I have the attention span of a gnat or indeed its whisker. I choose fiction based on the first sentence. If you’re lucky and I’ve nothing better to do, the first few. If the story hasn’t hooked me like a dog on the trail of a joint of beef fresh out the oven, then I’m unlikely to read on.
Reading a new story is like exploring a new path. It’s got to look tempting to make me step out on it in the first place. If it fizzles out into a nice seventies housing estate, I’m turning back.
If it’s a good story, the genre doesn’t matter. The other morning I bought a science fiction short story (not my usual thing – too many ray guns). It was Hunter by Wil Wheaton. He asked the reader for a donation for what they thought it was worth and he provided enough for a good sniff and to make me press that ‘big ugly button’donate.
For $1.50 (about 99p) via paypal I got about a further 2200 words that I wanted to read.
Hunter, set on another planet where a human colony is persecuted by an alien race, is about chase and capture, regret and remorse. So yes, the experience was also a physical journey with Pyke, the main character; there were only two, but a few others slipped in in flashback. The point of view was with Pyke but by using a handy ‘mind control’ plot device, there were others as well. It didn’t leave me with a sense of wonder, warm fuzzy feelings or a major shift in my contemplation of the human condition. On the basis of the first 288 words, I also handed over cash, was interested to read to the end and was entertained. Thanks Wil Wheaton, for a successful piece of efiction.
So what do stories need to keep me reading?
Here’s a list:
- The title should be intriguing but that alone won’t persuade or dissuade me to read.
- Usually I want the main character to be doing something I can immediately visualise in the first few sentences…
- …or an edgy voice or a clear image
- A small cast of characters that feel like real people
- Characters that are distinct, not a blurred group
- Most of the action (which doesn’t have to be hyperactive) to be with the main character
- I want to have some understanding of the main character, be privy to their thoughts and feelings. I don’t mind if they’re first or third person.
- I want to know and feel where I am straightaway, I want to be able to step straight on the path.
- I don’t want background info.
- I don’t want to be told about the situation, I want to see what’s going on and draw my own conclusions, which should be obvious.
- I want language that’s clear and uncluttered. I don’t want decorated prose burdened with lots of adjectives and adverbs
- I hate words like orb, resonate, utilise…
- I’m not fussy about punctuation as long as it’s clear what’s going on (as you can see, a lot of it is still a mystery to me)
- I don’t want huge chunks of unparagraphed text.
- I want to hear a voice, as if the main character is speaking to me.
- I want their point of view and probably in a short story, only their point of view.
- I want details, sometimes quirky and peculiar, bringing scenes and characters into focus.
- I want to care about the characters, I want to feel their fear, their elation, their resistance their determination…
- I want to go on the journey with them.
- I want to loathe the villains and fall in love with the heroes.
- I don’t necessarily want a twist, but I do want a satisfying ending, a good resolution, ideally where The good ended happily and the bad unhappily.because That is what fiction means.Oscar Wilde
Hunter ticked enough of this list for me.
I don’t know if pandering to me will win competitions or get a story published but it will keep this reader reading.
This probably isn’t my definitive list. So from time to time, I’ll return and refine.
Can I keep you reading? Time to stick my head above the parapet, try this, here.