What makes a story interesting to read?

DAgent

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So I've recently finished my third redrafting on my main writing project, and to let me recharge my juices a little, I've put that to one side for now and decided to pick up on another project I had shelved awhile back. I started re-reading it from the beginning to get familiar with it again, and realised two things.

First, I like how well it reads, the descriptions work well for me and the dialogue seems pretty decent too. That all seems pretty solid to me.

However...

Secondly, for all I am two chapters in, there's really not much happening in terms of plot. People are basically doing things that won't have much to do with the rest of the story (there is some setup and character development going on). I've already started working on ways to change that, but it did get me thinking.

What makes a story interesting for everyone to read? What would keep everyone reading from chapter 1 and 2 onwards the most? What struck me here is that there's little in this tale of mine so far to keep people interested. So by extension, I guess I should ask as well, what would make people stop reading if they found chapter 1 boring?
 
"Interesting" is a very subjective measure, by its very definition. It might be too obvious to say, but different things have different meanings to different people. You can't predict what they might find interesting. They could be experiencing an entirely different story from what you think they are. All you can do is write about what you find interesting--and perhaps, in doing so, make it interesting for other people.

As a rule, I suppose, I've generally found that what the characters care about, the readers will tend to start caring about, too. A character who is interested has a much better chance of doing something interesting. Or making that particular thing interesting to the reader also. Plus, if you and/or your characters find your subject interesting, that's a promise to the reader that they'll find it interesting too. (People are like dogs that way--if someone else is sniffing at it, it must be really awesome.)

Besides, if you aren't interested in it, and your characters aren't interested in it, why on earth would the reader be?

It's a pretty good place to start, anyway.
 
I know that what I write tends to be fast paced. This is a direct result of an aversion to "padding" of any sort.
If I feel the author is trying to, say, pad a novella story up to novel length I will pick that up within a few pages. It is usually pretty obvious.

So I would suggest considering why 'not much is happening' and why you wrote that stuff in in the first place. Was it, perhaps, to create a sense of humdrum that the MC is about to be ripped out of?

Remember also that while you, as the writer, are well aware that it gets interesting later on, the reader only has what they have read so far and naturally expects more of the same.

The challenge for you now is to hack down that overgrowth. Try sketching out a synopsis of the book and use that as an overhead map to proportion things.
 
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One description that I've found helpful is Brandon Sanderson's Three Ps - Promise, Progress, Payoff.

The Promise is an explicit statement of the main character's goal. This can't be too subtle and is needed to give the reader a reason for all that is to follow. The main character does not necessarily need to accomplish the goal; failure to do so would constitute a dark story.

Progress are indicators to the reader about the main character moving closer to his or her goal. There may also be backsliding, sometimes quite significant. The reader needs to always be aware of how close or far the main character is from his or her goal.

Payoff is an explicit description of the main character achieving his or her goal or of failing to do so. The reader needs to feel the story has ended and not feel that it has simply stopped.

If the story seems to be flowing, I would not spend much effort in applying this. If the story starts to drag, then try looking at these to see if the Three Ps are explicit for the reader.
 
I am two chapters in, there's really not much happening in terms of plot. People are basically doing things that won't have much to do with the rest of the story (there is some setup and character development going on). I've already started working on ways to change that, but it did get me thinking.
It's a common mistake for a writer to think they need to introduce the world and characters before the story starts. The story starts where the story starts - anything before that can be removed, and essential information dripped in later.
 
It's a common mistake for a writer to think they need to introduce the world and characters before the story starts. The story starts where the story starts - anything before that can be removed, and essential information dripped in later.
I think that might be the main issue I'm having here. Here is the world, but the story starts later...
 
To go with what other people have said, can you foreshadow that something interesting is going to happen later?

I think that perhaps my own pattern of writing might be starting before it needs to start and then chopping off what comes before the good part. Can you try chopping out the stuff that comes before it getting interesting?
 
This is a piece of string question.

Me personally - ignoring the content of the book, voice and characters and events - would talk Narrative Momentum, which sounds a lot like Brandon Sanderson's three Ps. A story that keeps things moving to an interesting goal has a huge advantage over one that doesn't. Some people talk about this sort of thing as setting a question. It doesn't have to be something super meaningful to the rest of the book. Jim Butcher's Codex Alera features a boy chasing a lost herd as the opening question, which becomes X, which becomes Y. But something helps a lot.

You can also think of it as tension, or introducing us at the moment of change. Lots of terms for roughly the same thing. But whatever way you slice it, provoking curiosity about what you're going to do next is big.

I would also I've read quite a few books with muted opening questions but where I enjoyed the content so who giveths a crap, and put down a lot of books that wanted to set down big beginnings but either the content bored me or I could see tension but didn't care what happened to the character. Hence piece of string.
 
>What would keep everyone reading from chapter 1 and 2 onwards the most?
There are really two factors at play early-on. One is interest, the other is lack of trust.

By lack of trust I mean my trust that the author is going to deliver a good story. Since by Chapter 2 the author hasn't really had much of a chance to tell the big story, it's smaller things that will drive me away.

Chief among these is clean prose. If the text has too many (a non-quantifiable number) mistakes, I'm out. Not because I'm a grammar field but because I figure if the author can't be bothered to be careful on these smaller matters, then I don't trust them to be careful on the big stuff. There can be exceptions, but they are exceptional and there are so many other books to read, books where the author *did* take the time, that I won't invest my time in the one-in-a-thousand.

As important, though not always shown so early, is character. The characters have to catch my interest. They do this most often by themselves being interested in something. They're trying to accomplish something, and it has to matter to them. That something can't be too big, because we haven't had enough time to become invested. You can't have the character trying to save the king on page 7 because we haven't had time to care about the king. That's really the secret behind saving the cat. It's small stakes, but they still matter. How the character behaves in saving the cat is where the reader attaches. And, imo, the way to make that interesting is for the *author* to care--about that moment, about that character, about that cat.

In addition to those factors, the prose should be interesting. The prose can be error-free and have its early moments, but if it's all told in a dull manner, then I'm starting to glance toward the exit. Plot rescues any number of such stories. I'd classify the bulk of thrillers this way: the prose is rarely more than workman-like, but the plot itself carries me along. That's fine. It makes for a fun read; it rarely makes for a memorable one.

OTOH, memorable prose can carry a story quite a long way. Most of my favorite authors--Bradbury, Chandler, Conrad, Poe--fall into that category. Note that each also provides great plot, characters, themes, but their story might develop slowly and I'm still all in. An example is Josiah Bancroft's first volume in his Books of Babel series. In the first couple of chapters not much happens. Yeah the guy loses track of his wife in the crowd, but that's it. Mostly it's just a schoolteacher on holiday with some idle thoughts. But the prose carried me along far enough that when we enter the Tower of Babel, and extraordinary things begin to happen, I was well invested. And when the MC begins to develop, I was still more invested. That said, I know other people found the books dull to unreadable, so YMMV.

Anyway, a few thoughts for you to chew over.
 
I will go even further by analyzing the following situation:
It turns out that several years ago many writers asked ourselves the same thing in a Spanish forum, because like all of us, obviously our desire was not only to publish but also for those books to be sold and hopefully they would sell well. It was the time of Twilight, The Hunger Games, 50 Shades, Harry Potter, World War Z... The enormous influence of the Lord of the Rings, and all its clones and derivatives, due to the boost that LOTR gave to the fantasy market , just as The Hunger Games also revitalized science fiction, it was already ending; but we realized that, whether we liked it or not, the publishing market preferred authors who wrote about these topics. That is to say, it depended on what was fashionable on the screens to guide its editorial line. Which, of course, is still happening but to a lesser extent, I think mainly due to two aspects:

a) Script-writers crisis.
This produced a strange phenomenon, it made the production companies focus more on making remakes of already proven successes. In addition, the saturation of productions did not generate more money, it only made everyone get a smaller piece of cake. But the saturation also (it was to be expected that it would happen) had an echo in the publishing world. Some of them actually closed, or prestigious prizes disappeared, such as the UPC, in which renowned authors such as Robert J. Sawyer and others that I don't remember at this moment even used to participate.

b) Tendency to super productions with comic superheroes.
The Majesty of special effects. Getting bigger and bigger.
This produced another phenomenon, and made blog, forum, and fandom writers in general stare at each other, because until then you could write a romance-themed vampire novel and target it at the female market. You could also do one of zombies. You could even change the factors in the equation and see if it came out something Harry Potter-esque. But you couldn't compete with the special effects, further multiplied by the maelstrom of choreographies that leaves you breathless. In fact it can be done, we conclude. Or write, rather.
As long as, of course, we accept that the first thing is history.

That is the root of everything. So, since we depend so much on what we see on screen to write just a few lines, then I think we should also think like filmmakers and start with the concept or central idea first and only then worry about the characters and thirdly where the story will take place. But, thinking in literary terms, it is also good to do a "literary casting", for which we can ask ourselves things like:

For whom (the MC of course) living these experiences (the story) will mean an extraordinary adventure, or even a nightmare?
This, assuming it's a casting, helps define our hero's strengths and weaknesses. “We” will decide who this hero will be. It is our prerogative. But we don't have to overdo it either. Because at the same time we can also ask ourselves:

Who is the least qualified, guy or girl, to face this but he will have no choice but to do it?
This points to the conflict of the story, and although we have to accept, due to narrative needs, that certain "luck" of being close to the events that are narrated, and therefore having an importance that the reader grants us (for some reason is the one who is going to kick the bad guys and save the girl, or the other way around), we should not abuse or, worse still, brazenly resort to Deux et machina. Here, I believe, is the key to a well-chosen MC, not because he is the smartest or most handsome, but precisely because he doesn't even imagine the tremendous mess we are going to get him into.

Why is only that guy or girl the only one who can carry out this mission or solve that riddle and not another?
This helps define what is special about the MC. But please let's try he doesn't be another orphan destined to be a great wizard or a lovesick vampire who, being what he is, is so cool that he doesn't kill humans, he just drinks animal blood.
Note that I have deliberately avoided talking about the antagonist. Because the villain may well be a cataclysm. Anyway he is the force that opposes the protagonist and therefore he is very powerful and difficult to defeat.

Now, regarding where this story will take place, I think we've already covered it at a reasonable length in other threads. But going back to the original question, IMHO what makes a story interesting for the reader, of course, apart from being well written, is that it provides a perspective that is somehow "new", either because of the idea itself itself or by the treatment or approach that we give to it. Some of course will say that there is nothing new under the Sun, but this is not so. Or put another way, the idea may not be original at all, but the perspective is.
For example, since we all seem to know more about cinema than literature, or we spend more time watching movies and series than reading books, Stanley Kubrick was one of the first to show the villains of the movie Full Metal Jacket totally blurred and more like a distant rumor that according to the classic archetype of how a villain should be. In fact the only time he shows the face of one of those villains, what happens? Well, it turns out to be... a girl.
In Dunkirk the villains are not seen either. Only the fighters appear bombing the poor boys on the beach. The only Germans that appear in the entire film, when Tom Hardy is taken away, are out of focus on screen. Clearer, water.
Sauron in the Lord of the Rings isn't technically there either.

But, couldn't we also write a story in which the MC is also not seen and it is only known that he was there obviously for his good deeds such that he only appears at the end of the story and, of course, this way it solves the great mystery of who that was, and also such a noble person is one of the main attractions of the story?
That is an example of perspective.

On the other hand, in terms of treatment and approach, Tarantino has been giving us one example after another for decades, especially in relation to mimesis. That is, when the order of events is altered and, for example, it begins at the end of the story, continues through the middle and ends at the beginning.

In short, we can write the story we want. Another thing, yes, is that this one manages to sell, for which I suggest doing an analysis of the current film and television scene, that of video games and that of comics (I give up. Yes, there is nothing left but to accept that we are first television beings and in second order literary) and see what sells the most but, beware, paying special attention to how much useful life, or sales, remains for the topic on which we want to write.
For example, we all know that Altered Carbon did not have, nor will it have, anywhere near the enormous success that the Halo series, based on the video game of the same name, is having. So, if there are often skids even on the screen, we should be able to deduce why one series did not do so well and the other exhausted the entire stock of popcorn in the neighborhood. Because that is directly related to the script-writers. Therefore, we can transfer these conclusions to our stories, especially in regard to the handling of the plots. Which of course makes it clear that once we know what kind of story we want to write, and once the cast and the place have been chosen, the next thing to do is start planning the plot. Especially if there will be parallel plots. :ninja:
 
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It's simply a case for me of being engaged and wanting to know what happens next. I have some idea of what a novel is about prior to reading it or I wouldn't have picked it up, so I assume the writer has included everything for a reason, even if the plot is not being advanced and seemingly 'nothing' is happening at times.

They've got 50 - 100 pages to convince me I'm not mistaken!
 
If it hooks from first sentence.

What a great truth! Someone who understands that and is able to apply it correctly has a lot of the work done. Although all the elements count, the title, the review of the back cover, the design of the cover. Even acknowledgments or verbatim quotes have a reason for being. :ninja:
 
If it hooks from first sentence.
Not here, not by a long shot. None of my favorite writers have first sentences that hook. What they have is more like a musical composition that draws me in, phrase by phrase, until I realize that here inside this particular song, I am being happily surprised.

Joseph Conrad does this. Leo Tolstoy. Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Ray Bradbury, Edith Wharton, J.G. Ballard, T.H. White, Nevil Shute, and so on. Their prose is never plodding, but neither do they hook the reader in the initial sentence. In fact, the only case where I can remember being hooked on the opening sentence is One Thousand Years of Solitude, and while I enjoyed getting hooked, I never finished the book.

YMMV.
 
I will go even further by analyzing the following situation:
It turns out that several years ago many writers asked ourselves the same thing in a Spanish forum, because like all of us, obviously our desire was not only to publish but also for those books to be sold and hopefully they would sell well. It was the time of Twilight, The Hunger Games, 50 Shades, Harry Potter, World War Z... The enormous influence of the Lord of the Rings, and all its clones and derivatives, due to the boost that LOTR gave to the fantasy market , just as The Hunger Games also revitalized science fiction, it was already ending; but we realized that, whether we liked it or not, the publishing market preferred authors who wrote about these topics. That is to say, it depended on what was fashionable on the screens to guide its editorial line. Which, of course, is still happening but to a lesser extent, I think mainly due to two aspects:

a) Script-writers crisis.
This produced a strange phenomenon, it made the production companies focus more on making remakes of already proven successes. In addition, the saturation of productions did not generate more money, it only made everyone get a smaller piece of cake. But the saturation also (it was to be expected that it would happen) had an echo in the publishing world. Some of them actually closed, or prestigious prizes disappeared, such as the UPC, in which renowned authors such as Robert J. Sawyer and others that I don't remember at this moment even used to participate.

b) Tendency to super productions with comic superheroes.
The Majesty of special effects. Getting bigger and bigger.
This produced another phenomenon, and made blog, forum, and fandom writers in general stare at each other, because until then you could write a romance-themed vampire novel and target it at the female market. You could also do one of zombies. You could even change the factors in the equation and see if it came out something Harry Potter-esque. But you couldn't compete with the special effects, further multiplied by the maelstrom of choreographies that leaves you breathless. In fact it can be done, we conclude. Or write, rather.
As long as, of course, we accept that the first thing is history.

That is the root of everything. So, since we depend so much on what we see on screen to write just a few lines, then I think we should also think like filmmakers and start with the concept or central idea first and only then worry about the characters and thirdly where the story will take place. But, thinking in literary terms, it is also good to do a "literary casting", for which we can ask ourselves things like:

For whom (the MC of course) living these experiences (the story) will mean an extraordinary adventure, or even a nightmare?
This, assuming it's a casting, helps define our hero's strengths and weaknesses. “We” will decide who this hero will be. It is our prerogative. But we don't have to overdo it either. Because at the same time we can also ask ourselves:

Who is the least qualified, guy or girl, to face this but he will have no choice but to do it?
This points to the conflict of the story, and although we have to accept, due to narrative needs, that certain "luck" of being close to the events that are narrated, and therefore having an importance that the reader grants us (for some reason is the one who is going to kick the bad guys and save the girl, or the other way around), we should not abuse or, worse still, brazenly resort to Deux et machina. Here, I believe, is the key to a well-chosen MC, not because he is the smartest or most handsome, but precisely because he doesn't even imagine the tremendous mess we are going to get him into.

Why is only that guy or girl the only one who can carry out this mission or solve that riddle and not another?
This helps define what is special about the MC. But please let's try he doesn't be another orphan destined to be a great wizard or a lovesick vampire who, being what he is, is so cool that he doesn't kill humans, he just drinks animal blood.
Note that I have deliberately avoided talking about the antagonist. Because the villain may well be a cataclysm. Anyway he is the force that opposes the protagonist and therefore he is very powerful and difficult to defeat.

Now, regarding where this story will take place, I think we've already covered it at a reasonable length in other threads. But going back to the original question, IMHO what makes a story interesting for the reader, of course, apart from being well written, is that it provides a perspective that is somehow "new", either because of the idea itself itself or by the treatment or approach that we give to it. Some of course will say that there is nothing new under the Sun, but this is not so. Or put another way, the idea may not be original at all, but the perspective is.
For example, since we all seem to know more about cinema than literature, or we spend more time watching movies and series than reading books, Stanley Kubrick was one of the first to show the villains of the movie Full Metal Jacket totally blurred and more like a distant rumor that according to the classic archetype of how a villain should be. In fact the only time he shows the face of one of those villains, what happens? Well, it turns out to be... a girl.
In Dunkirk the villains are not seen either. Only the fighters appear bombing the poor boys on the beach. The only Germans that appear in the entire film, when Tom Hardy is taken away, are out of focus on screen. Clearer, water.
Sauron in the Lord of the Rings isn't technically there either.

But, couldn't we also write a story in which the MC is also not seen and it is only known that he was there obviously for his good deeds such that he only appears at the end of the story and, of course, this way it solves the great mystery of who that was, and also such a noble person is one of the main attractions of the story?
That is an example of perspective.

On the other hand, in terms of treatment and approach, Tarantino has been giving us one example after another for decades, especially in relation to mimesis. That is, when the order of events is altered and, for example, it begins at the end of the story, continues through the middle and ends at the beginning.

In short, we can write the story we want. Another thing, yes, is that this one manages to sell, for which I suggest doing an analysis of the current film and television scene, that of video games and that of comics (I give up. Yes, there is nothing left but to accept that we are first television beings and in second order literary) and see what sells the most but, beware, paying special attention to how much useful life, or sales, remains for the topic on which we want to write.
For example, we all know that Altered Carbon did not have, nor will it have, anywhere near the enormous success that the Halo series, based on the video game of the same name, is having. So, if there are often skids even on the screen, we should be able to deduce why one series did not do so well and the other exhausted the entire stock of popcorn in the neighborhood. Because that is directly related to the script-writers. Therefore, we can transfer these conclusions to our stories, especially in regard to the handling of the plots. Which of course makes it clear that once we know what kind of story we want to write, and once the cast and the place have been chosen, the next thing to do is start planning the plot. Especially if there will be parallel plots. :ninja:
I honestly don't follow any of this. You seem to be referring to several things without actually naming what they are. What situation? What casting?
 
So I've recently finished my third redrafting on my main writing project, and to let me recharge my juices a little, I've put that to one side for now and decided to pick up on another project I had shelved awhile back. I started re-reading it from the beginning to get familiar with it again, and realised two things.

First, I like how well it reads, the descriptions work well for me and the dialogue seems pretty decent too. That all seems pretty solid to me.

However...

Secondly, for all I am two chapters in, there's really not much happening in terms of plot. People are basically doing things that won't have much to do with the rest of the story (there is some setup and character development going on). I've already started working on ways to change that, but it did get me thinking.

What makes a story interesting for everyone to read? What would keep everyone reading from chapter 1 and 2 onwards the most? What struck me here is that there's little in this tale of mine so far to keep people interested. So by extension, I guess I should ask as well, what would make people stop reading if they found chapter 1 boring?
I don't understand how a story can have two chapters without any plot.

The plot is what the characters do. They are subject to the events of the plot and the decision makers that create the plot points that change the trajectory of events. We learn about the characters because of what they do in the plot. The story is the plot.
 
I honestly don't follow any of this. You seem to be referring to several things without actually naming what they are. What situation? What casting?

Ah, well, it's quite simple: the situation refers to the fact that editorial production and much of what we write we do rather by watching what happens in the movies and on TV. That even determines what publishers give preference to publish both new and established authors. For this reason, and according to what @DAgent suggested, I thought it appropriate to make a summary of the conclusions drawn in Spanish magazines and forums about which stories are usually more interesting for readers. In this regard, several of us believe that these interests tend to evolve according to these fashions. Therefore, perhaps something of what was stated in the previous post will help to give @DAgent some idea. That's all, including the literary casting. :ninja:
 
What makes a story interesting for everyone to read? What would keep everyone reading from chapter 1 and 2 onwards the most?

For me, personally, a story is interesting if it convincingly puts me into someone else's subjective world and allows me to see and experience things through their eyes. The content of the story - what it's about - is less important than this first requirement.

There are slice of life stories where nothing major happens but they are so skilfully realised that they are compelling reading. Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf is one such example. Literary fiction is rife with stories that are not plot driven.

Interest can be teased out of the mundane if you weave the right spell with your words. It's your job as a writer to find something interesting in the subjects you choose to write about. The words you choose, the perspective you take, the depth with which you interrogate the subject matter - all of these will contribute towards creating interest.

Interest can be from an experience or novel perspective that makes me look at something familiar a different way, or which challenges an idea I hold, or expresses something that I've felt or observed but never been able to articulate. It can be an entirely new experience - or something I will never experience. I don't find retreading the same old plots, characters or ideas stimulating unless there is something to add to the body of knowledge I already have or change my perspective on them.

If you like slice of life stories, analyse them and find out what it is that interests you. How do they hold your attention? What compels you to read on? Is it the characters? What do they do or say? What is their interior life like?

There are subjects and ideas that I'm interested in and these usually dictate the genres I'm attracted to: Sci-fi, PKD, satire, big ideas, philosophy, music etc. But I read books outside these - and it's always a joy to discover a great book outside of my ghetto. Conversely, I don't enjoy books that treat the subjects I'm interested in badly (i.e. are stupid or sloppily executed) or where ideas are expressed inauthentically.

What struck me here is that there's little in this tale of mine so far to keep people interested. So by extension, I guess I should ask as well, what would make people stop reading if they found chapter 1 boring?

Beyond asking whether this is the right place to start the story, ask yourself is whether you find it interesting. If you don't, then there's no point pursuing that angle.

Recently, I've found myself writing a chapter which is a linking section, something that is necessary for the plot to go from A to B, but isn't as interesting to me as the big, exciting stuff where you can cut loose and have fun. Approaching those chapters is the worst. Having to find the right angle - to tease the interest out of the scene. I start to ask myself - where is the drama? where is the conflict? Is there a better way I can tell this chapter?

I think the only way you can answer these questions is to follow your own instincts, and by having read widely and critically enough to know what you do and don't like and why.

When you're writing your first draft, however, you should never engage your critical faculties. Use your first draft to get your ideas down, then put it in a drawer for a month or two, then analyse what works and what doesn't, then rewrite the whole thing over again - keep working on each successive iteration until it's polished and good to go.
 

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