Zero to One Column

One Ring to Rule Them All


“One Ring to rule them all,
One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all
And in the darkness bind them.”
– The Lord of the Rings

There is a seldom mentioned underlying purpose to writing. This purpose is only discussed in hushed whispers by writers who are members of the inner circle. Often, writers don’t even think about this purpose. Hell, I went years without considering it. Yet, like the “One Ring,” it rules all aspects of writing. It is a SECRET providing a single litmus test which ultimately decides if the writing works or not.

Today I’m going to shine a light on this SECRET and I’m revealing it with the same apprehension and suppressed excitement Bruce Lee must have felt revealing the secrets of the Shaolin Temple.

50 Shades of Gray achieves the SECRET, even with sophomoric prose. Dan Brown used it. Stephen King has amassed millions of dollars consistently using the SECRET over the years.

What is the SECRET? Before describing it, let’s examine why it isn’t taught in every writing class. You may decide that this SECRET is something you don’t even want to know.

The craft of writing is important. Craft is what writing teachers teach. But craft is important only as far as it serves the SECRET. Think about this: How many bestsellers with poor craft exist? And how’d they become bestsellers if the writing sucks? Answer? You guessed it: the SECRET.

The problem is the SECRET, at its core, feels Machiavellian and we are loathe to learn/teach such immoral techniques. Luckily this is a misconception about the SECRET. Although it the SECRET can be deceitful, using it is not immoral.
Have you guessed the SECRET yet?

In your mind’s eye, imagine the first couple pages of the story you’ve written. Pick up the pages, wipe that coffee spill from them, and hold them in front of your face. Read those words. Your prose is clean and easy to understand. Nice. You’ve used all the senses, immersed the reader fully in the setting. Good. You’ve got an honest-to-goodness, real complex hero, none of that cardboard cutout stuff. Excellent. The hero has big problems. His dog dies, he loses his job, and his girlfriend dumps him. All in the first couple of pages. The reader’s gonna cry over this, right?

Nuh-uh. Nope. (Smash the gong!) You lose.

At one level the problem here is that your reader isn’t yet emotionally invested in your hero, but at a higher level it was a swing and a miss on using the SECRET.

Most writing problems come down to failure using the SECRET. Conversely, and paradoxically, bad writing which uses the SECRET still succeeds. (Like the before-mentioned, poorly written best seller.)

Are you ready for the SECRET?

Here it is: Controlling the reader’s mind. That’s the purpose behind all writing.

I can feel you backing away now, not in disgust but in disappointment. Did you sigh? Did you think while reading this that the SECRET sounded too good to be true and then did you think, “Yep, it was too good to be true”?

Please believe me, I’m not trying to be clever here. This is too important to be a joke.

John Gardner describes creating a fictive dream, which you want the reader to be part of. This is controlling the reader’s mind.

Randy Ingermanson describes creating a powerful emotional experience for the reader. Again, this is controlling the reader’s mind.

Think back to when you started this essay. Where you initially intrigued? Did you think maybe there was a secret and you wanted to find out more? Or were you thinking this is bullshit but still you wanted to find out more? And then, were you annoyed when I didn’t reveal the SECRET immediately? Ha. I controlled your mind.

No writer can control everyone’s mind, but the best writers control when their readers are curious, when they’re happy, or when they’re frustrated. Name an emotion, then control it.

Here’s the best part about controlling reader’s minds. Readers want it. That’s why they read. They want to have the experience. They want to be controlled. Thus, it’s not immoral at all. It’s expected.

Until next month. Keep writing and keep thinking of the experience you’re giving the reader.

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