Have you ever done that thing in school where you’re given an egg and told to make it survive a long fall by whatever means you could through whatever supplies you could find? That’s storytelling to me, but the egg isn’t the character; it’s the reader you’re trying to make feel something.
I never started to embrace reading other people’s work as the best way to learn until we were at a brunch and critique IFWA did. I can’t remember who was waiting at the hostess stand when we arrived, but I knew I didn’t know her name with 100% accuracy. I asked her, as a writerly conversation, if she was enjoying giving the critiques so far.
“Not really,” she said. It surprised me. I didn’t think anyone liked to critique, but we only did it to get our stuff critiqued. But that was saying the quiet parts out loud. As though reading my mind, she continued. “I only do it to get my stuff read.”
Which, I mean, so had I, ten seconds ago. But hearing my rationale from someone else’s mouth drove me to prove how wrong it was. “But it’s so useful,” I argued.
“How?” she asked. At this point, I’m mostly making up the conversation, but I promise it remains true to the spirit of the one we had.
I can’t remember if this was before or after realizing that as writers, we were all making identical mistakes but were able to justify it to ourselves that it worked despite the shortcuts taken to delivering the full emotional experience to the reader. I was years away from understanding that the rules aren’t the rules because some dead white guy said so, but because through the years of craft, the easiest ways to do things become set in stone. The easiest way to get your reader to respond to the piece emotionally is by having an empathetic main character. They should realize that who they are as a person at the beginning of the story has to change to be the character they need to challenge, if not overcome, the challenge they’re facing. Saving the world or a marriage, it doesn’t matter what the stakes are.
And yet, I kept seeing stories taking shortcuts. The easiest way for the reader to feel engaged in the story is to have conflict and stakes. Something needs to oppose them from getting what they want or keeping what they have, and it has to matter why they want it. The easiest way for a reader to want to read to the end is to make the reader understand where the character is coming from, even if that isn’t the reader’s history. The easiest way to not blow that is to keep the character’s reactions to what the average reader would find on the outer rim of what that reader would do in the same situation. It is possible to write a story where the character’s reactions are beyond what a reader would empathize with. There are lots of modern classics that can do that. However, they set the bar to how good the exception has to be to still work despite the lack of empathy. An empathetic character needs to tell a good story. An unempathetic character needs to tell a great one.
This is why the whole contraption the egg sits in is the story, and the reader is the egg. Your account of it takes your reader through an event as though you’re about to throw your story off the roof of the gym. How that reader survives the trip, safe and secure or battered and broken, is up to the strength of the story. You may want your egg to survive. You may want it to shatter into a million pieces. But an egg that never falls doesn’t live through an experience.
The most important part of the story is how I feel when I finish it, but so many stories want to tell you what happens instead of how the character grows having experienced it. The easiest way to get the reader to care is to give them something worth being cared about, however your ideal reader defines it. It reminds me of the legend of the Golem. Without a song or prayer in its mouth, it’s just a lump a clay. A story without a reason to emotionally engage the reader to me is just as responsive.