What makes a story interesting to read?
Many things, but one of them is balance: balance between loss and gain, between hope of victory and threat of defeat.
In a story where there is only loss and no gain (the epitome of tragedy) or only gain with no loss (unrealistic), we find a lack of balance causes some discomfort for the reader.
Let’s take a story of a girl whose dream is to live in this old Victorian mansion at the outskirts of the town she lives in. The story starts, and we learn this girl was born holding a credit card and wearing Gucci, and she has the metabolism of a linebacker who can eat pizza and ice cream and not work out with no effect on her waistline (and without a single pimple breaking out), and she looks fabulous from the moment she wakes up until the end of time (without spending a second putting on makeup). This girl gets into the best school because she’s just who she is, she gets the most popular guy (on her first day), and their relationship is just bliss every moment with roses and chocolate and poetry. This girl is an immediate favorite with all her professors, graduates at the top of her class without pulling a single all-nighter or going to study hall, is hired as the CEO of a Fortune 5 company straight out of college, gets married to the most popular guy, goes on a fairy-tale honeymoon in the Austrian Alps, then a mysterious relation she’s never heard of dies and leaves her a ton of money and she moves into the mansion she’s always wanted, the end.
Perhaps at some point during that you started to feel like throwing up. I know I did. But why – it’s so happy and perfect, why would anyone not want to read that? Because it’s missing something vital: balance.
If we had a story about a girl (who sometimes gets pimples and spills tomato sauce on her shirt) who has a nice family and a nice life, but she doesn’t want to be stuck in the same tiny town, and she decides she’s going to make a better life for herself. So she works hard in high school, applies for a scholarship, but is denied, forcing her to choose between two community colleges. She shows up to her first class late, and her second class as well, and has to make an extra effort to (here it is) balance the negative first impression she gives her professors. She has a part-time job to support herself while getting her degree, and has to make time to get to the gym after classes or work. This girl has to (wait for it) balance her life between school and work and friends and family. Then this girl meets an attractive guy who is studying a challenging subject which he loves (at the other community college) but he is on a scholarship and has to keep his GPA high enough, so he spends all his time in the library (or on Google – I don’t know where people cram for exams these days) and he doesn’t have much attention for anything outside of that. There’s some inter-school rivalry, romantic tension, and a first date, more romantic tension, perhaps a fight or some jealously. (Do they work it out and stay together? We have no idea, we have to keep reading to find out.) All her commitments start wearing on her. Late-nighters turn to all-nighters, and calls go unanswered. Another misunderstanding and quarrel (ahh, the drama!). Her health suffers because of the stress, causing her grades to drop, so she gets more stressed, and the grades drop further, to the point where it jeopardizes that degree she needs to get a job in the city (dun dun dun dun). Then…the guy shows up with flowers and pizza (which means she’ll need to go to the gym, but who turns down pizza?), and he helps her study for the test, which she passes…and I’m not going to keep going, but wasn’t that so much more satisfying?
Why? Because it had balance. She didn’t get everything she wanted, she had to make choices, and her effort and sacrifice balanced what she achieved – it wasn’t handed to her on a silver platter so it meant more.
In the same way, someone who just loses – loses their keys, loses their job, loses the battle, loses the war, loses their family, loses their friends, loses their fortune, loses their mind…this is as unreadable as the first because there’s no hope to balance what seems a single, long, inevitable defeat. If it’s a sure victory, the reader will get bored, and if you only give hopelessness and misery without relief and an occational ray of sunshine, eventually the reader will stop reading because he knows the outcome as surely as he knows the first (unless you pull a dues ex machina, which some would call a questionable tactic). Any binge-worthy show does this balancing act masterfully.
This idea also explains why, in fantasy stories, the powerful wizard can’t just wave his magic wand and send the dark lord back to whence he came.
In my second writing exercise from the Ink Slingers Guild meeting, we see brief example of this concept:
burn, history, random,
“There is nothing random about this,” Henna told the inspector. “This was a
deliberate act of premeditated arson.”
The inspector glared down at her over his clipboard, and made a note before
walking away without a word. Henna sighed, and looked around for someone who
would be able to help her. She tried not to notice the still burning house, but
it was hard as it was right in front of her and in flames. Flames edged in
“Random, my foot,” Henna muttered.
“I’d have to agree,” a voice behind her said pleasantly, but she jumped as if
they had shouted. She turned to find a handsome man with silver hair and
piercing blue eyes standing there, looking at her with the hint of a smile on
his lips. He wore a jacket, but there were no marking to identify his position
“Who are you?” Henna asked.
“A watcher of worlds,” the man told her, and a shiver ran down Henna’s spine.
“What do you want with me?” she whispered. “I haven’t done anything wrong.”
“I know that,” he nodded. “But the others won’t. They’ll just see this -” he
jutted his pointed chin towards the smoking ruin, “-and the rest will be lost in
“But you’re going to help me?” Henna asked, clutching desperately at the straw
he left hanging so tantalizingly close yet unspoken. “You’ll help me find out
who did this and get back what they stole?”
His smile widened ever so slightly. “For a price.”
The loss of an object of some importance is balanced by the gain of an ally (a questionable ally, but for the moment, an ally nonetheless), and the gain of assistance must be balanced by a price.
A well-balanced tale draws the reader along, because he is never quite sure what is waiting around the corner – he has to turn the page to find out!
So, I’m curious – what are you reading now? Is it a page-turner? Why or why not?