There’s no (or at least, very few) simple paths to writing success, and those that do exist still take a good amount of skill to pull off. Tried-and-true methods exist, of course, but ingenuity and thinking outside the box are what drive storytelling forward as an art. In other words, the old stuff shouldn’t be forgotten but also shouldn’t be the main focus.
But as much as we’d like to make something other than yet another hero’s journey starring a small-town farmboy who’s revealed to be the chosen one, there’s no denying that these things (if handled correctly, mind you) actually work. Going for the straight and narrow, hard-and-fast routes as a first resort is what I like to call brute forcing a story.
Now, that’s not to say that brute forcing doesn’t have its more delicate aspects. Brute force or no, a story will only ever be a bland ripoff if it doesn’t innovate. So keep in mind the following statement as I ramble: use whatever tactics that you can to inspire interest within the reader, but always do so in a way that seems original.
Brute Force Tactic 1: Inspiring sympathy. In a lot of self-defense courses, the instructor will advise that you go for dirty tactics: blows to the throat, eyes, and groin. “Hit ’em where it hurts most” is the principle here, and you want to identify a reader’s pain point and smash it as hard as you can.
Who’s someone we can’t help but pity? Well…someone extremely unfortunate. A victim, maybe. A beggar pleading for bread at a street corner as dozens of rich nobles pass him by. A young woman who’s forced to work long shifts at the factory to buy medicine for her dying mother. An orphan boy whose parents were killed by the same people who made him a slave. Et cetera, et cetera.
Wonder why so many protagonists are short a mom and a dad? If we show the audience how this hurts the protagonist, we can’t help but be sorry for them. Going for raw emotions (disgust at greedy nobles, helplessness at the mother’s condition, and anger at the slavers) is a great way to establish empathy early on. If you get the first move in a fight, you want to open up with a blow to the eyes, throat, or groin. If you want a hard-and-fast way to brute force sympathy, you need to appeal to the emotions, and fast.
Brute Force Tactic 2: Establishing Rooting Interest. The cogs of the world turn on motive. People literally never act without motive. Your story’s dead meat when the reader starts asking “why should I read any of this?” The reader just doesn’t see a point to everything that happens, and subsequently passes the book into the recycle bin.
Time to brute force this junk. “Alrighty, reader.” You say, rolling up your sleeves. “So we’ve got an incredibly likable underdog character whose sister has been abducted by an advanced race of off-brand Phyrexians, but he’s since given up all hope of finding her. However, when he’s abducted and taken to the off-brand Phyrexians’ facilities, he meets an incredibly attractive and likeable girl who says she knows his sister. Matching wits, the two of them work to escape the facility and–You want to find out what happens, don’t you? That’s why you should read this.”
The reader will always ask “why should I read this?” and your job is to answer that question at every corner. You should read this book because…the main character’s funny, because you want to find out what lurks in the underdark, because you want to want to know who the traitor is, because you want to see the ending. Give the reader every reason to stick around.
Brute Force Tactic 3: Making the Conflict Relevant. So your characters have good motive, clear goals, and are fundamentally likeable. The adventure better not be some ho-hum meaningless quest to retrieve a generic magic relic of no importance that no one really cares about.
The goal is to make it personal. Say the old lady down the road has cancer. Aye, that’s unfortunate indeed. But you don’t really care, do you? Ah, but what if I tell you that old lady’s actually your mom? And not only is she that, but she also has a dying secret about your father that she never had that chance to tell you, and now you race to her house to try and warn her about the mystical murderous goons that are now closing in on her position–
See? Now you have occasion to care. If the reader cares anything about your characters, they’ll care about the plot. Save the world, or the hero’s girlfriend gets disemboweled. Obtain the magic artifact, or the world’s screwed. Make the consequences personal to the characters, and focus on making the reader care about those characters.
Now, I’ll leave you with this: through all my talk of brute-forcing things, you should still possess an element of discretion. The goal is to find the essence of why some readers care about certain stories, and then implement that essence in your own work. But skillfully written story should always be your top priority, and like all other rules in writing, this “brute-force” method is just take-it-or-leave-it tool in the toolbox.
Be sure to check out my latest novel, Book 1 in the Praetors of Lost Magic Series, and our Publications page. Plus, I mean, it wouldn’t hurt to check out the Resources tab. It’s full of super helpful material and I promise it will help you out. Until then, writers!