Sin, Sex and the Art of Persuasive Writing

My parents used to subscribe to a Catholic magazine with a column for young adults. When I was in high school, I read one of the columns that advised teenagers that the Bible clearly showed pre-marital sex was wrong – just look at the Sixth and Ninth commandments. I didn't remember anything in the Ten Commandments about pre-marital sex. I checked my parents' Bible (no Internet at that time, so I used the index – remember those?). The Sixth Commandment prohibits adultery. The Ninth prohibits coveting “thy neighbor's wife” and his goods (which raises a whole other issue of women being considered possessions, but that's for another post). I concluded, rightly or wrongly, that the Bible didn't say anything about sex before marriage or the author would have quoted it, not fudged. I also viewed every article in that magazine from then on with great skepticism.

That experience illustrates two important facets of persuading people. One is well-known to most lawyers — that of putting your best argument first. If your first argument is weak, your reader or listener may never get beyond it. The second is credibility. Because I checked the source material and found it didn't say what the article's author claimed it did, I no longer found that author, or the publication, credible. Both lost the opportunity to persuade me not only of that one point, but of anything.

These principles apply to fiction, too. Novelists all are attempting to persuade readers. To do what? To believe in the fictional world the author created and to care about the characters as if they were real people. That's a big part of what's happening, or not, when customers in a bookstore or on-line read the first paragraph or two of a book. That first page either pulls the reader in or it doesn't. While a lot of authors feel frustrated that potential buyers judge a book by reading no more than the first page (assuming they've liked the cover in the first place), most of us do exactly that when we browse books. That's why I rewrite the first page of my novels close to a hundred times before publication.

Credibility also matters. This morning I revised a scene where a woman exits the River City high rise complex and hurries through Chicago's South Loop after dark. A stranger starts to follow her. What I want the reader to wonder at that point is “Who is the stranger? What does he want? Will Sophia reach her office safely?” But if I'd said she was walking through Lincoln Park instead, someone who knows Chicago's neighborhoods well would forget about the story and wonder: “Isn't River City in the South Loop? Does this author know Chicago at all? Doesn't she check Google maps?” With that one error, my reader is no longer persuaded that the scene or the character is real. If I've otherwise done a good job, the reader might forgive me and read on. But if too many errors break the narrative, it becomes more likely the reader won't return to the book.

So there you have it – sin, sex, and persuasive writing. And you thought it was just a catchy title.


Lisa M. Lilly is the author of Amazon occult best seller The Awakening. Her poems and short fiction have appeared in numerous print and on-line magazines, including Parade of PhantomsStrong Coffee, and Hair Trigger, and a short film of the title story of her collection The Tower Formerly Known as Sears and Two Other Tales of Urban Horror was recently produced under the title Willis Tower. She is currently working on The Awakening, Book II: The Unbelievers.

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