I was driving home from work the other day, rocking out to a great song and going over story ideas in my head (I’ve found that driving is a perfect time to brainstorm ideas), and it occurred to me how much the song I was listening to was like a great story. It then occurred to me that this could make an interesting topic for a blog post, and so here we are.
It all starts with the hook.
If you break down the elements of a great rock song, you’ll see many of the same elements that are required to tell a compelling story. It starts with a great hook. Many of my favorite songs start with a great intro that immediately pulls you into the song. My mind may be wandering so that I’m barely aware of what’s playing, but when that great song kicks off, I’m immediately listening, my attention now on the music.
A good story needs the same thing. Now I’ve read a number of articles that talk about the importance of the opening paragraph, even the opening sentence. And sure, if you’ve got a killer opening line for your story, fantastic. But I don’t believe that the hook has to happen that immediately. I can’t think of a single story that I stopped reading because I wasn’t completely caught up in the story by the end of the first paragraph.
With that being said, reader patience levels vary, so the sooner you hook them into the story, the better. The best way to do this (at least, from all the advice I’ve read on the subject) is to open your story with action. Start right in the middle of a scene, guns blazing and fists flying. You want to get the reader excited about what’s going on, then you can worry about explaining the who, where, when, and why of what’s going on.
How you do this is naturally going to vary widely between genres, and indeed from story to story. Your average romance, for example, isn’t likely to start with literal “guns blazing” (at least I wouldn’t think so, but I fully admit to having never attempted to write romance). But whatever your style of story, you need to find an opening that your readers will find exciting, that will immediately engage them in your narrative.
Make a powerful emotional connection
Most songs that I really love are ones that I connect with on an emotional level – the song can make me happy, sad, angry (depending on my mood at the time), as long as the song ignites my emotions – the more intensely the better. This is one of the reasons I love rock music – there is an emotional intensity, a raw power to a kick ass rock song that you just don’t get with a lot of other styles of music (even if you can’t dance to it).
I believe it was in one of Randy Ingermanson’s e-zine articles that I first read that all successful stories cause the reader to have a powerful emotional response. And I believe this to be true. The emotions involved may vary based on the genre of story, but to really enjoy a story you need to connect with it on an emotional level. It should have characters that we love (or love to hate), and a plot that excites, or scares, or amuses – or maybe all of the above.
You gotta love a great guitar riff
One of the common elements I’ve noticed with songs that stay in my head throughout the day, songs that I can listen to on repeat over and over again, is a great guitar riff that recurs throughout the song. Or it has a great baseline that plays through the song. This is often what keeps my attention on the song while I’m listening to it, and is what keeps the song stuck in my head after I’m done listening to it.
Great fiction also has riffs running through it. In comedy it’s the running gag. In a murder mystery (or good slasher film) it’s that steadily rising body count. In romance it’s the will they/won’t they back-and-forth before the couple finally find happiness in the end. Whatever the genre, every story has those beats. When done right, they’re one of the things that keep you engaged in the story. Of course, done wrong and they quickly become the reason you quit reading.
A strong finish makes you want to hear it again
When I get done listening to a great rock song, the first thing I want to down is listen to it again. If it’s one I really love, I can listen to it over and over on repeat. A great story should be the same way – you can read it over and over again and enjoy it just as much every time. I might not start re-reading a story immediately after finishing it (because let’s be honest, a story has much more of a time commitment to it than a song does), but I will go back to it again and again over time. The ending to your story should be like the triumphant final note of a great rock song – your reader feels that happy sense of closure that this journey you’ve taken them on has come to a satisfying end, which makes them want to enjoy the experience all over again.
What do you think, dear reader? Share your thoughts in the comments!