Update: Click to read Part 1 or Part 3.
Writing Popular Fiction: Part 2
Last week I talked about writing at an accessible level to expand your audience and the art of subtlety in writing. This week, I’m moving on to two new tips that I’ve found to be really successful in my own writing. Perhaps you already use them, perhaps you’re only now being introduced. Either way, using these tips for writing popular fiction are a great start toward pushing your craft to the next level.
1. The Cliffhanger. Everyone has been reading that book that always seems to be begging you to read one more chapter to find out what happens. Why is this? Usually, it’s a factor of the author using psychological tools to leave the reader, you, wanting more. How do they do it? You’ll often find that chapters end in the middle of a dramatic scene or right before something big happens. In television, this is known as the commercial break. It’s something that’s been used on the small screen for decades to build anticipation to ensure you won’t change the channel when you’ve seen your third Charter Spectrum commercial in a row (This actually happened to me once and the theme song is still in my head. Curse you Charter!)
How can you as a writer build this into your story structure? It’s simple. As you’re writing your scene, imagine it as a TV show. If you were watching a TV show, where would the producers pause for a commercial? Use this trick as a basic guideline and it will take you a long way. The key here is not to do it every single time because it can be a bit formulaic if every chapter ends in the same way. This is where it’s good to throw in some twists. Instead of ending just before a big reveal, end a little further back, but put in some choice words so that the reader knows it’s coming, whetting their appetite to continue reading. This method is how you get readers to pick up your book and be unable to put it down until they are finished. In case you haven’t been paying attention, that is rarely a bad thing.
Note: If you are writing in a series, it is paramount that you put in at least some kind of cliffhanger to get the reader to click ‘buy now’ on the next book in the series. This doesn’t have to be epic, but the reader must know that there is more to the story and that they would benefit from continuing on this journey with you. Readers who have already read one of your books are incredibly more likely to read more of your work, especially if there is a series involved. Why? If a reader has already invested time in an author and if that author is any good, readers would rather read more work by an ‘acceptable’ author than to venture into unknown territory. Prior readers should be one of your main target audiences.
2. The Audience. Literary Fiction has its function. It is meant to be thought-provoking, but at its core it is all about the author. The author is expressing a feeling from deep within and is writing a story without regard to the reader. It is, perhaps, the loneliest genre an author can write. Popular Fiction is a different story. Popular Fiction exists because of the reader. The story and the emotions of the characters are far more important than what is under the surface in popular fiction because it exists for a different reason. Popular Fiction exists to evoke emotion in the reader, to get them to care about a character or situation, and to spin a story that will live on in their memory as though it were their own. While Literary Fiction can manifest some of these traits, its purpose is not to do so. The reader’s desires are under the surface. When writing Popular Fiction, it is important to always have your audience in mind. Why are they reading this? Are my characters likable, and if not, is that intentional? Your audience can differ depending on what genre you choose to write (or combination of genres), but truly it doesn’t matter, as long as you know who you’re writing for.
Very few people write a novel without the expectation or desire that someone will read it (mostly academic types). A good rule of thumb is to ask yourself as you’re writing if this is something you would read as an objective reader. If it is, great, keep it up! If you aren’t sure, you might want to take some time and read a few books from the genre you’re writing. I don’t say this so you can write a carbon-copy of something that’s already out there. Instead, you should see what elements worked and what elements did not work for you. Find out what drew you into the story, or perhaps what did not draw you in. Perhaps you’re writing in a genre because you haven’t found a story (say about vampires) that you really enjoy. Maybe the book you’re writing is exactly what the market needs to freshen up that genre, giving birth to a new sub-genre. In that case, you won’t know until you publish (and likely years after you publish).
For example, a novel I published five years ago has recently seen a second life and the sales have spiked. It’s taken a while (without much of a marketing plan) for it to begin to shine. That novel is particularly polarizing, where many people like it, but the writing is not for everyone. I drum this up to some experimental styles I used with an interrupting narrator that is a subconscious voice within the head of my main character, inspired by Kurt Vonnegut. Was it commercially smart? Probably not, but it sure was fun. The point here is that writing for your audience is generally a smart thing to do, but that doesn’t mean it’s always the right thing to do. You see, maybe that strange thought in your head is just crazy enough to resonate with that very same audience. Maybe they don’t know they want it because they’ve never seen it before. The only way to know for sure is to publish and engage in what I like to call “The Long Wait.” If you’re not interested in waiting, I’ve learned some great marketing techniques that can help to boost your sales. I’ll update this post with a link when I’ve written that post.
Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for next week’s post, Tips for Writing Popular Fiction: Part 3, in which I discuss the Fallacy of the Love Triangle and the Red Herring.