How to make Main Street more interesting? (video)

Viewing time: 6 mins. 31 secs 

The Write Question is a weekly video podcast about writing that I started in 2017 and that ran, more or less weekly, until April 2022. This is a republication of issue #98,  which addresses how to make Main Street more interesting. The post first ran on July 5/19.


Welcome to The Write Question, I’m Daphne Gray-Grant and my topic today is how to make Main Street more interesting. 

I have a question from Mindy Fullilove — a writer based in New Jersey. Here’s what she’s asked: 

“I’m writing a book about Main Street. This involves visits to lots of main streets, I’ve been to main streets in about 150 cities but some very particular visits where I’m sort of describing everything that’s happening on the street and the people I’m with so it’s in some detail. I would like this to be lively so that the reader will be engaged. [Do you have] any advice about how to make such a visit seem exciting? They are rather prosaic, I would be very grateful. Thanks!” 

Thanks for your question, Mindy. I think you’ve identified PART of the problem when you say the topic tends to be rather prosaic. 

For anyone who doesn’t fully understand the meaning of the word prosaic, it refers to text that lacks poetic beauty. In fact, the root of the word is “prose” which is sometimes seen as a synonym for something that is as dull and commonplace. 

But, Mindy, I want you to consider that the issue might not be the poetry or beauty of your writing. Instead, it more likely relates to whether you’re doing enough story-telling. 

The topic of Main Street sounds a little bit static. It’s a place with a lot of buildings and most of them have been there for decades. You don’t want your book to be a description of a bunch of buildings, do you? Instead, you need to look for the stories behind those streets. 

Human beings are hard-wired to respond to stories. To us, stories are like cat-nip to cats, or herring to beluga whales. The idea for your book is clever and should have the advantage of some universal appeal. But to deliver a manuscript that’s interesting enough, you’re going to have to really look for the stories. 

I can best explain this concept by giving you an example. One of my favourite books — it’s on my lifetime top 10 list — is The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, link below. If you haven’t read it, rush out and get yourself a copy now. 

To me, the most remarkable thing about this book is the way it’s filled with stories. Let me take the time to read to you quite a long example now. This is how the book starts: 

In the fall of 1993, a man who would up-end much of what we know about habits walked into a Laboratory in San Diego for a scheduled appointment. He was elderly, a shade over six feet tall, and neatly dressed in a blue button-down shirt. His thick white hair would have inspired envy and any fiftieth high school reunion. Arthritis caused him to limp slightly as he paced the laboratory’s hallways, and he held his wife’s hand, walking slowly, as if unsure about what each new step would bring. 

About a year earlier, Eugene Pauly, or “E. P.” as he would come to be known in medical literature, had been at home in Playa Del Ray, preparing for dinner, when his wife mentioned that their son, Michael, was coming over. 

Who’s Michael?” Eugene asked. 

“Your child,” said his wife, Beverly. “You know, the one we raised?” 

Eugene looked at her blankly. “Who is that?” He asked. 

The next day, Eugene started vomiting and writhing with stomach cramps. Within 24 hours, his dehydration was so pronounced that a panicked Beverly took him to the emergency room. His temperature started rising, hitting 105 degrees as he sweated a yellow halo of perspiration onto the hospital’s sheets. He became delirious, then violent, yelling and pushing when nurses tried to insert an IV into his arm. Only after sedation was a physician able to slide a long needle between two vertebra in the small of his back and extract a few drops of cerebrospinal fluid. 

The doctor performing the procedure sensed trouble immediately. The fluid surrounding the brain and spinal nerves is a barrier against infection and injury. In healthy individuals, it is clear and quick flowing, moving with an almost silky rush through a needle. The sample from Eugene’s spine was cloudy and dripped out sluggishly, as it filled with microscopic grit. When the results came back from the laboratory, Eugene’s physicians learned why he was ill: he was suffering from viral encephalitis. 

In addition to the fantastic level of descriptive detail, notice how Duhigg uses tension – the same type of tension a novelist might employ. What is EP’s problem? Why doesn’t he remember his own son? What could be going wrong here? 

I can’t imagine many readers being willing to put down the book until they learned how EP’s story ends. 

See if you can employ some of these same techniques. Look for points of tension in your main streets — is a building going to be torn down? Is Jackson’s bakery going to have to go out of business? Is 10-year-old Joey Jones who’s walking down the street going to get accepted onto his local softball team? 

I can’t predict exactly what stories you might have been able to find, but whatever they are, tell them in such a way that withholds some of the facts until you get your readers good and engaged.   

Check out Charles Duhigg’s book and see how he accomplished that task. Then emulate him. 

Finally, let me wrap up with a quote from Pulitzer Prize Winner Robert Olen Butler, author of A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, link below. “Story is a yearning meeting an obstacle.” 

Mindy, many people seem to believe  that good writing comes only from flowery images and carefully chosen words. Instead, I believe, that the vast majority of readers prefer interesting characters in challenging situations. Present more tension in your writing and your readers will automatically become more engaged. 


The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg 

A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain by Robert Olen Butler

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