Does Your Novel Have a Measuring Stick?

It’s been awhile since I’ve found a craft book that has energized my writing.

That’s not to say I’m an expert (ha, ha!) and have nothing new to learn (ha, ha, HA!). Very far from it. It’s just that many of the craft books I’ve picked up lately seem to say the same thing, only in a different way.

Until I picked up Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence, by Lisa Cron. I highly recommend this one, writers.

I love how throughout the book, the author busts a lot of myths.

One such myth she busts?

Writing a successful story is a matter of learning to “write well”.

Um….no.

“What hooks us and keeps us reading,” Cron says, “is the dopamine-fueled desire to know what happens next. Without that, nothing else matters.”

She uses The Da Vinci Code as an example. Dan Brown has received a lot of flack about his flat prose and his two-dimensional characters and their unrealistic dialogue. Yet The Da Vinci Code was one of the best-selling novels of all time.

Why?

Because, from the very first page, readers are dying to know what will happen next.

And all I could think, as I read Lisa’s words, was Twilight

Hello!

How much criticism has Stephanie Meyer endured over her writing?

Just read a few of her more scathing reviews and you’ll see what I mean. 

Yet amidst all the complaints, Twilight is a fiction phenom. It’s read and loved by millions.

Why is that?

Because Stephanie Meyer tells a story that makes millions of readers NEED to know what will happen next. From the very first page. From the very first line.

All because of a little thing Lisa Cron calls The Measuring Stick.

Feast your eyes on the brilliant first line of Twilight:

I’d never given much thought to how I would die–though I’d had reason enough in the last few months–but even if I had, I would not have imagined it like this.

Right away, the reader is….

1. Intrigued. Because how is this character going to die?

2. Motivated to find out the answer.

3. Given something so many of us writers fail to give our readers–context.

For the rest of the novel, this line is stuck in our heads. We use it to measure the significance and meaning of everything that comes next, before this moment when Bella faces death.

Without that first sentence, we don’t know what we’re building toward. We don’t know what’s at stake.

If you have a copy of Twilight at home, read the Preface. Now imagine the Preface isn’t there. Imagine the story starts with Chapter One. We wouldn’t be nearly as invested or forgiving.

Stephanie Meyer gives her readers a context, a yardstick, a small glimpse into the bigger picture (call it whatever you’d like) and we can’t help but wonder….

Will this plot point or this character or this particular thought catapult Bella toward her inevitable demise? How is she going to die and who is she going to die for and please, will somebody save her?

It’s this driving need to know that keeps us turning pages.

It’s this driving need to know that makes a book unputdownable.

By giving the first page–preferably the first line–of your novel a measuring stick, you increase your odds of planting that need inside your reader.

Let’s Talk: Did you like Twilight? Do you think you would have turned pages as quickly without the Preface? Does your novel have a measuring stick?

I’m guest posting about faith and the writing journey on Alexis’s blog, God is Love, today!

34 thoughts on “Does Your Novel Have a Measuring Stick?

  1. I’m 3/4 through Lisa Cron’s book and I agree, it is a must-read for writers! Good observation on Twilight’s preface (I just reread it on amazon’s ‘look inside’). Gosh, with all this pressure, I might just be stuck even longer on my opening sentence and page now… lol, let’s hope not. But yeah, I can see how important the notion of a measuring stick is for storytelling. I seem to recall a certain someone else who had a great opening in her prologue… something about the summer her main character turned twelve… 😉

     
     
    1. Katie Ganshert

      You know what’s funny about that Barb? While reading Cron’s section on measuring sticks, I was like, “Hey! I did that and I didn’t even mean to do that!”

      I know…..there’s a lot of pressure riding on those first few paragraphs, aren’t there!?

       
       
  2. I read this one book, and it was like, what happened to her dad?? WHY is she so mean? WHY WON’T SHE BE NICE TO EVAN?!?!?!?
    Hmmm, wonder who wrote that?

    I might be a snob, but the day I read Twilight will be right after the day I get a bikini wax. In the mall. Like, IN the mall.

    I wrote my MS with the “page turner/I cannot go to bed yet” theory in mind, with every single chapter. Even from my first page, I knew I had to lure people in, then break their hearts right away. And then they’ll find out what happens…but not yet!

    The best sellers these days don’t follow the “I am Hemingway” theory, they follow the “page turner” theory. And that’s what the vast majority of readers want.

     
     
    1. Katie Ganshert

      You crack me up, Jennifer! But seriously though….Twilight is SO good! I don’t care what literary peeps say. I couldn’t put the book down. Breaking Dawn gets all kind of whackadoo though.

      ANYWAY! You’re so right. I need to write with that same theory in my head. It’s a very very good theory.

       
       
      1. Katie, you know I love you, so let’s not break up over Twilight. I just CANNOT wrap my mind around anything vampire-y after Tom Cruise in Interview With a Vampire. Just…no.
        And en francais?
        Non, je suis non tengo el amor por los hommes de la huere de noire. Okay, that was Franglish, but , vous get mon drift.

         
         
      2. Katie Ganshert

        Try that in full English, por favor.

        And we won’t let Edward and Bella come between us.

         
         
      3. Directly translated: “I have no love for men of the hour of darkness”.

        I know, right? I should write for Hallmark.

         
         
      4. Jennifer, you’re speaking my language! I keep getting Spanish and French mixed up.
        Katie, you’re right. The Shack pulled me in and kept me going, trying to answer the question from the first sentence: “Who wouldn’t be skeptical when a man claims to have spent an entire weekend with God, in a shack no less?” Thanks for this great lesson!

         
         
  3. As soon as you’re done with it, please send book to:

    555 Sounds Like a Great Book St.
    You Love Me, CT 00000 (I’m so funny)

    ~ Wendy

     
     
  4. Okay, adding this book to my list. This author is so right– Twilight hooked me. The Da Vinci code hooked me.

     
     
  5. Thanks for the tip, Katie. I’m always on the lookout for good craft books!

     
     
  6. I haven’t read Twilight. I haven’t really wanted to, but I love your book and your blog and on your recommendation, I just might pick it up. I love a good story…I’m just questioning whether I can love a good vampire story. Haha!

    But seriously, I love the measuring stick point…if the first line can hook me, give me something I have to pursue, and then if each scene, each chapter after that gives me more and more to “need to know,” I’m gonna keep reading. Good stuff!

     
     
    1. No!! Stay here in the light!! Run from the wolves and vampires!

       
       
  7. Yes, I had to read each and every Twilight book, AFTER I had read her The Host book (which I think was eminently better). I loved Meyers easily accessible writing style, I have to admit. It just flowed.

    And yes, once you are hooked, no matter how weirdly a story is written, you have to finish. I just had to finish The Poison Tree, which I would not recommend anyone STARTING (lots of f-bombs), but I had to know how the MC would turn out in the end. There is something to be said for an MC that hooks you into their lives soooo strongly you cant let go till that last page.

    And just for the record, I am totally TEAM JACOB. HEE!

     
     
    1. AHHHH!! Another darling writer friend on the Dark Side!!! Helllllllp!!

      And HDG? If he had some anger management, I’d be Team Magua!! But only if he turfed that pop out knife thingy.

       
       
      1. Jennifer, I TOO was dubious, but I would highly recommend her book THE HOST as a first-read. It was more adult-oriented, though it was sci-fi. I think I am just a sci-fi girl. Wish I knew how to write it!

        And you totally need to get a shirt emblazoned with Team Magua!

         
         
      2. Katie Ganshert

        It’s funny how subjective literature is. I tried the Host b/c one of my good friends really liked it, but I couldn’t get into it. Maybe that’s because I’m not a sci-fi girl and it was definitely sci-fi!

         
         
      3. Okay, I just saw this, hehe. It didn’t turn until about a third of the way into the novel when Jared and Melinda/Wanderer are reunited. I actually saved this book for when I would have a full 12-18 hours to read it because I knew it would happen. Then Hurricane Ike hit and we were without power for nine days and I didn’t have to go to work so it was a massive reader fest in my house. =) By flashlight and candles.

         
         
  8. Sounds like a great craft book!

    And no, I haven’t ever read Twilight. I’ve been wondering if I should because of the factors you pointed out–her ability to keep readers interested. That’s something worth studying.

     
     
  9. Aaaah, Jennifer – you might be going down with this one. I, too, read the Twilight Series, and I, too, am a fan of Stephanie Meyer’s voice. Sure, the story is “juvenile” but then its intended audience is young adults, however, her craft is phenomenal.

    Katie – you and your first lines. You’ve made me a firm believer in first lines. Here are a few that I love. Carla Stewart’s Stardust: “My marriage to O’Dell Peyton was already over when he washed up on the shores of the Zion.” Or this one: “If you’ve seen one pumpkin, you’ve seen them all. Unless the pumpkin is named Bertha Ann.” That’s from Joyce Magnin’s Griselda Takes Flight. And there are so many more!

    Great measuring stick, that’s for sure.

    Blessings,
    Becky

     
     
    1. When all else fails, play the stubborn card.

      I.Will.Not.Read.TWILIGHT!!!

      But… if you hand it to me wrapped in a Team Magua t-shirt, I’ll read it.

      🙂

       
       
  10. Good stuff, Katie! I love a craft book that brings a new perspective. I’ll have to check this one out.

     
     
  11. Sounds like a great pointer for nonfiction writers as well, Katie. We all need to “hook” our readers. May have to check out Lisa’s book. Thanks for sharing.

     
     
  12. Love a good craft book recommendation. Thank you!

    Oh, and I’m totally with you on Twilight. When there is a bandwagon, I jump on it.

     
     
  13. Mae

    Jennifer, you’re not alone, I refuse to read it.Vampires are considered dark, as are cannibals, terrible,terrble to mix light and dark

     
     
  14. Mae

    We as Christians are told to flee from evil.
    I have nothing against the author, just against the writing.

     
     
  15. Mae

    ’twas a good post though

     
     
  16. […] Ganshert asks if your novel has a measuring stick—something that gives the readers a NEED to know what happens next. Knowing your audience is […]

     
     
  17. Katie, you’re on my radar now and I’m so glad. =) I’ve found what you said about craft books being different recipes for the same dish so I will for sure add this one to my TBR list.

    I loved the Twilight saga. So much I actually visited Forks, WA, La Push, and Port Angeles in 2009. My entire life I’d thought paradise a tropical place, but it’s not. It’s the Pacific Northwest. If you have not read The Host, her adult novel, it is quite good. And Ian O’Shea… don’t even get me started. You know what a hero girl I am. :-p

    If you’re remotely interested, I wrote a piece of the missing Midnight Sun (which I hope she changes her mind and finishes one day) that is really good. I’m comfortable with saying that. E-mail me if you want to see it and I’ll send. =)

     
     
    1. Katie Ganshert

      Oh – I’ve totally read the portion of Midnight Sun that she has (or had) on her website. I also really hope she’ll finish it someday!!

      I’d love to visit the Pacific Northwest someday!

       
       
  18. Lee Child, best selling author of the Jack Racher thriller series just wrote an article for Writer’s Digest where he says he likes telling rather than showing. He thinkis of himself as a story teller.

    But he also says it doesn’t matter if you show or tell if the reader isn’t interested in finding out what happens next.

     
     
  19. I like the idea of giving my novel a measuring stick. However… I cannot and will not read the Twilight series. I agree with Mae on this. The Bible is very clear… we are told to be innocent as babes when it comes to evil.

     
     
    1. Katie Ganshert

      Then I think it’s good that you don’t read them, Pamela.

       
       
  20. […] has that important measuring stick Lisa Cron talks about in her craft book, Wired for […]

     
     

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