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I Hear Sizzling. Where’s the Steak?

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Campfire-Writer-Unboxed.png?resize=860%2As a former family doc, I know quite a bit about sleep hygiene. Just about the worst thing an insomniac can do is lie awake in bed, reading on a device that casts blue light on the retina. Still, I find myself surfing the internet on sleepless nights, which is how I discovered a hugely popular Reddit post a few weeks ago. It consisted of a title and video with no descriptive text, so I clicked on it to see what had caused all the hoopla.

Tantalizing Aroma

The filming took place in what appeared to be a middle-class American kitchen. Now, someday inflation might render this an architectural anachronism we’ll view with fondness and marvel, much the way we currently regard Roman aqueducts or Stonehenge or the moai of Easter Island. But at present, I could see no reason why oak cupboards, however well-maintained, would accrue an appreciative audience.

I skipped ahead through the feed.

The camera settled on a blonde, attractive young lady in her middle teens. She stood with a bashful and quietly pleased expression as a youthful suitor pressed gifts upon her. First came flowers, then a bracelet, both accompanied by some kind of speechifying. As I had the sound off in deference to the ToolMaster, I couldn’t describe its exact content, but the kid’s body language said it would be full of congruent adulation.

How sweet, right? How lovely. Two nice people doing nice things in a pleasant setting. I felt warmed at their guilelessness. Pleased at their innocence.

Also vaguely (and guiltily) duped.

Where’s the Beef?

I felt like someone who’d been promised a rocking party in a swank place among great company, who turned out in a spiffy dress and ridiculous heels only to be handed a warm beer and cornered by the office drone. Surely, I thought, this charming slice of life couldn’t be the whole story.

I jumped ahead through the video, searching for an ironic twist. A prank. Anything that would suggest my entire twenty-second-long investment had been worthwhile.

Would one of those beautiful flowers squirt ink all over the girl’s lovely outfit? A gorilla-costumed romantic rival jump out of the pantry? Would a roaring father intrude with a rifle?

What, precisely, had inspired 80,000+ upvotes?

Maybe five seconds later, I turned to the comment section where finally all was revealed—and happily for this post, where lessons in storytelling were on prominent display.

The Protein Arrives

Turns out my emotional journey exactly paralleled that of the collective audience.

First came its willingness to enter a “character’s” normal world, and to be charmed/intrigued/rendered sympathetic to the participants. But that visit came charged with expectations: namely, that something needed to threaten the character’s happiness, and it needed to arrive in short order.

The audience gleefully anticipated said ruinous event. In a sense they took part in the story’s unfolding by imagining a string of suitable inciting incidents.

When no obstacle arrived in a timely fashion—remember, we’re talking mere seconds—they felt restless, a little guilty about rejecting the wholesomeness of the couple, but ultimately disappointed. They took their discontent to the comment section, where they vented about the video’s shortcomings.

A Meal Taken in Company

Finally—and here was the indisputable source of the post’s popularity—the community set about making the story stronger. Commenter built upon commenter, prefacing ideas with statements like, “You know what I was expecting to see..?” They collectively made the story world more complex, the conflict more fraught, and the consequences of failure increasingly dire.

For example, they decided that the couple’s love was forbidden, in a Romeo and Juliet type situation.

That the young man lived one—no, make that three entire villages away, and he’d been forced to bicycle over mountains to reach her. No! Across continents.

That the couple lived in a world where bicycling was illegal, and if caught, the young man would forfeit his life.

Lessons for the Cook

Byron Katie has a saying which always makes me laugh with a sharp shock of recognition: “When you argue with reality you lose, but only 100% of the time.”

The comment section of this Reddit post, my dear Unboxeders, is a storyteller’s reality, and we are at our best when we face it without flinching.

When we put a story out in the world, we are competing for attention with intrinsically compulsive media in a boundless landscape of fiction.

We are also competing with our own readers’ sophisticated imaginations. Readers understand story structure, if only at an intuitive level. They perceive the value of high stakes. They thirst for deep themes. And we must respect their skills and strive to be at our best, else our story will be overlooked for superior fan art.

Whether in outlining or in revision, at some point we must ask ourselves the following:

  • Do our characters want something meaningful?
  • On the path to their goals, do they face true opposition?
  • Will there be significant consequences if they fail?

If we can’t honestly say yes to the above, it’s time to dig deeper, using whatever tools best speak to our inner craftsperson, whether that means books or conferences, critique partners or beta readers, editors and agents—or all the above.

This is what it means to respect our audience. This is what it means to grow our skills. This is where our gratifying challenge lies—if we’ll but accept it.

Now over to you, Unboxeders. Have readers’ vast story knowledge heartened or daunted you? When ensuring you’re cooking a solid story “steak,” what are your favorite resources?


About Jan O'Hara

A former family physician and academic, Jan O'Hara (she/her) left the world of medicine behind to follow her dreams of becoming a writer. She writes love stories that zoom from wackadoodle to heartfelt in six seconds flat: (Opposite of Frozen; Cold and Hottie; Desperate Times, Desperate Pleasures). She also contributed to Author in Progress, a Writer's Digest Book edited by Therese Walsh.

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