Make It Compelling

“Years ago, on the phone with Bill Buford, then fiction editor of The New Yorker, enduring a series of painful edits, feeling a little insecure, I went fishing for a compliment: ‘But what do you like about the story?’ I whined. There was a long pause at the other end. And Bill said this: ‘Well, I read a line. And I like it…enough to read the next.” -George Saunders, book A Swim in a Pond in the Rain

As an artistic director of a theatre company, I often get asked some variation of this question: “What do you look for in a script?”

The short answer: “Make me want to keep turning pages.”

George Saunders recently published an excellent book entitled “A Swim In The Pond In The Rain” about what makes for compelling literature. Based on his class at Syracuse University, he dissects several classic Russian short stories and breaks down exactly why we want to keep reading them. I highly recommend it (h/t to my friend Ron for recommending it to me).

“Make it compelling” isn’t just for writing. It’s for all the arts. For example…

If you’re an actor, be so filled up that the audience has to keep watching.

If you’re a musician, make a song and album that’s unpredictable, that the audience has to keep listening to.

If you’re a director, craft a play or film that people are riveted to stay in their seats.

Especially now with so many distractions, so many things competing for our time and attention, whatever you’re trying to do, you must make it compelling for others. (Easier said that done, I know. But it’s still true.)

So how do you do that?

Well….Start with yourself. Be your own toughest critic. Be brutally honest. Are you compelled with your art throughout? If not, where and why? Don’t stop revising until you fully get there. (Saunders book will give lots of useful insight to help). If need be, engage a trusted friend or colleague who will also shoot you straight.

Chances are if you’re compelled, we’ll be too. (And if not, you can rest knowing that at least you compelled yourself.)

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