The Writer’s Desk: The secret to telling a great story

I don’t have all the answers, and there is no universally appealing story, but there are elements in books that hold massive appeal and end up on best seller lists. Many of these novels and memoirs are not particularly well written, yet there is something intangible that grabs the reader and doesn’t let him go until the end.

So what’s the secret sauce?

Readers of novels want to care, and care deeply, about characters and events in a story, and they want to feel passion for what the main character feels passionate about. Often, the reader desires to feel imperiled by the protagonist’s emotional and/or physical journey. Inside the safety of our homes, Stephen King continues to scare the pants off his readers by delving into the latent monster-under-the-bed fears that dissipate as we grow up but never fully disappear.

On an Instagram poll I was asked what was the last 5-star book I had read. Immediately I thought of Tomorrow, Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin. This is a perfect example of taking a subject that does not interest me — gaming –and making me care deeply about the cast of game designers and their stories. The details in the story paint such a clear picture of the world that I not only feel more informed about game design, but grew to love these characters.

In nonfiction, to get the reader interested, the author’s passion for his subject needs to show up on the page. For example, I hate American football. The game is violent, confusing and endless. Yet I loved the book Friday Night Lights by H.G. Bissinger. A great book will immerse you inside a world you may not otherwise enter. Bissinger uses high stakes and details about the town of Odessa, Texas to draw me in. The stakes for Permian High are high; in 1988 the team was eligible to play for the state championship. The story chronicles individual players, the coach and the town’s history. The book did not change my opinion of football, yet I came away with a new respect for the players and coaches and what they are willing to sacrifice for the love of the game. It’s a great read, and consistently appears on censored book lists. You know a story is good if it has been banned.

The effective writer creates suspense by delivering the ultimate surprise. Suspense is not what happens, but how and why events happen. Recently I read The Paris Apartment by Lucy Foley. The main character, Jess Hadley, broke and jobless, flees England in hope of crashing with her half-brother in his gorgeous new apartment in Paris. The trouble begins when Ben appears to be missing. Language barriers and rude neighbors are no help. And there is something strange about everyone else in the building. Foley slowly reveals not only a delicious surprise about all the other occupants of the building but a surprise about Ben’s disappearance.

Here’s an assignment:

Take a book you love or one you recently read and reread it slowly.

Ask questions of the text and take notes as you read to unpack how the author drew you inside:

What or who was in the opening paragraph that compelled me to read further? Is it the language? The voice?

What is it about the narrator’s voice or diction that intrigues me?

What secrets are implied (but not answered right away?)

Why do I care? Who do I care most about?

What emotions do I feel by then of the first page? The first chapter?

What do I think will happen? What am I afraid will happen? What surprises me? Angers me? Makes me feel fulfilled by the end?

The secret to making the reader care is first the writer must care.

— By Laura Moe

Laura Moe is the president of Edmonds based EPIC Group Writers and the author of three novels. She is currently adapting Breakfast With Neruda into a streaming series.

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