I’m going to tell you how to cheat.
That’s right. There are ways to hack your way to an emotional response. You can bypass the usual systems of good characters, solid plot, and vivid setting— you can even get away without a very good writing style— and still evoke a positive reaction from readers. Yes indeed! You don’t have to go through the misery of learning how to actually write. I’ll give you a couple examples and tell you exactly how to use them for MAXIMUM EFFECT.
In short, don’t.
Imagine you’re writing the next Star Wars movie. The franchise has millions of fans. No matter if you write a good story or not, people are going to come, spend money, and watch your movie. You could write anything you want and they’ll still watch it. Why? Because the story is that big. It doesn’t matter how well you write; it just matters that it’s Star Wars.
You have a cheat.
You don’t have to write well. You don’t have to have good characters, plot, or setting. You don’t have to do anything well— you just have to slap Star Wars on the title and pretend you tried.
The franchise cheat, as found with Star Wars, Star Trek, Doctor Who, or any other long-running, high-grossing franchise, is a great way to get lots of money without a lot of effort. Does it make good stories? Naw. But it makes good money.
Different styles of cheats do different things. Cameos from popular actors or characters (such as Daniel Craig in The Force Awakens or the Doctor in Mary Robinette Kowal’s Valour and Vanity) feel like a promise has been fulfilled without any such promise being made. The special-effects cheat in movies works well too, making you feel like you saw a great spectacle even if the story wasn’t that powerful. How about the breakneck cheat, where you push the pace so fast that people don’t realize you have no plot until the very end? I’m sure you’ve watched movies or read books like this.
So how do you implement these cheats? Remember, we want to use them for maximum effect, not just a little spike of enjoyment. Well, as I said before, in order to use these cheats, you don’t use the cheats.
Take the Star Wars example. Every time you mention “Star Wars”— whether in the title or the credits or whatever— substitute it with “Squid Workaholics”. Squid Workaholics VII: The Force Awakens. Is that title going to capture many viewers? No, but it doesn’t need to. Now that you have a substitute, look at the story.
Force yourself to work without the cheat, then add it at the last second. Give the story to beta readers without the cheat, then add it before you publish. You know the story will do well. What’s the harm in making it even better?
Think of it this way. Even though the franchise is hugely successful, or the cameo will be widely recognized, someone will read your story who has no idea what’s so special about it. What do you do then? You can’t please everyone in the audience, but this is likely a larger group of people than you expect. What happens when the cheat just doesn’t work?
You say it seems unlikely. You forge ahead, waving your cheat in front of you, confident that it will work and everyone will love you because of the cheat. Sorry, buddy. The more excited your perfect fan is (who will buy tickets just because it says Star Wars), the more likely that they bring along their brother, or their daughter, or their crazy uncle, who has never even heard of the movies. Just watch, the fan says; You’ll love it.
They don’t love it. They’re confused and reevaluating the worth of familial bonds with this fan. I guess it’s not my thing, they say politely, while the moment the fan gets out of earshot they shout, What did I just watch?
Can you still use cheats? Absolutely. There’s nothing like a breakneck pace or wonderful special effects. But if there’s no meat behind the illusion, you haven’t made a lasting impression. When it comes down to it, the fans love it because they’re fans. The rest are indifferent, or hate it.
On New Year’s Eve, I wrote a short story that, essentially, cheated. About three of the people who read it enjoyed it. The rest, although they were polite, seemed a bit lost. I had written the story before thinking of the cheat— unfortunately, I revised it with only the cheat in mind. I think it’s time I revise it again, to bring out the original appeal of the story.
If you have a cheat, acknowledge that it’s there. Change it into a Squid Workaholic. Write the best story you can write. The last thing you should do is add the cheat back in.