I have written before about going on a date as an analogy for writing (perhaps because my success rate for both is near-zero, but let’s not dwell on that.) My point is that a work of fiction is there to show the reader a good time. The reader doesn’t have to be there and can leave at any time. The author is the pursuer and has to romance the reader.
As a reader (and I can speak only for myself) I’ve come up with a few basic principles for seducing me, or at least charming me into going upstairs to look at your etchings.
Pick me up where I live. Sure, I accept that we’ll be heading off into some strange places, and I’m good with that. I’m looking for a walk on the wild side or I wouldn’t have chosen your story in the first place. But you need to come get me at my front door.
What this means in practical terms is that I want you to set the scene–setting, characters, objects, events–in terms that are familiar to me. If it’s a pastoral fantasy give me details that would be familiar to anyone who’s walked in a park–sunlight through trees, cool breezes, the smell of wet leaves, the distant sound of cattle. I am willing to go along with characters who live rough in the woods or in unheated cabins, but I don’t live there. Make it real for me in terms a city boy can relate to. In the same way I don’t live on a space station, so I expect you to give me the character’s day to day existence in easy steps. Talk about the sound of the air circulators, the solidity of decking underfoot, the windowless warrens where everything is artificial. That’s a breadcrumb trail I can follow into your world.
Clean up for the occasion. This one is a little tough for me to put into words, possibly because for me it is so obvious. What I mean is not that your story elements should be attractive in real-world terms (i.e. I can thoroughly enjoy a story that features things I would never want to really experience) but that they should be initially presented in terms that allows them dignity on their own terms.
If you’re going to be taking me to a 33rd Century slum at the fringes of a spaceport on some dismal desert world, at least let me see some children playing hide and seek around the decaying wreckage of a sandcrawler. If your story opens with your character starving in some frozen wilderness, let him face his fate with dignity and resolve. Show me characters at their best when you introduce them–they’ll be time to let slip their weaknesses and petty cruelties once I get to know them. Let me see the savage beauty of the wasteland, the hope that lingers in the hearts of the downtrodden populace, the captivating mystery that drives the mad scientist in pursuit of Things Man Was Not Meant To Know.
And while I realize that this a trope that is endemic in all kinds of fiction, particularly Police Procedurals and Horror, don’t open with a character who is just there to die. Very little infuriates me more than being introduces to a character, trying to relate to a new person and a new world, and then having it all thrown away and having to start from scratch in chapter two. My first impulse is to say, “That was a short book, wasn’t it?” and read no further.
Take me someplace fun. Now, “fun” in terms of fiction can be an odd word. Frequently a fun story will involve nasty places and beastly creatures. “Thrilling” or “exciting” or even “terrifying” would be more accurate. But I really do mean fun. I want something to get my blood pumping, and I want it fairly early in the evening. It doesn’t have to be a significant event, and it doesn’t even have to related to the main plot. But show me what you can do–whether that’s action, horror, adventure, or steamy romance–within a few thousand words of opening line. Give me something to whet my appetite and want to stick around for the rest.
Don’t tell me how much you spent. Okay, so this one is a little more conceptual than the others, but I think the principle is fairly straightforward. I am a writer myself and I know how much work goes into crafting a novel. There’s worldbuilding, plotting, research, all sorts of notetaking and figuring and scribbled lines to try to keep all the pieces in place.
As a reader, though, I don’t want to hear about it. And that means that I don’t want to hear about anything that isn’t important to the action. Maybe you’ve spent days reading up on world events in 1655, but if your story takes place in London I don’t need to hear about what is happening in Moscow. (Was there even a Moscow in 1655? I have no idea.) Maybe you’ve spent hours writing the secret history of the Silent Sisterhood Of St Giles, but do I need to know it? No, I mean, seriously, do I need to know? Is the response you’re looking for “Wow, that’s really cool!” or “Aha, now I understand!”
If it’s the former, you probably want to consider excising that bit of exposition. Because you want me focused on what’s happening and not how you’ve engineered it.
Don’t move too fast. I’ve written before about what I call “negotiated suspension of disbelief” but I’ll recap it here. Just because I’ve gotten into your car doesn’t mean I’ve agreed to go out parking by the lake. In the same way, just because I’ve agreed to dragons doesn’t mean I’ve agreed to starships. Everything that is fantastic has to be brought in and negotiated separately. This doesn’t have to be a long involved process, but you do need to invest in making it real to me. Convince me that it is believable. There is no “of course” in fantastic fiction.
Kiss me goodnight. Give me an ending that leaves me remembering the fun we had. This doesn’t have to mean a “happy” ending in the traditional sense, but one that is satisfying in a narrative sense. Beginnings and endings are both very fragile and a heavy handed or clumbsy scene at the end of the story can sour me on the whole novel–and leave me unwilling to give you another try. The ideal ending should leave me feeling that this particular story is concluded but life in your world goes on. Make me want to visit again, but let me feel that we’ll do something different next time, that it won’t just be the same evening all over again. I’m greedy that way.
Again, this is just me speaking as an individual reader, and I don’t intend for this to be a list of guidelines or a set of rules. Instead, I want to promote an attitude, a way of looking at the relationship between author and audience. Don’t take your readers for granted and take the time to develop a relationship, even in short fiction. Make it a night to remember.