My brain has been throwing ideas at me that make my scenes more vivid and memorable. I listen to the muse and obey, but the analytical part of my mind tends to ask questions. So I started ranking what perks up scenes, and I put these into a larger context.
The first rule is don’t undercut yourself. This can happen when what you write is unclear or distracting. Get the facts right, keep in logical (without confusing non sequiturs), use words that are correct but don’t send your readers to the dictionary, and never have characters act out of character. The best protection here is having someone else read your work, asking them if anything was unclear or confusing or took them out of the story, and listening to what they say. Most writers will take this kind of correction unless it means killing something they love. Beware: Such self-indulgence gets in the way.
Often fun facts and fancy prose need to be cut, especially if they stick out. But they can actually keep readers engaged if they are slipped in smoothly enough and support the story. My model for doing this right was author Charles Sheffield. He is the only person I’ve ever spoken with regularly who could toss in a few lines of poetry or an analogy explaining an arcane concept in physics and never sound pretentious. Elegance personified.
Curiosity can hold readers. Most stories raise questions people want answers to. Big question. Little questions. Time them right, pay them off, and make sure they sit in readers’ memories with just the right emphasis. It’s a critical part of story telling. I just did an analysis of a Web series I’m working on, and the biggest concerns I ended up with were questions paid off too early and questions forgotten. I think the temptation to reveal rather than to withhold is driven by writer enthusiasm for the answer—they can’t wait to share it—and concern that if they withhold it too long, impact will be lost. But if you study your favorite stories, almost all of them withhold until readers are clamoring for the answers.
The questions forgotten thing is easier to deal with. Creative minds tend to raise more questions and throw up more options than a story can handle. In revision, it’s to cut those that don’t contribute and to pay off those that were overlooked.
Similar to questions are surprises and humor. Twists and turns add novelty, force readers to take fresh looks at what went earlier, and lead to new questions. Clues, misfortunes (for sympathetic characters, not villains), and secrets uncovered make stories fresh and unpredictable.
And, if you give your readers a good laugh, they’ll keep coming back for more. Humor may be the best way to pull things together and comic relief can amplify emotional engagement. But it doesn’t have to. Humor is so highly valued, it is one of the few elements that can be kept without harm when it doesn’t really fit. As the experts say, never cut funny. The biggest concern is audience. What’s funny often doesn’t translate to different cultures. And taste can become an issue.
One of the best tools is escalation. If there is a pattern, making it more intense with each instance promises more and keeps readers hooked. For instance, someone’s car breaks down. Then the character is robbed. Then he trips and twists his ankle. Then there’s a city-wide blackout.
Stakes and consequences can be part of this. What if the character is on his way to give blood for emergency surgery. And his blood type is rare. And the patient is his younger brother. Who is the only witness who can testify against the city’s corrupt mayor.
The most powerful tool for reader involvement is empathy for the character. The more we identify with the hero or heroine, the more intensely engaged we’ll be. We have to make sure they’ll be all right or succeed. Damon Knight said empathy could be turned on by making the character funny, skilled, or wronged (or some combination of these).
I don’t think that exhausts the possibilities. For instance, familiar situations often can trigger me as a reader to keep turning pages just because the protagonist is going through something I’ve gone through. If a character’s voice is distinctive enough, I may be drawn into his or her life and discover touchstones that matter. And care. That’s the main thing. Whatever you can do to make me care about your character and keep me caring is likely to succeed.
This list is not complete. Images can hold readers. Sex and violence may act for some (most?) readers in ways similar to humor. I just bought a book because the whole story takes place at my alma mater, and I’ve done the same when I’ve found stories about cities I’ve visited or lived in, about people I’ve known, and about organizations I’ve been a member of. I’m the natural audience for those stories, and, chances are, if your story has recognizable specifics, there’s an audience for it. And often the specifics illustrate the universal, as with Fiddler on the Roof and My Big Fat Greek Wedding. You don’t have to be Jewish or Greek to enjoy those stories.
As I said, my path to this list was looking at the elements that were inveigling their ways into my scenes. When the muse goes to work, just say yes. When he/she doesn’t, it’s great to have a tool for revision that provides the same kinds of elements, which is why I looked at my experience and wrote this as a way to explore my already drafted scenes and make them more vivid.