Friday, October 2, 2020

Two Rules for Telling an Attention-Grabbing Story

by A.C. Williams @Free2BFearless

I like rules. Rules are good. They tell you where it’s safe to drive and walk and park and where you shouldn’t do any of those things. Sure, some rules get irritating, but I’d much rather know the rules than have to guess at them. Typical first-born child response, right? 


But that doesn’t help with writing. Writing doesn’t really have rules. The moment you try to put a rule on writing, some crazy author out there will break it and succeed. Hello, grammatically non-traditional bestseller! (Cormac McCarthy barely even uses punctuation, y’all. Just saying.)


W. Somerset Maugham said there were three rules to writing, but nobody actually knew what they were. Particularly unhelpful advice. On the other hand, my editor has told me that there’s really only one rule to writing: Does it work? That’s a fairly good line to walk, I think. Does what you’re writing fit your audience? Does your story deliver tension? Do your characters ring true? 


Well, I like to split the difference and aim right down the middle of two perspectives. How many rules to writing are there? I say there are two:

  1. Start at the beginning. 
  2. Don’t be boring. 

If you’re a fan of BBC’s Sherlock, you may recognize these two points. Yes, they are Sherlock’s requirements for whether or not he will listen to a potential client. They have to sit down, state their case in as few words as possible, and then he decides if he wants to work with them or not. Most of the time, he declares them boring and demands that they vacate the premises immediately. 


I’ve found both of these rules incredibly useful, not just for written communication but also for the spoken word as well. 


Start at the beginning


Have you ever read a book that begins so far in the past it makes no sense to the present conflict? Judy’s aunt was a nun in a convent in World War I, and while she was there she met a young priest who would later take over a church in Arizona. And that priest would hear the confession of an old man who was the grandfather of a kid who broke a window and NOW the story begins! 


No. You lost me in World War I. Either tell me about Judy the nun or start with the kid who broke the window.


One of my favorite books for knowing where to start a story is Screenplay by Syd Field. Yes, it’s a book about screenwriting, but novelists can learn a lot from screenwriters. If you start a television show or movie with a scene that is too far removed from the main conflict of the story, your audience will get confused. The same is true with a novel. 


This is why it’s important to identify your story’s Inciting Incident. What happens to change your protagonist’s normal life? What forces him or her out into their adventure? Yes, introductions can be important, but don’t ramble. Don’t info-dump. Begin at the beginning. Start as close to the inciting incident as you can. Refrain from telling us all the back story up front and let the story unfold organically. 


Don’t be boring


Attention spans aren’t what they used to be. Media and advertising and super-fast internet speeds have stoked the fires of instant gratification, and the result is a deficit of focus. If we can’t capture and engage our readers immediately, they won’t keep reading. PLEASE don’t be boring. 


Your story has to captivate. Your characters have to resonate. Your world must be vivid and breathtaking, regardless of your genre (contemporary novels have worldbuilding just like fantasy). But it’s not easy. Sometimes the stories you find interesting will put another person to sleep as fast as reading the phone book out loud. 


I love genealogy. It’s fascinating to me to study my heritage. Not everyone in my family feels that way, though. I can talk for hours about Clan McLaran and the family tartan and the ancestral meeting place in Balquhidder, Scotland. Some of you just perked up. The rest of you are already snoring. 


What if I told you my brother has a rare genetic disorder, and the only hope for his survival is a distant cousin of Clan McLaran still living in Balquhidder, Scotland? Is that more interesting? Of course it is. Personal stakes make all the difference in the world. 


When it’s just history, most readers could take it or leave it. The average reader doesn’t give a hoot about a tiny abandoned village in the Scottish Highlands. I could rattle off as much information as I have, and it won’t make them care. And that’s the goal. You have to make your readers care, and no matter how much research you’ve done, until you can personalize the story and make it resonate with your readers, it won’t matter to them. 


By raising the stakes to a personal level (my brother is fine, by the way; I’m a fiction writer after all), I simply gave readers an easy opportunity to invest emotionally. That’s one way you can prevent a story from turning into a snorefest.

Write, write, and write some more. Don’t quit. Get personal. Get honest. And whatever else you do: start at the beginning and don’t be boring. 


Two Rules for Telling an Attention-Grabbing Story - A.C. Williams, @Free2BFearless on @EdieMelson (Click to Tweet)

A.C. Williams is a coffee-drinking, sushi-eating, story-telling nerd who loves cats, country living, and all things Japanese. She’d rather be barefoot, and if isn’t, her socks will never match. She likes her road trips with rock music, her superheroes with snark, and her blankets extra fuzzy, but her first love is stories and the authors who are passionate about telling them. Learn more about her book coaching services and follow her adventures on social media @free2bfearless.


  1. Thank you, ma'am! You are very welcome.

  2. Well stated and explained! I love working with you. 😉