How to Make Your Readers’ Heads Explode

This week’s video offers Lesson #4 from Pacific Rim, an encouragement to writers to pursue story ideas that will inspire rabid fandom among their readers.

Video Transcript:

Today, we’re going to feature the last of our lessons from Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim, which, if you haven’t already figured out, I absolutely loved. In our first video in this series, we talked a little about why I loved it, and specifically about how the movie was able to live up to every last bit of its potential. But there’s more to it than that. This is an excellent bit of storytelling on many levels, but it’s certainly not a perfect movie, even from an objective standpoint. But that does not matter. What matters is that somehow del Toro was able to get those of his viewers who loved this movie to really love it.

How did he inspire this fanaticism? I saw an interview in which he was asked what he would have thought of this movie had he seen it as a twelve-year-old kid. Without missing a beat, he said, “My head would have exploded!” And that, right there, is the key. We want our readers’ heads to explode. We don’t want them to just objectively love our great storycraft and beautiful prose. We want them to fanatically, rabidly love every little bit of our stories despite the faults.

Okay, so sounds good, right? But how do we do that?

Well, number one, we follow del Toro’s lead and write a story that would make our heads explode. If you’re not geeking out about your own story, that’s a warning sign that something’s wrong. We’re all going to have days where we hate our stories, but, generally speaking, you need to be unabashedly crazy about this thing you’re writing.

Beyond that, we can also take a more deliberate approach. When you sit down to outline or plan your story, take a moment to write a list. If you were an objective reader of this story, what would you want to read about? What kind of characters would you fall head over in heels in love with? What kind of scenes would have you squealing with excitement and wriggling in your seat? Give it some thought, because you don’t want to write a story that’s just good enough. You want to write a story that’ll make heads explode all over the place.

How to Make Your Readers' Heads Explode

Tell me your opinion: What about your story makes your explode?

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. I didn’t go gaga over Pacific Rim, but I still like what you say about exciting yourself about your story before others. I usually don’t get too far with most projects, but I think the reason I haven’t given up on my novel is that I still love it even if my translation on screen is less than mind blowing, or even satisfaction. Thanks for the post and I plan on buying “Structuring Your Novel” soon!

    • K.M. Weiland says

      The “gaga” factor is always going to be subjective – both in regard to our own works and those of others. But art *is* subjective. That’s more or less the whole point. If we’re not subjectively in love with our stuff, apart from any objective value (although that’s certainly important too), then we need to ask ourselves why we’re writing it in the first place.

  2. Going through your book Structuring Your Novel made me realize I had a lot of work to do on my story. I’m working my way through the edits now. I’m hoping to love all aspect of the story when I’m done and not just a few scenes here and there. 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland says

      Awesome! So glad the book was useful to you. Yes, it’s one thing to love a story idea – and another to still love it after we’ve got done smearing it on the page. :p

  3. As you’re talking about the twelve year old, I’m thinking about the movies or books that made my head explode during my formative years. Star Wars when I was 10. Jaws when I was 9 (I was troubled). There are more, but the list is shockingly short. Of course I loved every movie I saw. Because there was popcorn. But few really stuck with me. It’s such a rare thing to pull off. I remember reading When Worlds Collide and After Worlds Collide (both in one volume…my friends knew I was a geek). I wanted to cry when it was done. So I’m looking over my sloppily written plot as I type this and I know the exploding head moment is missing. I’ll find it. But it sure doesn’t happen by luck, does it? Thanks again for a great post, KM!

    • K.M. Weiland says

      Star Wars was a biggie for me too. The Magnificent Seven was huge. I think I watched that every week for a year. And The Great Escape still remains my all-time favorite movie.

  4. My first novel’s out on submission and things are looking hopeful for it. I’ve edited it until just about every scene makes me giggle crazily. I just need an editing pass to make the dialogue funnier, I think. It’s YA urban fantasy, and some of the scenes that really get my juices going are when the magic is really flying.

    Like when the bad guy has the teens pinned, and the hero’s dad comes out with a staff held like a shotgun and takes out the bad guy with it.

    Or when the heroine stacks a bunch of portals to make a random-teleport-slot-machine, and makes everyone jump through.

    Or when the hero sets up when he thinks is a mass protection spell and it’s actually a magical EMP.

    MY HEAD ASPLODE!

  5. Geeking out over my own story is seriously one of life’s biggest highs!

  6. Bill Bavaria says

    Katie.

    This is an extremely helpful and insightful point re storytelling. You pick up on the attention getting phrase ‘make readers heads explode’ which proves the point. Focus on STORY. It reminded me all over again of the predominance of story over craft. Great article and video.

    Bill
    PS. One small thing. In your presentation a syndrome is starting to appear – I say this caringly. http://youtu.be/UsE5mysfZsY

    • K.M. Weiland says

      Art is the reason. Craft is the vehicle. If the heart of the story isn’t there to start with, it really doesn’t matter how awesome the craft is. (But, of course, by the same token, if the heart of the story is awesome but the vehicle is horrible, most readers will have a hard time tapping into it.)

  7. I had no desire to pay a penny to see Pacific Rim, my own prejudice, so I may watch it for free when it hits cable. It looked to be another mindless summer flick aimed at teens and early twenty-somethings–not the most discernable age demographic (in my opinion) when discussing quality in movies. Plenty of ‘popular’ books and movies are utter crap, Twilight, 50 Fifty Shades of Grey, and any super hero comic book movie leap to mind. This demographic gets easily hooked on non-stop action and plot goes out the window with the acting. Color me skeptical about the flick, but art is subjective.
    I think the head exploding gets rarer the older we get because we change and grow. Don’t get me wrong, I love writing, books and movies more now at age 58 than I ever did. I expect more out of them now because I want more depth in them. My favorite movies and books have evolved as I’ve matured. Some of them I wonder why I ever thought they were my favorites, such as Rocky and Risky Business and E.T. I was one of the few who couldn’t get into Star Wars or Indiana Jones (I thought they were lame then and now, but yes, they did contain the basic elements of story-telling).
    The novel that made my head explode recently was Gone Girl. The movies Seven, Shutter Island, Slumdog Millionaire, The Princess Bride, Confidence, District Nine; and the screenplay for Chinatown did it for me. To me, works like those are extraordinary. Finding your writing voice, like Dennis Lehane, Block, and Robert B. Parker did, is key to me. Story by Robert McKee is a great book for writers.
    I would certainly hope we as writers get excited about our novels, they’re our babies, our creations we’ve nurtured for years. Perhaps the book factory authors such as James Patterson don’t, more’s the pity.
    My genre is psychological suspense/crime fiction. My novels have a unique protagonist, a social worker in private practice in St. Louis. My second novel Counterfeit, is being released next month by a small traditional press Blank Slate Productions, Layla Dog Press and it takes my head off. I’ve had some interest from New Line Cinema and Sam Rami Productions for movie rights to Counterfeit, but nothing has stuck so far. BSP is reprinting my first novel in the series, The Interrogation Chair, which I’m rewriting in the hope it will keep my head off my shoulders (first edition was self-published and when I re-read that version I was embarrassed since I have a better idea what I’m doing now). My third in the series is half-completed, working title The Virtual Suicide Machine and due out next year.
    Everyone out there, keep reading and writing every day! We’ll get there.
    Thanks for the e-mail!

    • K.M. Weiland says

      Pacific Rim is total popcorn fare. Citizen Kane, it is not. But it’s a fun ride. Congrats on your recent release! Sounds like you’ve got your own magic formula all worked out. I’ll look forward to seeing your book on the big screen – sooner than later, hopefully!

  8. Certainly, that is what we are looking for. And well, it *is* indeed the best way to meassure it.
    Thanks for the advice 😀
    Good to know my WIP is something I would have absolutely loved :p

    • K.M. Weiland says

      This is perhaps one of the easiest and most reassuring tests we can run on our stories. If we love what we’re doing, we’ll always know it.

  9. Hullo Kate,
    I’ve just discovered your website thanks to The Write Practice.
    At the moment I’m using Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat structure as it fills in those big gaps that I find in the Three Act process.
    Have you incorporated Snyder’s 16 steps into your process? From reading a sample of your Structuring Your Novel you seem to have covered all the bases.

    • K.M. Weiland says

      I haven’t read Snyder’s book, but I’m familiar with his work. He approaches structure in a classic way, so it’s very similar to what I teach as well.

  10. Seems like you and Guillermo del Toro are the only ones to have their heads exploded by this movie. 🙂 Maybe the synopsis of the story is not that bad (couple of original ideas and so-so twists) but the realisation was appalling. If it had been released in 1979 it could’ve stirred the dust, but it’s 2013 for crying out loud, and all you get is cheap cardboard models, ham actors and below the line CGI, with 80% of the action taking place in the dark in futile attempt to cover the abovementioned blunders. It’s not del Toro’s fault – I see that the whole industry is living hand to mouth, having small budgets and desire to make it look like “Ben Hur”. Makes me sad that people who grew up on phenomenal mainstream movies of the 80-90’s do their films as if they haven’t learned anything about why, what and how the audience is moved to laugh and cry. Budgets have killed creativity. Worst of all, they have no idea that the best stories will never be told, because people with potential see how the screenwriter is being diminished and neglected (despite all cheasy talks about how industry craves good stuff) and spend thier time doing something else. 80% of what is being published and put on screen is the work of either lucky graphomaniacs or hack writers earning easy buck. No one has a slightest idea what it’s like to fight selfdoubt, selfsabotage in attempt to do something worthy.Everybody silently considers a writer a calm idiot, until he gets published and then all they say is “I knew you had something special to deliver”, believe me, I know what I’m talking about 🙂
    Sorry for being a bit preachy, stories (both books and movies) is all I have, and some little part of me dies, when I see potentially wonderful material being flushed down the toilet.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I’ll agree that Pacific Rim isn’t for everybody. But there are gobs of people who enjoyed it. The movie suffered from a horrible advertising campaign here in the States, but ended up killing it overseas and being one of the top movies of the year.

      • Well, let’s call a spade a spade: “not for everyone” is something like “Bicycle thieves”,”Nosferatu” or “Persona”. Summer blockbuster is the definition of a “movie for everyone” of course, except for 3 and 95 year olds.
        Why I like digits is because they always tell you the truth (albeit harsh and unpleasant). Speaking of movie revenues, we have to consider the financial reality of modern film distribution schemes.
        So for example, the latest quarterly filing by Cinemark Holdings, shows that 54.5 percent of its ticket revenues went to the distributors. So as a ballpark figure, studios generally take in around 50-55 percent of U.S. box office money.
        According to the book The Hollywood Economist by Edward Jay Epstein, studios take in about 40 percent of the revenue from overseas release — and after expenses and local taxes, they’re lucky if they take in 15 percent of that number.
        Now, according to boxofficemojo figures domestic gross of Pacific Rim amounted to $102 mil , whereas foreign one brought in only $310 mil. Production budget of this flick is 190 mil, so after simple arithmetic calculations we get approximate total gross that studio received on hands after screenings: 56 + 47 = 103 mil, which 87 mil (omg) less than production budget. Oh, I almost forgot the marketing budget, which usually amounts to half of the production money, but if you say that it was horrible lets make it only one-forth which is still a whopping 50 mil. Just check boxofficemojo weekend percentage – approx. 45% drop in revenues every next week. What kind of word-of-mouth can a movie have, so that amount of people who want to see the movie diminishes by half every week?
        So, if I were (God forbid!) a studio exec responsible for that mess, I would shudder after having seen the balance sheet with a red bottom line “spent – 240 mil, earned – 103 mil = loss 137 mil of borrowed money”. Do you think he would call the board of directors and ask – “Can we call it a catastrophe or just a regular flop?”
        It would’ve been funny, if it hadn’t been so sad. The worst part is that this hack is done by the guys who could’ve been the hope of the new mainstream, standing proud on the shoulders of heavyweights of the past. Instead, they jump on the band wagon and go for money instead of quality of every aspect of the product they give to spectators. Best movies make people forget about popcorn on their lap, pepsi and dates.
        I just wonder what do you consider to be a bad movie or failed book of lately? I wouldn’t believe that real authors have to be all vanilla-sugarcoated about everything they encounter.

        • “Isn’t for everybody” was my way of saying, “let’s agree to disagree.” 😉 I loved the movie; you hated it. And that’s cool. The subjectivity of art, and all that jazz.

          I objectively (and subjectively) dislike many books and movies. I give away five-star ratings about as often as Ebenezer Scrooge sends his mother Hallmark cards, and when I do give them out, it’s usually for subjective as much as objective reasons – because the source connects with me on some deep level and punches my buttons just right.

  11. I’m more convinced all the time that you write fanfiction in secret. Pssst. What is your super secret fanfiction name?

  12. This is a spectacular post! The post was so insightful- a very direct way to analyze what you want your story to do to readers. My story’s mind exploding moment is at the climax, in which I kill off both of the main characters. I think it’s mind blowing because killing off the protagonist and love interest is highly unusual. I personally think that only killing off one is the real cruel and tragic part of stories.
    The movie that I always find myself going back to because of it’s amazing writing is Inception. Every time I watch it, my mind explodes. There are so many intricacies and everything fits together like clockwork- so beautiful!
    Thanks for the excellent post, it was really helpful!

  13. I think this is SUCH a great way to explain that *thing* that I think everyone is either looking for, or should be looking for. Like that wonderful quote “If there’s a book you want to read that hasn’t been written yet, you must write it.” Of course there are mechanics of writing, but to really put your heart and soul into it, you have to figure out what makes heads “explode.”

    I think I already do this, but I didn’t realize I could say it in quite this way. I decided to write when I wasn’t yet a teenager, so started collecting all those “head exploding” things along the way instead of having to go back and figure out everything. They just stayed in my pocket because I knew they were important, and I kept thinking “that right there. I want to make people feel like that makes me feel.” So this is PERFECT.

    and speaking of being twelve, I think I had too much sugar that makes me use caps, but no regrets. and now off to write more…

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Spot on! Sometimes when we become “real” writers and get “serious” about our writing, we get caught up in all the do’s and do not’s and can forget that storytelling is, first and foremost, all about the wonder. It’s always a great journey back to that discovery.

  14. This is exactly why I started taking interest in writing and doing it!! I just love the intensity of action scenes and the feels it make you go through!! Espically to the MAX LEVEL, where the reader cannot put the story down until finished! I want to write THAT kind of story! When I read this post title, I was like “HEY! That’s what I want my future story readers to feel! In fact, I WANT to feel that way about it!” because if it makes MY head (THE WRITER) explode, it will most likely do that to my readers 😀

    BTW, I would reccommend listening to action soundtracks to help you imagine your story scenes or inspiration. Mostly, I listen to THIS soundtrack: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VBlaWzMiZYw

    Tell me what do you think of it! Blasting, isn’t it?!!

    Thank you for your insightful post, Ms. Weiland! I’m following your posts!!

  15. Great video, as always. However, I think it should have gone more like this:
    “How to make your readers’ heads explode: atomic bomb.” *video ends*

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