, in some cases they didn’t catch my interest in the first place. Fewer pov characters chosen more judiciously would have worked much better for me because I would have had a chance to follow each protagonist’s individual story.

Personally, I often write with multiple points of view, but in general I stay with one pov for thirty pages or more before switching — especially for the first time in the novel.

Here’s a post by Patricia Wrede: The Problem with Prologues:

The first and biggest mistake a lot of writers make, especially in science fiction and fantasy, is to assume that there is no way to get the reader up to speed on the story background except to provide a three-page infodump of all the presumably-critical material right at the start of the story. So the writer starts off with a history lesson or a summary of cultures, and half the people who open the book close it and put it back on the shelf …

… prologues are not a clever way to dump all the background information, so that the author can start the real book with a slam-bang action scene. If a book has a prologue, the prologue IS the start of the book. It doesn’t have to be full of action, any more than any other opening of a story does, but it does have to pique the reader’s interest so that they’ll keep reading. 

What Patricia Wrede is saying here, not quite in so many words, is that in order to work, the prologue has to be a story. That’s what piques a reader’s interest. If the prologue is anything but a story, if it’s a context-free battle scene or a history lesson, it’s not going to work for the majority of readers (especially character readers). I’m sure I’ve mentioned before that I generally skip all prologues unless they are telling a story that draws me in. I say that as someone who has written two novels that include prologues. Both prologues are stories.

If you’re providing a flashback, that flashback will probably work best for readers if it is a self-contained story. Making that happen can be a trick if what you really want to do is provide backstory. On the other hand, if you want to make the backstory compelling, it probably needs to be presented as a story, not a digression that sounds like a history lesson. In the first part of the Death’s Lady trilogy, I present several vignettes from Tenai’s backstory as flashbacks, transitioning into each one as a story that’s being told in the past perfect, but quickly shifting to a story that’s happening in story-present before cutting back to the main present-day narrative. I sure learned a lot about technique by working through those transitions into and out of the flashbacks, but at least I already knew that story is always central.

Which it is even for those of us who aren’t character readers. Every experience wants to be a story, as discussed in this post about the science behind storytelling:

Human beings have been telling stories as long as there’s been a language to tell them in. We think in stories, remember in stories, and turn just about everything we experience into a story, sometimes adjusting or omitting facts to make it fit. … Just think of the variety of stories in the world. We’ve been telling them for millennia, and we’re not going to run out any time soon. 

It’s always the story. Even for readers who love beautiful language and care about style. Even for readers who enjoy worldbuilding and love constructing a world bible. Even for readers who love clever puzzles and plot twists. If you’re writing fiction, it’s always the story that has to come first.

Agree / disagree? Drop your responses in the comments!

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5 thoughts on “It’s Always the Story”

  1. The thing about prologues, for me, is that even when there is a story, I often disengage if there’s a major disconnect between the prologue and the rest of the book. I especially dislike getting invested in a character and then having them killed off at the end of the prologue. But even ones that aren’t that egregious can lose me as in a change in POV.

    I liked the later Paksenarrion books (Paladin’s Legacy) quite a bit. I did find the major POV changes a little challenging. It worked better for me on reread because I had an overview of the story (the story, yeah) and knew where the different viewpoints slotted into it. I do sometimes reread a couple of POVs and skip the others.

  2. In LOTR, once the story begins, the only point of view character that is not seen from a prior point of view character’s point of view first is the fox.

  3. Very good point about switching POVs. I hadn’t thought of it that way before. I think some authors jump into different points of view so they can tell the readers what’s happening over there in the villain’s lair, or down on the ranch, but what’s happening isn’t the same as the story. And now I have to define for myself what I mean by story. Maybe, characters I care about making choices that matter? Hmm. I left out goals and obstacles. Except I guess that’s what I mean by “matter.” Choices that either advance or hinder the character’s pursuit of their goal.

    And now I think that’s a great editing pass to do on a WIP: is this scene just stuff that happens, or did a character make a choice that will have repercussions? (I think that’s a little more flexible and useful than just, “is there conflict,” which then sometimes leads writers to just add more bad stuff that happens.)

  4. What’s infuriating is when the author jerks the reader away from the main story to show us the villian’s lair FOR NO REASON. Or a bad reason, as hearing all about the villain’s secret plans means they’re not secret to us, so why do that?

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