One of the interesting questions that a writer must ask themselves when they sit down to a blank screen is “Why This Story?” You can tell any story. All stories. But you have committed to this story.
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Getting back to your effort.
Why are you telling this story?
And this is a question that the reader is going to ask you. Why did you decide to write this story and not one of the other ones you have been threatening them with for the last however long. What makes this story compelling? For the character, what was it about these events that made this the most important thing you could tell?
I tend to write serial. I grew up on comic books, so it was always natural to me to tell small chunks of a longer narrative as “chapters” in an epic, as it were. Other writers will want to tell you the entire massive epic trilogy in one long go, but you run the risk of bogging down (at least I do). You need to tell all those little bits that slowly move the story from where you are to where you need it to be to confront the boss monster.
One of the complaints many readers level at Tolkien is the amount of walking that goes on. I can’t really read JRR these days, because I find the story itself such a slog, with slow pacing mixed in with utterly irrelevant asides that wander off for several pages and never advance the story one bit. LOTR is an effort to read, and I’m not willing to commit the interminable time necessary.
That’s me as the reader. So I have to face that as me the writer. How do I balance moving a longer arc forward with filling in all those little world-building details that make your place so rich with depth and voice?
As readers, we are misers. Nobody is going to necessarily commit to wade through a thousand pages of walking to get to the good bits. Not in this day and age.
Long ago, when Tolkien was publishing, there were far fewer options for the time of entertainment. In the US, three networks of television, plus radio ongoing. Movies. Live stage performance and vaudeville. Plus the few other books in any given genre.
Of those, books were the only one that gave the person consuming control. All the rest (in those humble days) could not be time-shifted to when it was convenient for the reader.
Now, they can binge on their favorite television show. All of the movies ever made are available somewhere on demand, either across the interwebs or in your personal video collection (for those of you old enough to have a stack of dvds on a shelf somewhere, because you haven’t backed them all up to digital files yet). Radio for teledrama is no longer really a thing, and people have hundreds of hours of audio files available.
The competition is fierce for the little time the reader is willing to commit, because the options have exploded in the last decade.
You need to keep up. Your story has to be compelling. It has to suck them right down to the bottom of the lake with the first paragraph and never ever let them surface until they finish. If they want mystery, they need to stay up all night trying to get to the end of the book. If they want space opera epics, you need to be destroying planets every other page to keep them interested.
So why do you choose this story? What is it about the character, the setting, the world, and the problem that will make them decide to spend an evening with you instead of someone else?
Similarly, you can’t slog. I know you want to show all that world-building you have done, but you can’t go too far afield or you’ll lose them. The solution there is what they call micro-setting. A single sentence, sometimes just a phrase, that communicates something to the reader’s subconscious mind. They probably won’t even notice, unless they are paying close attention, but it will be there.
I’ll give you a close example. The first two stories in “Agent Kiesler’s Secret War.”
#1: The Rescue. We start off by introducing the two main characters, Eva and Nik, and do it in such a way that you immediately understand the setting. Eva’s shooting a Nazi in the middle of a firefight, while rescuing Nik and hoping she doesn’t have to kill him to keep the Nazis from recapturing the man. That story never really lets go, even as we slow down a bit to frame the backstory, before the big car chase at the end.
Then a gap. Time unknown to the reader, because that was the paperwork part of being a secret agent.
#2: The Machine. Nik comes to the fore to help disable and destroy some mad science Nazi inventions that threaten to win the war. Mad Science!! Nazis!! Firefights!! Plus we meet the rest of the team and watch them work.
#3: Rocketman (unpublished). British Intelligence intercepts a message that an American scientist is at risk. Race into the night and darkness to get halfway across the country to stop them.
Again, time passed in between each story. Simple things, like eating, sleeping, and doing paperwork. Even in a war, you generally have two months or more of utter boredom, followed by five minutes of complete panic and risk, and then back to boredom.
Pay attention to your next novel you read. How does the author get you over those bits where nothing really happened? Was there a single sentence of paragraph that spanned long journeys with some hand-waving, or do we walk to Mordor, experiencing every day and rain drop? (That’s what it always feels like to me, at least.)
More importantly, do you, as the reader in control of everything, prefer that? Or would you like short stories bound up together as an arc?
Those of you old enough might remember the twelve volume series of Conan the Barbarian, published in the late seventies and early eighties. Robert Howard wrote a bunch of short stories, not novels. Later editors stacked them up in chronological timeframe order, rather than written order, and wrote what we call interstitials to describe, in a paragraph, the months of travel that saw our illustrious barbarian jump from here to there, possibly mentioning things that Howard discussed, but never wrote (at least that anyone ever found).
Howard stuck with the important bits, because he was writing short fiction for the pulps and making some miserable amount of money, but not enough. Had he lived longer, he might have written long things, because only “novelists” were respected in those days.
Today, the novel is frequently losing out, because readers on the bus commuting have less time to dedicate to some magnum opus. They will consume the shorter work, assuming it is well written, because that is a quick investment of time and attention, when money is really no longer the deciding element. (I have a friend whose coffee order is frequently more expensive than my novels in e-book format.)
Who is your reader? How do you find them? But, more importantly, how do you keep them entertained enough to keep them coming back for more? YMMV, seriously. For me, short and punchy is frequently, but not always, the answer. But even my novels never tend to lag. And if they do, it is because I have to get the story set up in a believable manner for most of my readers, and not just the ones that want one starship battle after another. (Occasional complaints about fashion porn notwithstanding. Heh.)
You can’t slog, either in the telling, or in the choosing.
Why this story? I think it tells the story I need to tell, as part of a longer arc, in the most compelling and entertaining way possible. I want you to come back for more, and bring all your friends with you.
Simple as that.
So what’s your excuse?
shade and sweet water
West of the Mountains, WA