Translating the story in your head

A woman with a book, looking at the cameraWhen working as a fiction editor I’m sometimes asked by my braver/more enthusiastic clients: Did you like it?

It’s a big question with a lot of emotional baggage.

Its also the only question that really matters to both a writer and a reader.

Being subjective, there’s only one satisfying answer: Yes.

While editors need to maintain emotional distance to retain objectivity, readers can’t be given that same luxury.

If they don’t like a story they’ll have no interest in it. Game over.

On the flip side, if you were to read a friend’s story and they asked you if you liked it, it’s difficult to say no without hurting their feelings.

That’s because authors invest themselves emotionally in their stories.

Which makes sense. If an author doesn’t care about their own story, why should anyone else?

Yet that can lead to problems.

What author doesn’t hope everyone will love their story? They care, and they want everyone else to care too.

Logically we know this isn’t going to happen, but emotions don’t care about logic. Logic and emotion come from very different parts of the brain, and those two parts don’t talk to each other. Ever.

Have you ever seen huge lines of fans waiting to get a book signed, sometimes for hours? I have. It’s an author’s dream.

It means the author has created an emotional connection between their readers and their book.

Why else would anyone spend hours lining up for what amounts to a squiggle of ink on a page?

That’s not logical.

Emotion sells fiction regardless of whether logic checks the bank account first, so as an author you need to tap into a reader’s emotional side.

That doesn’t mean writing a romance. It means you have to make readers care enough about your story to want to buy it.

That kind of emotional bond rarely happens by accident. The ability to passionately engage fans takes skill and practice.

It also takes a solid knowledge of story-craft.

The truth is, no story you can dream up will ever appear on a page the way you see it in your head, yet many writers assume it does. Most readers do too.

Text: Emotion sells fiction, not  logic.Talk to an author and you’ll hear about very a different story to the one you’ve read, no matter how good that author is.

Stories must be translated into words before they can be passed on, yet words are only used for the first translation.

A second translation occurs when someone reads (or hears) those words. Writers have absolutely no control over a reader’s experience, so the first translation needs to be exceptional for the second to produce a story even close to the way an author sees it.

That means it takes two translations to move a story from an author’s dreams to a reader’s imagination, and it has to change formats twice to do it.

If you write a movie script or play, there’s a third translation involved – to the screen or stage. Give a script to ten different directors and you’ll get ten different movies.

As translations are never perfect, no reader is ever going to experience the exact same story you do.

If you don’t believe me, try this: pick any story you love and try to explain it to someone who’s never experienced it.

Can you see the problem?

Even the best translation won’t be exact.

However, with skill and a lot of practice you can give them a translation worthy of the story you’re trying to convey.

Maybe even better.

If you’re good, really good, you can even make them care about it just as much as you do.

And that begs the next question.

How do you convert the compelling story in your head so it remains compelling when the reader translates it second-hand from the words you’ve written on a page?

Here’s the list of story elements you can use to do that:

  • characters.

Here’s the list of story elements you can’t:

  • everything else.

Remove your characters and you have no story; no conflict, no drama. All you have are ideas, concepts and explanations. Museums are nice, but unless you’re the curator you can only spend so much time there before boredom sets in.

Characters are therefore essential to a compelling story. Museums aren’t, though they’re interesting to the right people.

If you put a single character in a void you can still create a compelling story, but it doesn’t work the other way around even if you fill the void with cool stuff.

At best it’ll be interesting for a time. Interesting isn’t compelling though.

Even the most interesting characters only become compelling when they have to struggle for the stakes they’re invested in.

Like an author who doesn’t care about their book, a character who doesn’t care about anything that happens to them won’t induce a reader to care either.

The more your characters care and the harder they have to fight for what they want, the greater the chance your readers will care about what happens to them too, making your story compelling.

Only by getting people to fall in love with your characters can you get them to fall in love with your story.

Only people who love a story will spread the word.

The cool stuff is always going to be cool stuff – but compelling characters will draw a reader into a story and never let them go.

Creative Manuscript ServicesSo make your readers care enough about your characters that they want to blog about your book, tell all their friends, and write reviews everywhere.

Translate your story so well they get emotionally caught up in it and can’t not do those things.

Do that and they’ll be lining up for your next book before you can even announce it.


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