Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Importance of Keeping Your Story Interesting

So I wrote about Upstate Steampunk at Free the Princess and Doctor Fantastique's Show of Wonders already today and, out of ideas for the Archives, put the question to Twitter. Nemone7 then suggested that I write about the road trip through a mass percentage of the East Coast that I ended up taking on the way to get to South Carolina. Never one to pass up a challenge, I decided "what the heck?" I also challenged myself to relate this all back to writing, which I promise will be entertaining to see the leap in logic.

For reference, here's some quick numbers:

Distance from my home to Utica, NY (picking up my copilot)?
285 miles
Time spent between Essex County, Mass. and Utica, NY? 4.5 hours

Distance from Utica, N.Y. to Greenville, S.C.? 832 miles
Time spent from Utica., N.Y. to Greenville, S.C.? 13.75 hours

Total time spent on the road? 18 hours and 56 minutes
Total distance traveled? 1,117 miles

I left my home in Eastern Massachusetts at 3:45 am on Friday, November 19. My copilot and I arrived in Greenville, S.C. at 11:00 pm that evening. This was the longest single road trip I have ever been on -- not my copilot though, as he'd driven Utica to Florida before. And that was about 4 to 5 hours longer than our journey. Definitely the longest one-day trip though.

But anyway, the drive from Eastern Massachusetts to Utica, N.Y. goes straight through the mountains of Western Massachusetts and the Capital Region of New York -- which are both very similar in geography. To be entirely honest, Upstate New York and Western Massachusetts blend together almost seamlessly. The only reason you can tell you're in another state is because you have to pay a toll to get off the MassPike and then pick up another ticket for the New York Thruway (side note: New York is the only state in the Northeast that calls it a Thruway. Everyone else says Turnpike).

My copilot and I switched off before we crossed into Pennsylvania, which incidentally was the second-longest state on our route (Virginia was longer by a good 50-ish miles) but it felt like the longest out of all of them. Maryland and West Virginia were both short -- about 10 to 20 minutes apiece -- and we drove more or less straight through until we hit Virginia itself. Then I took back over and the copilot rode shotgun and navigator.

It's fascinating now to realize that most all the scenery I saw was exactly the same. More than 1,000 miles of green fields, a smattering of cows and horses, and long interstate roadways. It's enough to make a guy doze off fairly regularly when he's not driving, which I did actually do a few times. I mean, I'd woken up at 3 am to start this trip, of course I would be tired.

Now that I'm not staring out the passenger window at miles and miles of fields and hills, the realization that much of the East Coast has a homogeneous geography enough to make one bored made me think about what happens if we make our stories look the same. No one wants to read lengthy descriptions of a stick, or of the character's actions at breakfast, or getting ready for bed. Unless it's different from what we the reader are used to.

As writers, we don't want readers to be able to put our book down or even take their attention away for one second. That's how engrossed a reader should be -- if they sit down to read a chapter and then look up at the clock and realize they've been reading for the past 6 hours then I say the writer has done their job. But don't make your story seem flat and the same as everything else for 500 pages (the equivalent of 1,000 miles of driving). Readers won't find the story intriguing if you do things that way. Shake things up, throw in a Dairy Queen or a massive ball of yarn by the road side.

That's the biggest lesson I gave you after spending 19 hours on the Interstates of the East Coast -- keep it interesting and people will stay alert. Make it boring and the same, and folks will doze off in the passenger seat when they're not driving.


Anonymous said...

Heh, throw in a Dairy Queen or a massive ball of yarn. Nice analogy for an important lesson!

L. T. Host said...

Great comparison. I think it's important to keep the reader guessing and give them things that they want to know the answer to, or keep them wanting to know what's going to happen.

I strive to write a book someday that someone just can't put down.

K. Marie Criddle said...

Sounds like a long and lovely road trip! And I'm eager to see the giant ball of yarn in your next story.

(Fingers crossed, I hope he was being literal...)

Icy Sedgwick said...

Very good advice. Also a big fan of the Raymond Chandler quote - "When in doubt, have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand." Hitchcock's film quote that "Drama is life with the dull bits cut out" applies to novels, too.