What do readers want to find in a story?


THE MUSE KNEW I was perplexed, which didn’t surprise him because I was always perplexed, which is the literary way of saying I was lost and confused, and he had seen me that way before. In fact, that’s the only way he had ever seen me.

“I have a question,” I told him.

“And you expect an answer,” he said.

“I do,” I said.

The Muse shrugged.

“What is it?” he asked.

“What’s the best way to write a novel?” I asked.

“From start to end,” he said.

“I’m serious,” I said.

“So am I,” I said.

The Muse sat down in the sunroom and watched the darkness cluster among the pines outside the glass. The clouds had fled the sky. Daylight was more than an hour away. So, as we did most mornings, we watched the world come alive together.

“So what’s your problem?” the Muse asked.

“As you know,” I said, “I read a lot of books.”

“That’s your job.”

I nodded.

 “People don’t write the way they used to,” I said.

“What do you mean?”

“Some stories are mostly dialogue,” I said. “The characters tell the story. The author is just along for the ride.”

“Makes sense.”

“And some novels have hardly any dialogue at all,” I said. “The author is the narrator, and the narrator explains the story, the action, and what’s going on in a character’s mind.”

“Those authors are dictators,” the Muse said. “They don’t want to lose control. They don’t want the characters to take the story away from them.”

“Is that wrong?”

“Not necessarily.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“Some novels need the narrator,” he said. “The characters are running blind. They don’t know what’s going to happen until it happens.”

I nodded.

“That bother you?” he asked.

I shook my head.

“The narrators are generally the best writers,” he said. “They are the stylists. They love the beauty and the poetry of the written word. They write long, leisurely paragraphs that flow like a river when they want to convey a feeling of peace and tranquility, or they write short and choppy when there’s a lot of action, and they want to the reader to be as breathless as the character.”

“Does it work?” I asked.

“Every time,” he said. “It all boils down to this.”

I waited.

“Some authors prefer playing God,” he said.

I nodded.

“And some let their characters play God,” he said.

“Which is best?” I wanted to know.

“It doesn’t make any difference,” he said.

“Why not I asked.”

“There’s only one way to tell a story,” he said.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“Well,” he said. “Your story needs to be compelling, and you need to tell your story really well. Your reader deserves that.”

“And what if you think your story has flaws?” I asked.

“God made arrangements for those kinds of manuscripts,” he said.

“What were they?”

“He invented the trash can.”

It was still dark.

When the daylight touched the treetops, the Muse was gone.

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