Make Readers Care about a Story’s Movie-Poster Elements

4 Oct
Christopher DeWan's story "Voodoo" is included in his new collection, Hoopty Time Machines.

Christopher DeWan’s story “Voodoo” is included in his new collection, Hoopty Time Machines.

I often teach a class about first pages and how to hook readers. There are some obvious strategies for this: introducing a gun, dead body, broken rule, or a moment with two possible outcomes. But none of these is enough to compel a reader to turn the page. After all, we’ve all seen these strategies put to use over and over again. Something else is needed. That something could be a bigger or more awful gun, more dead bodies, and a more taboo broken rule, but at a certain point you’re simply making another Saw movie. Shock value is a finite resource. But human emotion isn’t. For a first page to be truly compelling, it needs to make readers care about the gun or dead body or whatever.

A great example of making a reader care can be found in Christopher DeWan’s story, “Voodoo,” which was originally published in A cappella Zoo and is included in his new collection Hoopty Time Machines: Fairy Tales for Grownups.  You can read the story here.

How the Story Works

As the title makes clear, the story is playing with a well-known horror/supernatural trope. Any reader will have pretty clear expectations for what will follow: some version of a doll with pins and needles stuck in it. The problem facing DeWan is the same one facing most writers. The story is familiar, and so something is needed to make readers pay attention yet again. He could have used a more horrific doll or added bloodier consequences, but that wasn’t his approach. Instead, here is how the story begins:

You walk into your daughter’s room. You wouldn’t do this normally. You try very hard to respect her privacy, even when this sometimes causes you to wonder if you’re being a bad or neglectful parent. The fact that you wonder means that you probably are not a bad or neglectful parent. But everyone has better days and worse days.

There’s no mention of voodoo or a doll in this paragraph. Instead, we’re shown a relationship and a character who isn’t sure how to proceed, who means well but isn’t is faced with the possibility that good intentions might be insufficient. Or perhaps everything is just fine.

The uncertainty is important. As readers, we’re naturally drawn to situations in which a character is trying to discern the true nature of the world and circumstances. It’s why we’re drawn to conspiracy theories, magic, and Halloween. We love the idea that everything is not as it seems. But we also need to care, and that’s why the emotions in this first paragraph are so important. The character has feelings, and those feelings are tethered to concrete things (the welfare of his daughter) and abstractions (do we ever really know how someone is doing?).

The next paragraph makes good on the title’s promise:

Her alarm clock is going off and she’s nowhere to be found, so you walk into her room, and that’s when you see them: two little dolls. Voodoo dolls of you and your wife.

Now the story kicks into gear, but the reason we keep reading isn’t because of the dolls but because we care (and the character cares) what happens with those dolls.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s introduce emotional stakes to a story, using “Voodoo” by Christopher DeWan as a model:

  1. Decide what readers will care about. In other words, what’s the primary story element. In “Voodoo,” that element is voodoo. In monster stories (vampires, zombies, aliens, serial killers), the element is the monster. In detective fiction, it’s the pursuit of the criminal, and in romances, it’s the consummation of love and the struggle to maintain it in the face of difficulty. It’s the movie poster image for your story or novel. What is this element for your story?
  2. Create an emotional attachment to that element. Movies use a lot of the same emotional stakes—protecting a child or other loved one, finding true love or friendship, finding your best self—because they’re part of our lives in an essential way. Great literary works use the same emotional stakes. So, start by choosing something we all worry or dream about.
  3. Find an authentic entry to that emotion. The problem with blockbuster movies is they introduce the emotional stakes using some well-worn tricks (a child saying, “Why won’t you come to my ballgame, Mommy/Daddy?) but then abandon the stakes as soon as the movie-poster element shows up. After all, the filmmakers seem to think, who cares about that kid when the museum exhibits have come to life and are trying to kill you? They’re right some of the time. But in stories and novels, the writer usually needs to stick with the emotional stakes. Rather than using a shortcut, introduce the stakes with more uncertainty. So, find a simple action (walking into the daughter’s room) and then add a choice (should I or shouldn’t I?) and a larger emotional context (am I a good parent or not?).
  4. Lead with the emotion. Very often, as soon as the movie-poster element shows up, it sucks up a lot of the oxygen in the story. It’s hard to introduce emotion for the first time when stuff is blowing up. So, begin with the simple action, choice, and larger emotional context. Let it be the hook for the reader. The movie-poster element will arrive soon enough.

The goal is to make readers care about the big story elements rather than relying on those big elements to keep readers turning the page.

Good luck.

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One Response to “Make Readers Care about a Story’s Movie-Poster Elements”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. An Interview with Christopher DeWan | Read to Write Stories - October 6, 2016

    […] To read an exercise on using emotion to make readers care about a story’s big-conceit elements, inspired by DeWan’s story “Voodoo,” click here. […]

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