Thursday, 18 April 2013

Persuading Readers

You can write a story and present it as, Here’s some stuff I made up — hope you like it! 

Or you can present it as, I’m going to tell you what happened — I know because I was there. 

Even though fiction is obviously all lies, and the reader knows that, you can make a big difference in how they receive a story simply by how you approach the telling of the tale.

In order to persuade the reader that they are getting the skinny from someone who knows, you have to create a sense of authority. A sense that they can’t get this story from anyone else, because no one else knows the story the way you do.

This is true of any genre and any style. But you can’t just claim to be the person with the inside knowledge, you have to back it up.

You do this by being specific and detailed. You give the reader information that only someone on the inside would know. And it has to be convincing. This can be because the information is true. Or it can be because you’re a good liar. Doesn’t matter.

Let’s say two characters meet at an airport. I can create a sense of authority simply by describing the airport in a way that demonstrates I really have been to this airport.

You may say, What has that got to do with anything? Just because they meet in this particular place doesn’t mean it’s relevant to the story. 

I agree. But by establishing your credentials on one subject, it persuades the reader that they are in the hands of a writer who knows what they’re doing. It doesn’t have to be the location, it can be a job, an object, a method...

You may say, Sure, I get the idea, but just because a writer can come up with ten bits of information about Heathrow Terminal 4 doesn’t mean the reader’s going to be interested by them. What’s the point in proving your authority if you send your audience to sleep? 

I couldn’t agree more. It isn’t just a matter of showing you know your stuff, you also have to keep it entertaining. If you gather ten bits of info on Heathrow, they may all be things most people wouldn’t know, but some are going to be more interesting than others. Which are interesting enough to share is a matter of personal judgement. You also have to take account of the sort of story you’re writing and the kind of character you’re writing about. You have to be selective.

You may say, Okay, that’s fine if I’m writing some story set in an airport on the outskirts of London, but what if I’m writing about a space port on the planet Tiktak, or a forest in the magical land of Jellybean? 

It doesn’t make any difference. The kind of detail you would use in a real setting is the same you would use in a fantasy one. You’re not trying to educate the reader or showing off your personal knowledge of airports, you’re establishing your firm grasp on the information you’re relaying.

If I was writing about a character who worked at McDonald’s I might tell you something about working in the kitchen that would fascinate and horrify you. If the character was working in the castle kitchens of Henry VIII, the details might differ, but the intention would be the same: I’m going to tell you something you didn’t know, but now that you do, you aren’t going to forget it. 
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19 comments:

Sarah Foster said...

Great post. I deal with this a lot with the setting of my WIP--if my narrator has lived in the same city his whole life I want him to sound like he does but without it being ridiculously obvious. Like he's not going to tell the reader about great tourist stops because he was probably numb to them by the time he was 5 years old.

Also, I think I've had sort of the opposite problem, where I was giving information the reader would certainly want to know, but that the narrator wouldn't actually be aware of. Sometimes you have to cut what feels unnatural and leave a little mystery.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Give them enough to show you know what you're talking about without overloading them with useless detail.

mooderino said...

@Sarah - it has to be true to the world of the character, but that should help you choose which specific details are the right ones.

@Alex - useless details are never good.

Nancy Thompson said...

I agree! Just last night, a reader who is in the middle of my book contacted me and said surely I must work in the medical field because my emergency room scene was "spot on." I assured her, as an interior designer and architect, the only experience I had in the medical field was with Google. As a cardiac technician, she applauded me on how well I executed the technical details and dialogue between the medical personnel characters. I guess all that research pays off!

Al Diaz said...

The discussion you have with yourself is just fascinating. I think you've got all arguments covered.

mooderino said...

@Nancy - a little research can go a long way.

@Al Diaz - I just go off my meds and it's easy.

myriteofpassage said...

So true, with a little bit of authority, you can fiction (sorry, I just can't say the "L" word) with conviction.

Michael Di Gesu said...

I couldn't agree more... setting a stage of any kind needs to be VERY convincing and exciting.

What I do is create the scene around the character. Smoke billows from a lit cigarette. Years of nicotine stains the peeling paper of one of the last establishments in the city that still allows a person their habit. Such fun. Great advice, Mood. Hope you don't mind my example... I was recently in one of these places....

Elise Fallson said...

If you write about a character who worked in the kitchens at McDonald’s, show them the cockroaches, rodents, and rub marks. This is something I actually know a little about.

C. Lee McKenzie said...

I love stories that give me details of the setting/period. It's exciting to "see" the character in his environment. I agree you have to know what deets and how many to satisfy the reader without overwhelming him.

I liked the post.

Jean Davis said...

I would like to go to the magical land of Jellybean. I'm pretty sure I know quite a lot about it, having eaten plenty of them (As research, of course) and it's not here so it has to be a pretty awesome place. :)

Indeed though, half the fun of writing a story is making everything feel real and you can't do that without delving into some interesting details. Even if there isn't a ton of description, make what is there darn interesting so readers want to spend some time there.

Jay Noel said...

I researched how helicopters and submarines work...I wanted to capture what it was like to travel in such machines, despite the fact that I've never been in a submarine.

A helicopter, that's another story! Weeeeeeeee!

Sharon Himsl said...

Hi. I guess the secret is how to give your reader enough information without boring them. It's easy to say too much. 'Less is more' in this case.

Rachna Chhabria said...

Great post Mooderino. I agree that giving vital details and information shows the readers that they are in the capable hands of a writer who knows the story world.

Lynda R Young said...

Yes! The moment an author gets a detail wrong, the reader is pushed out of the story.

mooderino said...

@myrite - you can do a lot with a little.

@Michael - your example is more than welcome.

@Elsie - disgusting yet delicious.

@C Lee - thanks.

@Jean - it's much easier aiming for quantity over quality, but not very effective.

mooderino said...

@Jay - writing about what you find interesting tends to transfer to the reader a lot easier.

@Sharon - I agree.

@Rachna - capable hands make all the difference.

@Lynda - amazing how annoying inaccuracies in fiction can be.

sassyspeaks said...

In class we are told - logic and surprises - You make some good points

mooderino said...

@sassy - Vulcan University?

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