"I Couldn’t Stop Reading"—Using Fiction Techniques for the Pet Writing and Magazine Market
Of course, writers want reviewers to say “Must read” about their books. Even more satisfying might be if readers say, “I couldn’t stop reading.” Fact: when people become engaged in bedtime page-turning, writers love being responsible for their insomnia.
Through rewriting and re-structuring, writers can create a sense of urgency and anticipation about what will happen or be revealed next. By using the storytelling techniques of inciting incidents, high stakes, conflict, and foreshadowing seasoned writers propel reader curiosity and ignite imagination in both fiction and nonfiction.
In screenplays an inciting incident is the scene that launches the hero into action with an event or choice that propels the entire story. The scene occurs at the opening or within the first ten to twelve minutes of the movie.
In the film Limitless the main character, a down-and-out author with severe writer’s block, chances into a meeting with his drug dealing ex-brother-in-law. The brother-in-law entices the main character to take what he touts as a safe, proven new pill that is supposed to give the ability to use 100 percent of one’s brainpower. In an effort to relieve his depression, the main character pops the pill. This one action changes everything.
In our area of the writing world main characters are that little cat sitting on your lap or the dog who makes you play, so in this article we will use examples from the pet-writing genre. Inciting incidents in pet-writing could be:
- The day you adopted a pet.
- When you tried a new training method, food item, or pet product and had amazing or disastrous results.
- How someone new came into your life and affected both you and your pet.
After you write the first draft of a piece, reread it and look for a pivot point in which everything changed. You may have buried the inciting incident toward the middle or end. On subsequent rewrites, move that moment to near the beginning or use it as an opening. Notice if moving the inciting incident to the front of line creates a burst of energy and the desire to read on.
No matter what you are writing, readers need to care enough to want to finish reading it. They yearn for the experience of not being able to put it down. That’s where high stakes come in to play. The stakes simply mean: What is at risk?
Let’s say you are writing a piece about training dogs. What is at stake if dogs do not have this training? Will they wind up in an animal shelter or be euthanized? Will a pet someone loves be taken away because he’s a danger to himself and others? Dire consequences, or high stakes, explain the popularity of training books that promise a magic formula for making a pet behave.
Examine the stakes of your piece. Ask, “What will happen if this character, this solution doesn’t succeed?” If your answer is, “Not much,” you don’t have high enough stakes. Rewrite so that your characters or solutions must succeed.
Even books about wonderful pets or uplifting themes need conflict to keep readers interested. Having only sweetness and light makes boring prose.
Conflict comes naturally with animals or any living beings, because relationships are complicated. Conflict is simply a person or animal with a want or need pulling in one direction, and another person or animal pulling in the opposite direction.
People enjoy reading books that convey obstacles overcome, hardships endured, and hurdles surmounted. Conflict creates tension and anticipation. The novel (soon to be a movie) Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn masterfully sustained conflict till the last page and has stayed a New York Times bestseller for over a year.
Conflict keeps readers reading. How could you increase conflict in whatever you are writing? Could you more clearly define what your characters or readers want and make it difficult for them to get it? Then make it impossible?
Foreshadowing and Previewing
Previews of a movie can make you decide if you want to see the film. Previews in your writing make readers choose to continue reading your book or story.
Foreshadow an upcoming event or situation by sliding a preview of it into your writing through a statement or as a question. For example: Bert wanted Iggy to move into the new apartment with him. After all, the building had a policy that let small dogs and cats live there. But would the landlord allow a six-foot-long iguana?
Releasing a tidbit of surprising information drives the reader forward. Revealing that Iggy is an iguana foreshadows a situation or conflict to come. Now we want to answer the posed question and find out how things between Bert and his landlord will turn out.
You too can give readers insomnia by adding well-placed inciting incidents, high stakes, conflict, and foreshadowing to your writer’s repertoire. Make them never want to stop reading what you—their favorite author—write.
Allen and Linda Anderson are teaching “Writing for the Pet Book and Magazine Market” on Saturday, April 20, 1-4:00 p.m. Their latest book, A Dog Named Leaf, won a national writing award from the American Society of Journalists & Authors. Visit them at: www.allenandlindaanderson.com.