I know this is not going to go down well with a lot of writers, who believe writers must write for the sake of writing itself, and the joy it brings them. I agree, that is the soul of writing – to create something you feel strongly about. But in the end, if you are hoping someone is going to read your work, it is important for the piece to appeal to your average reader as well.

Drawing from my copywriting experience
Well, I will fall back on my copywriting experience here. When we work on a campaign or any piece of creative, there are a couple of approaches to consider:

  1. An ultra-creative one, that everyone in the agency loves and we are fairly certain the client won’t get it;
  2. A contemporary take on an old route, something like old wine in a new bottle;
  3. A fairly standard and direct approach presented in an impactful manner.

At the start of the presentation, we have ideas being churned out at all the three levels. Then, as the campaign progress, the lot that falls in the direct approach is dropped as it is typically ‘done before’.

What does the client choose from
The choice for the client really comes down to the first two: Ultra creative, never seen before; or a whole new angle on an existing story. The second one is typically what the client wants and is more challenging to come up with as it treads the thin line between known and the unknown.

How advertising creative rules apply to the creative writing space
As writers, we all love to operate from the ultra creative spaces of our imagination. But the problem with imagination is that only I know what is happening inside my mind and how things appear to be in my mind’s eye. While I may be wrong here, there is something that we lose out on when we use words to describe a new world.

Words are wonderful for describing feelings and emotions and creating the mood, but detailed descriptions in a novel or an action thriller can slow down your reader tremendously. What a film director can establish in a flash of 5-10 seconds, takes a writer 5-6 pages to establish.

How success authors handle fantasy
Given this fact, my study of successful fantasy fiction literature: Harry Potter, The Shiva Trilogy has brought me to this analysis: that your fantasy world must have something your reader can relate to. For instance: in Harry Potter, the entire story is based in a boarding school, but a completely different kind of a boarding school.

Building the unknown from the known
painting-of-man-reading-by-candlelightNow if I have been a reader for a while and read the books of Enid Blyton and Famous Five and the like, I essentially know the culture of a boarding school. I also know that a boarding school typically consists of long corridors, and carefully locked rooms that few people are allowed to visit. I also know that there are groups pitted against each other in these schools and each group tries to better the other at every given instance.

It is against this backdrop that I view the Hogwarts School and its spaces, teachers and its surroundings. While the writer does spend time telling me special characteristics about this space, she does not have to tell me what a boarding school is. I already know that and know how students are expected to behave in such an environment. In advertising, this is referred to as known information as far as your target audience is concerned.

When you are building the unknown from a known base you can focus on creating exciting situations, developing the characters and building your story line. If on the other hand, you wish to create a world that has absolutely no relevance to the real world, you face a completely different challenge.

Interstellar: The movie that builds unknown from the unknown
The Hollywood film, Interstellar (2014) was a great watch and I thoroughly enjoyed it. But having been set in an era that was way ahead of where we are today, the film has spent a lot of time on actually establishing the basic premise of what has been happening in the world, space travel, concept of wormhole, scientific theories about the black hole… to really appreciate the film, I need to be able to understand it all.

In my opinion, it was easier to understand this as a film than if I had read the same story as a book. I am not sure I would have enjoyed the story as much if it had been a novel that I read. It would be too much for me to understand and put together as the story progressed.

The Shiva Trilogy: Building on the Hindu pantheon
Another writer who makes brilliant use of existing knowledge base of his readers is the best selling Indian author, Amish Tripathi, known for The Shiva Trilogy. He has to his credit The Immortals of Meluha, The Secret of the Nagas and The Oath of the Vayuputras.

He has created these amazing books on Lord Shiva of the Indian patheon, writing about Shiva as a human hero who walked the earth. In light of our discussion, what I found particularly enjoyable while reading his books is that the world he talks about is the world that Indians have grown up hearing and reading about as children. Tripathi’s success as a story teller lies in making the myths come alive, creating forests that we can relate to, today; adding layers to the characters that gives them emotions, flaws, strengths, weaknesses and feelings. The characters of the Shiva trilogy are not mere divine beings you see from afar, they are real people who feel hurt, anger and love, and who have mastered the powers to defeat the forces of evil.

How you can create a highly readable story
Start from the known, and little by little, peel off the known layers to reveal the unknown. This re-discovery of a character the reader thought she knew, the twists in the tale where the obvious does not happen is what keeps a reader on the edge. If you can bring that ‘unknown’ in to your writing, you have story that people will definitely want to read. But remember, you would do well to start from a known that the reader can relate to!

Do you have some special techniques to help your reader keep pace with your imagination, your story? I would love to know what they are, do share so other writers can learn from you!

~ Bharti Athray

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