Well, I thought that I’d talk about writing stories that can compete with the plethora of other entertainment mediums out there these days. After all, modern readers have a lot more entertainment mediums competing for their time than they did even a couple of decades ago. Whether it is smartphones, TV boxsets, games, social media, the internet in general etc.. There has never been more competition for your reader’s attention.
Still, all hope is not lost. One of the interesting things that I’ve noticed since I got back into reading regularly the best part of a year ago is how some more modern books have adapted to this change when compared to several of the older 20th century novels that I’ve read.
I ended up thinking about this subject because, a few days before writing this article, I bought a vaguely modern refurbished computer (to replace one of my two vintage mid-2000s computers). Needless to say, keeping up with the usual reading schedule has been a bit more of a challenge than I’d expected.
After all, these books now have to compete with “Oh my god! I can watch Youtube videos in HD on this thing!” and “I’ve got over a decade of modern gaming to catch up on! Where do I even start?”
So, how can you make your story compete with the distractions of the modern age? Here are two tips:
1) Writing style: Yes, there is a lot to be said for more formal and descriptive writing styles. They add lots of richness, depth, gravitas and atmosphere to stories. They are the equivalent of turning a computer game’s graphics settings up to full. They show language being used to it’s fullest extent and, if written well, can also expand your reader’s vocabulary (since the reader will be introduced to new words that they can understand from the context they are used in).
On the downside, novels that use nothing but formal narration take longer to read and also require more effort to read – which is a problem when compared to the fast effortless entertainment of television, the internet etc…
But, although a more informal, pared-down and “matter of fact” style can be a great way to get people to read when they are beseiged by distractions (I mean, even during the few years I considered myself a “non-reader”, I still read the occasional thriller novel by Lee Child), there are still ways to get some of the benefits of formal styles whilst still writing something that modern readers will find gripping enough to choose over a smartphone or social media site.
Simply put, you need to use a mixture of formal and informal narration. Basically, save your more formal descriptions for the moments when they will have the most impact. For example, Adam Nevill’s 2011 horror novel “The Ritual” contains a fair amount of informal, realistic and “matter of fact” narration but, whenever the story is describing the creepy forest that the characters are trapped in or their feelings of fear, the narration often becomes a bit more formal and/or descriptive. This works really well. The “matter of fact” narration keeps the story moving and the formal segments add atmosphere to it in carefully-controlled doses.
Another good way of doing this is to seamlessly slip a few formal descriptive sentences into a passage of “matter of fact” narration. Formal narration is a lot easier to digest in smaller doses and, if done well, then your reader might not even notice that they’ve read a sentence that is more at home in an older novel.
A good older example of this is Graham Masterton’s 1991 novel “The Hymn“. When I first read this novel as a teenager in the early 2000s, I just thought it was a grippingly cheesy horror thriller novel. When I re-read it a few weeks ago, I was astonished at how many “sophisticated” sentences and descriptions were mixed in with the more “matter of fact” thriller-like narration.
An even better old example is Agatha Christie’s 1941 spy novel “N or M?” – this is written in a mildly formal way, but has enough focus on the plot and enough “informal” (for the time) dialogue and descriptions to keep the story fairly effortless to read.
Just because we’re almost living in the 2020s, it doesn’t mean that you have to abandon formal writing styles altogether. It just means that you need to choose when to use them. In short, the basic underlying narrative of your story should probably be written in a more readable, “matter of fact” kind of way – with more formal descriptions saved for the moments when they will be the most spectacular.
2) Premise: In this age of distractions, having an interesting premise that makes the reader think “I need to read this” is more important than ever. If your story does something interesting, original, strange or new, then there is an added incentive for your reader to look at it instead of their phone, social media feed etc..
In other words, if your reader knows that they are going to find the kind of story that they can’t find on TV, in the cinema or in a videogame, then they are probably going to want to read. Seriously, when coming up with story ideas, curiosity and/or “wouldn’t it be cool if..” are the things that you need to think about.
Some good examples of this are Edgar Cantero’s 2018 novel “Meddling Kids“, which is a Lovecraftian horror parody of “Scooby Doo” set in the 1990s. Then, there’s Rebecca Levene’s 2008 novel “Anno Mortis“, which is about a zombie apocalypse… in ancient Rome.
There’s Jodi Taylor’s “Chronicles Of St. Mary’s” series, which are eccentric sci-fi comedy thriller novels about time travel- basically what “Doctor Who” would be like if it was a late-night BBC3 sitcom. There’s Robert Brockway’s 2015 novel “The Unnoticeables“, which is a story about a group of 1970s punks (and a group of characters in the present day) fighting bizarre otherwordly monsters.
I could go on for a while, but if you want your modern story to compete with all of the other entertainment mediums around these days, then you need an interesting premise. You need the kind of quirky, intriguing “wouldn’t it be cool if..” premise that your reader won’t be able to find in the cinema or on TV.
Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂