Ever seen a fireworks display that was absolutely remarkable?
I have, also.
Ever seen one that was kind of lackluster?
Yep. Me, too.
What makes the difference? The same stuff that makes for good writing, actually.
Here are four steps to an excellent fireworks display and some pretty good writing:
Set it up right
Nobody wants to watch the fireworks while sitting in a pile of gravel. No one wants to stare straight up to watch them, hurting their neck.
In other words, setting matters. Same goes with your writing.
You need to set up the story or argument or whatever with a good hook — an introduction of the main problem or theme — and draw the reader in with your content.
You only have a few moments to grab the reader's eye. Don't squander it with a less-than-extraordinary setting. Sit your reader down, make sure she's comfortable, and draw her into the story.
But that's not enough. You need more than a good setting…
Build the tension
Great fireworks displays don't just jump straight to the Grand Finale.
They also don't shoot one bottlerocket into the air every five minutes, either. Instead, they make use of space to leave you wanting more, while holding your interest with constant activity.
It's a fine line between letting the last firework the linger and sending the next one into the sky. It's a balance you need to learn and a tension you must embrace.
Do the same with your writing.
Reintroduce the problem. Remind the reader of the conflict. Use questions as bait to move your audience through the experience of your content.
But be careful…
Don't drag on
I've seen fireworks that were 45 minutes long that could easily have been 20. I've watched three-hour-long movies that should've been 90 minutes. I've written blog posts that were 900 words that should have been 500.
Longer doesn't mean better. Better means better.
Taking more time just because you have people's attention doesn't mean that you should. In fact, it means that you should treat this opportunity with great care.
You should under-promise and over-deliver and, most importantly, leave your audience wanting more.
And last, but not least, never forget the most important part…
Let's face it: most of us go see fireworks for one thing and one thing alone — the Grand Finale. The absolutely over-the-top finish that knocks your socks off and leaves the kids raving about it until next year.
I've seen some pretty fantastic finales and some rather disappointing ones.
As far as I'm concerned, it basically comes down to the people in charge not honoring the last point. In other words, they drag on.
Someone didn't spend enough money to have a good 15-20 minutes of fireworks plus an honorable finale, so they just stole from the finish to fill in the rest of the show. Writer's sometimes do the same thing.
It's better to keep it short and finish strong than it is to make it longer and end on a less-than-remarkable note. This is also true in writing.
Always end with your best stuff.
Don't try to stretch what you have into another 100 words or 10,000. Don't make something into a chapter that's not. There's no shame in ending. There is only relief and victory.
I'm amazed at how many writers take a good point and redundantly driving it into the ground until it no longer has any effect.
Don't do this.
Don't let your writing fizzle out like a soggy fireworks display.
Even if you have to condense it into a shorter package or jump right into your story, do what you must to grab people's attention and hold it to the very end.
You simply can't afford anything else.
Did you see the fireworks yesterday? Was it remarkable or mediocre?
*Photo credit: Stephen Gunby (Creative Commons)