In the past couples months I’ve had some serious trouble finding a book that urge me to keep reading. I read the Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu, and that book had me vibrating in my chair waiting until I was able to pick it back up. The first book in that series was a little slow and weirdly esoteric, but at a certain point I was hooked. This dude came into the river and noodled me like a catfish. The second and third books I willingly jumped into his boat and wished for him to whisk me away.
Now that I’ve finished that series—and I’m changed in deep, physical ways—I’ve been chewing through books trying to find the next person to enrapture me. But I’m having trouble. Many books I’ve been reading end up being a drudge, and for the first time in my life I actually put a book back without finishing it.
I keep seeing this trend in books where they structure and write their stories so that pieces of the puzzle are sprinkled throughout the book. That’s all well and good, but what you are doing is banking on my curiosity to take me to the end of your story. Curiosity is a cool element to stories, but more importantly I need to know what the book is about.
Stories are about problems that a protagonist must overcome. That is a very simple way of phrasing a complex idea. Curiosity is making me search for an answer. Purpose drives me to read until the conclusion.
Listen—I can look up your answers. If you write a book and the big thing that’s taking me to the end of the book is a black box, your book won’t hold my attention. I can go find the answer in your book and then put it away. I can look it up online to sate my curiosity. Why should I care about your black box?
This is what I keep finding in books. They don’t tell me what the protagonist’s deliberate purpose is; their stories use curiosity instead of purpose to drive the narrative. And since I don’t know what the protagonists are trying to do, I have no investment. Their actions, their successes, their failures, and their sacrifices mean nothing because I don’t know what it’s all for. I know what the writer is trying to go for, but by the time I know what the goal is I can no longer be so emotionally invested.
It can get confusing, because most books are pretty good about telling you what the protagonist is attempting to do, but there is a difference between telling me that a character needs to achieve something, instead of telling me what they are trying to achieve.
I just a read a book called The Stars are Legion by Kameron Huxley. I want to talk about the two protagonists. There is Jayd, a cunning woman seeking to save her world, and Zan, a woman who has cliche’d her memory but still has to fulfill her mission!
They two protagonists are… lovers? Who knows—book ain’t got time for this shit—the protagonists are separated by their duties as Jayd goes to a rival planet to negotiate peace and Zan is tossed down a recycling chute.
The book from there follows their stories: Jayd trying to protect the future of her people and her world by navigating a political nightmare, and Zan, who has to climb her way back up from the bottom of the world to the surface. But don’t worry! The two separated heroes have a plan.
They don’t tell you what the plan is up front. You have to keep reading to find out! Jayd just keeps saying things like, “It’ll all be better when we complete our plan and are back together!” and Zan has fuggin’ amnesia so even she has no idea.
For most of the book the reader doesn’t know what the end goal is. And I mean specifically. We know that Jayd and Zan have a plan to “save their dying world” but we don’t know what that plan involves. How are you going to do that? What specifically is your plan?
It is important for the inciting incident to not only kick the story into motion, but also set the stakes, or at least lay them out.
Zan’s story is one of survival, and she keeps having to face life threatening obstacles. I get a little stressed because I like Zan, I don’t want her to die, but when things don’t go as planned I have no idea what the consequences will be if she dies.
With Jayd, her two main goals were to retrieve a mysterious metal arm, steal a woman’s womb [sic], and get the hell off her rivals world. Cool! We know what she needs to achieve, but I have such a hard time being invested in her trials because I don’t know what the arm and the womb [sic] represent. What do these mean to the story? Keep reading to find out!
I had no real grasp on what the end game was until about two-thirds of the way into the book. I enjoyed reading it, but I was more enthralled with the world building than I was with the goals of the characters. The ending was a little anti-climactic because I had trouble being invested in a goal that was so nebulous.
Let’s contrast this.
Lord of the Goddamned Rings.
Frodo finds the One Ring and needs to take it to Mount Doom to destroy it at the place it was forged! Why do we need to do that? Oh, if Sauron regains the Ring, he will have power over all other races and will likely bring doom to Middle Earth!
The story can have it’s various acts, all of it’s action, and it’s exploration because we know this is moves towards the goal of getting Frodo and the Ring to Mount Doom. The Ring Wraiths feel threatening because they threaten that purpose. Without that purpose, the books plot is basically feckless. Nothing feels dangerous.
Harry Goddamned Potter.
Harry Potter, the Boy Who Lived, haplessly defeated Lord Voldemort, and as he matures into a fledgling wizard we learn that Voldemort is going to return. Harry needs to amass the allies and skills he needs to face down the Dark Lord.
Each book in Harry Potter has it’s own plot and driving force, with various levels of success, but the overarching threat of the book, Lord Voldemort, is established immediately. With that single looming villain, we have more context for what happens and the consequences of those events. Harry can’t die because he needs to defeat Voldemort. He needs to be strong enough to face him in the end.
The Goddamned Hunger Games
Katniss Evergeen is thrust into the heart of both survival and politics as she takes the place of her sister in a deadly publicized event known as the Hunger Games. She must literally fight to survive, and when she does, she becomes the figurehead of a movement to abolish the games and overthrow the capital and all of it’s tyranny.
Katniss’s story is an enthralling one because she is a reluctant protagonist that eventually turns into a driven one. She needs to survive her fellow competitors, and eventually becomes embroiled in a civil war that threatens all she knows.
The above mentioned books establish their books plots within the first act. They might not be the most complex books, but their strengths come from the fact that they lay out the problems for the protagonist—and me, the reader—and I can go on their journey with them. When you establish a strong premise, and a strong problem to overcome, readers are dying to know what happens next. Curiosity should follow purpose, but you definitely shouldn’t use curiosity as your driving force.
I enjoyed The Stars Are Legion enough to finish it. I’d even recommend it to you because the world it sets up is super unique. I would love a follow up book! But what it and many other books do that does not resonate with me is they keep the purpose behind everything—tucked away until I, the reader, am allowed to know.
As with all rules, there are plenty of times to break this rule, but I think it’s way more important to establish goals and expectations early in a book so that I can be engrossed in the journey instead of waiting to see what it was all for.