Why do people read fiction? To get away from the present moment, to be entertained, perhaps (depending on the genre and the author) to learn a little, to have an hour or two in a different world. Often, in sci-fi and fantasy, readers want wonder, magic, something amazing. How that wonder comes is based on the genre, because someone who loves deep space exploration and/or diamond-hard sci-fi is not going to enjoy being immersed in a fantasy world of talking trees. Or perhaps he will, if the writer does a good enough job, and the sense of wonder is there in full.
People who write kids’ and young adult books have a bit of an advantage here, because their readers don’t have the world experience adults do, so any old octopus is wildly wondrous and cool . . . for an eight or nine-year-old. They also read a lot more, especially fiction, than do adults. The child super-reader-of-everything is not all that rare. The adult super-reader is far less common, especially outside of romance. Our job is to find ways to infuse what we write with that same sense-o-wonder that kids get from, well, almost anything.
It’s not easy. I’ve been reading and re-reading Dave Farland’s Writing Wonder. One of his points is that people’s interests shift over time, in general, away from sci-fi and fantasy into other genres . . . but those genres still have to have wonder in them in order to catch the reader well and make him want to get the next book (or even finish this one.)
Wonder is something unusual, or odd, intriguing, that makes the reader say, “oh, cool!” or “oooh neat!” or “wait, what? What’s going on?” and want to read farther and farther into the story. It’s more than just an opening-paragraph hook, but a way to stir curiosity and excitement. It can be found in pretty much any genre (although I’m not certain about some modern academic literary fiction), and is what makes readers glom onto the story and demand more. Alas, it does not come in a box, nor can you click a sidebar link for “Writers: Try this One Neat Trick!”
One point that Farland makes that I’ve been keeping in mind for Justifiably Familiar is that whatever “wow” you use, it needs to appear often. Be it technology or magic or emotional “pings” or what have you, you can’t start with some woo and then go for forty pages without mentioning anything odd or unusual again. Or longer. (I’m thinking of some “science fiction” books that go for chapters without any sciffy elements reappearing. Those tend to be the ones I never finish reading.)
In my case, if you were not already aware of the conventions of the Familiars series, the book opens with a married woman feeling tired and slightly depressed, and her husband expressing concern for her. Not until the third page did anything “wait, what?” appear, when her Familiar chimes into the conversation. Oops! Not a great way to start a fantasy novel, even if it is the 15th in the series.
One of Farland’s big points is that we can’t load the first chapter or two with “wow, cool!” and then trot along without the wonder element. However, there’s also such a thing as overload. Here’s a place where I disagree somewhat with Farland, but he’s writing for people who are aiming for mass market. Farland argues that readers are good with ONE major unreal element in a story, but if you add more, it breaks suspension of disbelief. He uses the Twilight series, where book one has only vampires as the odd element. Not until book two do the werewolves appear, and so on.* I’m . . . not entirely sure that it works quite like that. However, I’d also argue that Twilight is much more of a teen-romance with fantasy elements, than a fantasy trilogy with romance elements. By now, fantasy readers have gotten used to the seductive, charming vampires much in the way that sci-fi readers are used to FTL travel. I’d argue that those features are now more mental furniture than unreal elements. However, I don’t teach writing, and I don’t have students who are multi-million-dollar best sellers, and so on.
I get the sense that this element of wonder is what’s missing in a lot of the critically acclaimed, award winning sci-fi and fantasy that no one besides the critics seems to want to read. “This book has a transgressive main character who defies social norms by [whatever] and forces his/her/its/none-of-the-above society to acknowledge the rightness of his/her/its/none-of-the-above passion and philosophy!” OK, if you squint, you could say that describes Paul Atreides in Dune, his mother as well, but that’s not what we recall about that particular novel, and not why I have read it several times through.
What in your current work in progress will make readers boggle, or laugh, or open their eyes and say, “Ooh, I’d never thought of that as a super power,” or sigh and think “Wow, if we had that kind of technology, we could do amazing things”? How often does magic, or technology, or an exciting moment, or a hint about a lost world (or world-spanning conspiracy, or long-lost romantic interest) appear in your story?
Sense of wonder. When we can catch it, and include it, readers love to keep reading and the story stand out, winning hearts for many years. Actually catching it? Ah, there’s the rub!
*Full disclosure: I’m one of the ones who really liked the “Buffy the Vampire Slayer meets Twilight” video. YA paranormal romance is not, emphatically not, my cup of tea.