Conventional wisdom about writing is conventionally wrong.
Whether you write novellas about fierce mermaids, magazine stories for Cosmo (insert your own joke here) or speeches about the Austrian school of economics for the IMF — whatever sort of writer you are, two things matter most.
Not correct grammar and spelling. Those things are assumed.
Not pretty paragraphs and sentences that sing. That’s word gravy, while we’re talking about the main course.
What matters most: making your readers curious, then surprising them.
This is why the inverted pyramid is a terrible structure for any writer. (Click with your mousity mouse to read Why the Inverted Pyramid must DIE.)
The inverted pyramid grabs a heavy rock and smashes the skull of curiosity. Then it takes that same bloody rock and crushes all hope for any surprises.
How does it achieve this epic level of failure? By giving you the answers before you even know the questions. The payoffs have no setups.
Ways to make your audience curious
Create setups by raising interesting questions (a) about real people where there are (b) high public stakes or (c) high private stakes and (d) serious conflict.
WHAT happened? (mystery)
Debates about the past are about facts, and assigning blame.
WHY did it happen? (whydunit)
This is often more interesting than the question of who did it.THE BUTLER ALWAYS DOES IT, so tell us why instead.
How do you CHOOSE between two goods or two evils?
Debates about the present are value choices.
Choosing between good and evil is simple and cartoonish. That’s why its for kids. Truly tough choices are between two good or two evils. Does believing in true justice mean setting a killer free? That sort of stuff. These things are deep. They’ll exercise your head.
What WILL happen? (thriller)
WHO will get together — or split up? (romance)
What should you do about the FUTURE?
Debates about the future involve costs versus benefits.
Ways to surprise your audience
It’s unfair to have things happen for no reason, like Anne Hathaway getting smooshed by a truck in ONE DAY.
Also cheating: letting people off the hook via deus ex machina, which is fancy Latin for “the sidekick shows up at the last minute to shoot the bad guy, right before the hero dies” (every action movie known to man) or “it was all a dream!” (an entire season of DALLAS) or “let’s bring in something we never told you about, then run away” (every sci-fi movie you’ve ever seen on cable).
Surprises shatter expectations and stereotypes. Did you expect the scientist handling the landing of Curiosity on Mars to be a young man rocking a mohawk? No. You expected a stereotypical nerdy McNerd, and bam, that little surprise turned Mohawk NASA man into a national phenom.
A good surprise must reveal something:
Reformed journalist. Scribbler of speeches and whatnot. Wrote a thriller that won some award (PNWA 2013). Represented by Jill Marr of the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency.