You want to write a serious drama. You want your readers’ hearts to twist over your character’s plight. You describe the catastrophe, the conflict, the heartbreaking situation with words guaranteed to bring tears to your readers’ eyes and torment to their souls, and you believe you’ve got them hooked, right?
At most, your readers will engage in a bit of morbid rubber-necking as they drive past the scene.
How do you get them to stay, to jump out of their cars and become involved? By giving them a reason to care about the victims. There are as many ways to do that as there writers with active imaginations.
Recently I read a contest entry where the author used a touch of humor to bring us closer to the characters. Her main characters, a husband and wife, are suspended in the dark, on the eve of discovering whether their baby will be born with defects. The novel’s opening tone is somber, but the husband quickly tosses out a lame joke, a stab at levity. Of course, it falls flat where the wife is concerned, but his feeble attempt to cheer her and distract her from her heartache endears him to the reader. All it took was a couple of lines in the second paragraph on the first page.
In the opening pages of the non-fiction piece, Chosen by a Horse, author Susan Richards tells the reader what the dramatic issue is and why she is the wrong person to handle it. Several abused and neglected horses have been rescued from a nearby farm, and although she is emotionally incapable of handling illness and injury, she is there to help save one. Her immediate admission of her weakness, and how that weakness conflicts with the problem at hand, makes her sympathetic and snags the reader into the story.
The most elaborate scheme for gaining character sympathy I’ve ever seen is in the mystery Red Leaves, by Thomas Cook. The entire first chapter is written in a curious form of second person–not where “you” is literal, but rhetorical, similar to a parent’s lament, “You try and you try to teach ’em right from wrong, and look what happens!”
The main character, Eric, delivers a basic backstory information dump, making “you” intimately involved in all aspects of his life:
When you remember those times, they return to you in a series of photographs. You see Meredith on the day you married her. You are standing outside the courthouse on a bright spring day. She is wearing a white dress and she stands beside you with her hand in your arm. You gaze at each other rather than the camera. Your eyes sparkle and the air around you is dancing.
Although Eric describes some of the happiest times of his life, the overall tone of the first chapter brings to mind a man jamming his fingers through his hair and wondering when it all went bad, what went wrong–a man whose dazed mind is plagued with more questions than answers. By the end of the chapter, the reader is not only intimately involved, but longs to know the answers as much as Eric does.
You can pick just about any disaster film and see that the opening scenes are snippets of the soon-to-be victims’ personal lives. Quick scenes intended to wrap the viewer with concern for the characters before the flood drowns the village or the asteroid destroys the country or the monster ants carry revelers away. The principle is the same: before your reader can care what tragedy your character faces, he must care about your character.
Put a stop to the drive-bys. Make your reader want to get out of the car and render aid to characters he’s come to care for. Make him want to see the end results of their tragedies.
Put an end to rubber-necking!