Recently, I was asked to speak to a group of accomplished mystery writers about the kinds of mistakes that could derail an otherwise good story. These seven mistakes in mindset are the gist of that talk.
The point in telling a story is to convey an experience to the reader.
Communication via text doesn’t afford writers with the luxury of gauging audience reaction on the fly. To compensate for this we seek out advanced readers and editors to help hone our craft. While that type of feedback is valuable, picturing an ideal reader, a target audience of one, can focus the story in a way that multiple sources of feedback cannot. Once you know who you are writing for, avoiding these seven pitfalls becomes easier.
1. Being fuzzy about what the story is about. This is normal in a first draft, especially in the beginning when you are still working it out for yourself as you write, but needs to be addressed in the second pass. Draw a big picture. Give the reader an idea of what to expect up front by setting the tone and the mood of the story from the opening scene. Set expectations. The end is in the beginning, the beginning is in the end. They are the bookends of your story and should match.
2. Not realizing that a good deal of what you want to convey to the reader will be lost in translation. Readers skim, get distracted, get interrupted, or put the book down in the chapters. Some readers absolutely will enjoy picking up on the subtleties of your character development. But many others may never figure out which character is which. Draw bigger than life, easily recognizable characters. Each character should have a unique voice, their own desires, and be the hero of their own story. Even unnamed characters can be created to be memorable. One author described story as a frosted window. Some of what the author wishes to convey to the reader gets lost in translation. Make features so colorful and distinguishing that even through the frosted window of story, the characters convey to the reader. Only name important characters who appear more than once in the story.
3. Thinking that the reader is interested in more than just the story.
Keep it simple. Don’t introduce material that isn’t necessary to the story, be it setting, characters, or even entire scenes and chapters. Everything else is off topic.
One important distinction is that authors like Tom Clancy and James Michener made the story about the technology or the history, so in that case it was an important element of the story that readers were expecting. The descriptions of the whales in Moby Dick were arguably padding acceptable in a time when authors were paid by the word. Melville probably wanted to get paid for all that research he did. Don’t be that guy.
To aid in deciding what to leave in and what to leave out, write a one sentence summary of your story. Make sure that everything in the story supports the premise in that summary.
On a related note: Dramatize Key events; summarize or skip the less important bits to keep the story moving. Fold description into action or dialogue, or even into verb choice and keep it as brief as possible.
4. Hyper-focusing on action and leaving out the responses.
Include emotional responses to reveal your characters’ motivations to the reader. This fits easily in Romance novels, but in other genres, authors have to work hard to make sure the viewpoints characters feelings and thoughts about the story events appear on the page are not left up to the reader to assume.
Make sure you include a bit of reaction to each event in the story. This will be woven into your scenes: Stimulus—Response. It will also appear in the sequels or narrative that connect the scenes of the story. Reaction shows the where the story will go next, and is a useful motivator leading into the next scene.
5. Telling the story in a linear fashion.
Raise questions in the reader’s minds. String them along before answering. Keep secrets, but hint at their existence. When stuck, brainstorm five things that could happen, and choose the worst one for the character. Make the problems so difficult and unpredictable for that the reader can’t wait to find out what happens. Lay in a subtle setup for seemingly out of the blue events so that they seem familiar if not inevitable while remaining unexpected.
6. Not immersing the reader in the experience.
This is often another “lost in translation” issue. As authors we see clearly what is happening in the story as it is generated in our imagination. Translating a sense of being-there is a little more complex than writing the scene as we see it in our mind’s eye. We have to slow down and inventory the setting to create ways to put the reader into the story even more fully that we first imagined the scene.
- Use all five senses plus anticipation and emotion setups. Think the Star Wars garbage compactor scene.
- Attach emotional significance to objects, people, or words as the story builds. A not-so-subtle example is G. R. R. Martin’s phrase “Winter in Coming.”
- Also consider using an immediate voice.
7. Falling in love with beautiful language.
Write for clarity, not beauty. It’s surprising how few literary devices you need for readers to comment on the writing quality. Use too many similes and metaphors, and they loose their punch. Like cayenne pepper, a little figurative language goes a long way. Trust that form will follow function.
A few hints on technique:
- Make verbs do the heavy lifting for the clearest, most powerful fiction.
- Use sentence length and complexity to moderate tone and pace. Reel the reader along. Short sentences convey urgency. Throw in detailed description when you want to ratchet the tension or, in less tense situations, when you want give the reader a rest.
- Write short, eliminating needless words and phrases.
- End sentences with strong words.
- Keep analogies fresh, clear, and fitting to the overall tone.
- Create images and sensations in the reader’s mind: Language is the writer’s tool and clay. Use it well.
- Aim to give the reader a pleasurable experience by making the text easy to comprehend and brilliantly clear.
Each of these tips could be an entire session in and of itself. Recognizing any of these lapses in your writing will give you the power to fix them.
Happy Writing! –Kate