Remember that snake, Kaa, in the cartoon Jungle Book? Remember how he sang: “Trus-ss-st in me!”, his big eyes all swirly, putting his snaky jungle voodoo spell on Mowgli?
I feel like Kaa whenever I begin a story. I’m aware I’ve got to overcome the reader’s resistance to the lie I am telling. Because, you know, that’s what all good stories are…convincing lies. So, the very first order is to get the reader to trust me. To take my hand and allow me to lead them on a journey of my devising. Maybe just down the block and around the corner. Or maybe to another time and place. A place filled with folks who don’t really exist. Except in my head.
I have found that in order to achieve this the people and place must already seem real to me. If they are vague to me, I know they will be to the reader too. And the reader will question my knowledge and pull back. So, I spend a lot of time with my characters before I ever begin to actually write about them. I go with them to the places where they live and work. I follow them to parties and watch them in the shower. I can’t even begin to write convincingly about a character until I know what’s most important to her.
If you query Kaa on Wiki you will see that his main attributes are: sneaky, suave, cowardly, seductive, sly, crafty, and tricky. Now, with the exception of cowardly—which simply won’t do at all for a writer, not with the long hours spent honing our craft with no guarantee of return of any sort, and the tenacity required to get published—but excluding cowardly, all those other attributes are actually perfect for a writer. We really must be sneaky, suave, seductive, sly, crafty and tricky to be successful. (I know, all those things your mother warned against and tried to drill out of you, along with being a consummate liar. But she didn’t know you were destined to grow up to be a great writer, now, did she?)
Getting the reader to follow you down your story road is a kind of hypnosis. When I write I want Dear Reader all wrapped up in my coils, unable to put down the book until…well, until I allow it. Maybe at the end.
Who are the folks most difficult to hypnotize?
Jaded readers are those, like myself, who know all the tricks and are too aware the writer is attempting to cast a spell over them. The most jaded readers are often writers themselves. Also, agents, editors, and probably publishers too. That’s why it’s so important to have a really great beginning. The beginning is the first danger zone. The first impression and the first place mental barriers will have to be breached, (gently, softly, seductively, sneakily) in those jaded readers who have read so much, and for whom any mechanics the writer employs without finesse are plainly obvious. However, being a jaded reader myself I know how desperately jaded readers long to be hypnotized. We really do want that experience we remember from our more innocent days, of forgetting about the laundry or car repairs or the pie in the oven, and just getting deliciously enchanted and continuing to read against our will.
The methods we writers use to cast our spells are many, but the best three are these:
Story: Make yours so gripping it can’t be put down. This is why it’s so important to have a really great hook right at the beginning of your novel. You want the reader to feel compelled to read on to find out what happens next and what it all means. In fact, ideally, you want to make them feel that throughout the entire tale.
Rhythm of language: This is often completely ignored by writers, always at their own peril. Can you get away without it? Well, I would say it depends on who you are writing for, and what the genre is. But taking a poetry class can’t hurt. And reading other writers who have the magic of poetic language is helpful in learning to do this. Poetic language is a technique that often goes right over the reader’s head. They may be completely unaware of it on the surface. And that’s fine. Because beneath the surface is where we want to get them anyway.
Alliteration and repetition. Both of these can be annoying if overused or used badly. But in the hands of someone who knows what they are doing these can create the same effect as poetic language. Subtly drawing Dear Reader in and keeping her there.
Sneaky, suave, seductive, sly, crafty, tricky. Cultivate these fine attributes in yourself as a writer. (Despite what momma said.)
I can’t use Mr. Kipling’s Kaa without tipping my hat to the great man who imagined him up for us. Rudyard Kipling was awarded the Nobel prize in literature and led a fascinating life. And if you follow this link you will also discover what he had to say about learning to be an effective liar as a child, and how it almost certainly led to him being a writer.
If you are a writer: What tricks do you employ to pull Dear Reader under your spell? And if you are Dear Reader: Which writers cast the best spells over you?