When taking a stroll in the woods, most choose a well-worn path. Few wander off into the untamed foliage. First of all, there's poison oak. Secondly, there's critters and the risk of getting lost. As writers, we must create safe paths for our readers to journey along. We don't want them to get lost.
At one point, however, we need to step into the wildness, but we can't do that until they trust us.
How do you create that trust so that your readers are willing to get a little lost in your story and still find their way home?
Well, hikers don't get lost if they have some skills, are familiar with their trail, and can see a bit ahead where the trees break, a bird flies, the light escapes. You, the writer, must provide those skills, familiarity and signposts to the exit.
Besides a problem or plot to your story, you must supply three pieces of equipment that will help your reader navigate through the wild and out into the light of day.
1. A trusty narrator. Whatever the POV, your narrator must assure her reader that she knows what she's doing. She must be trustworthy, believable, authentic, and consistent. Great youth first-person narration to study: Scout, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee; Holden, Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. Great third-person narration: the omniscient narrator, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.
2. Someone to care about. Your hero/heroine doesn't need to be perfectly lovable, but she does need to have a story that makes the reader care about what happens to her; or at the very least, the hero needs a compelling story that makes the reader want to KNOW what happens to him. Worthy protagonists: Scout, Holden and Elizabeth Bennett from above; Pony Boy Curtis, The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton; Charlie Gordon, Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes; Melinda, Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson.
3. A place that lives. Readers want to know where they are in time and space. Is this story happening now? in the past? in the future? Let them know immediately, so they can begin to picture it all in their mind. This creates comfort and safety. Well-developed settings in YA: Hogwarts and Diagon Alley in the Harry Potter series; Middle Earth, The Lord of the Rings Trilogy; the uninhabited island in Lord of the Flies by William Golding.
I'd love to hear more about the stories that inspire you to write. What are your favorite narrators, heroes, and settings? Share them here.