As a writer I’ve done all five things until I learned better, and so can you. Keeping readers out of your fictional world can be as simple as not giving them the information they need to “be there” with your characters. This idea arose out of Facebook, when I compared notes with friends about what advertising we were seeing. Depending on what pages they “liked” or commented on, some saw anti-aging and diet products, others saw cars and travel. One day I was invited to have “famous hair.” Go figure.
The point is, we don’t all see the world the same way. Most of us know this intellectually, when we need to get it at the gut level. How readers see and react to what we write depends on it. If we don’t all see the world the same way, or only see certain bits of it, how can we be sure our writing isn’t keeping readers out, when we want to draw them in and make them forget they’re reading something we made up?
Here are five ways readers can be shut out of our stories. See if you recognise any of them.
1. Use lazy words
Words like short, tall, old, young are lazy words. They represent our view of the world. In my workshops, ages go from teens to eighties. Asking who considers themselves old gets few hands in the air, except for the odd joker, usually someone younger than me. Old and young depend on your OWN age and the goal posts shift with each birthday. We’ve all heard toddlers call someone in their twenties old, while headlines say, “60 is the new 40.” The solution is to “show, don’t tell.” Simply put, this means show the reader what’s there, rather than tell them what to think. Wrinkled skin, thinning hair, stooped build can all suggest a mature character. Describe what’s there and leave the rest to us. Ditto tall. Show the character ducking under a doorframe, or their feet overhanging the bed. Show us the character in enough detail for us to draw our own conclusions.
2. Don’t be consistent
Science fiction and fantasy are fun to write. You can imagine the world any way you want. But having set the rules, you must obey them from then on. No good having gravity turn off every day at noon for an hour, then forget next day and have characters sit down to lunch. Or turn blue-eyed Sandy into brown-eyed Susan between chapters. Characters need to be consistent as well. If Susan is thrifty because of a poverty-stricken background, don’t give her designer clothes without a good reason, a splurge she may feel guilty about, or a conscious decision to fight her conditioning.
3. Don’t get specific
I can’t mention a tree in my books without knowing the species, whether it’s in flower (which dictates the book’s season) and other details. I may not use them all in the narrative, but I need to know them. Through the magic of Google. I can find exactly the Russian swear word, unusual computer bug, or character illness I need to make the book work. It’s said that the best way to hide information is on page two of a Google search, but I’ve gone through twenty or more pages to find exactly what I need. Get specific and you will draw readers into your story world.
4. Don’t stretch yourself creatively
Whole blogs are written about the language used in romance novels. None of your prose should be in there. Avoid purple prose (over-written descriptions); cliched character actions – looking in a mirror while you describe them; misunderstandings where the heroine thinks the hero is kissing another woman. Heroine then storms out without waiting to learn the woman is his sister. First decide what you want the scene to achieve. If it’s to separate the characters while they discover they love each other, what’s the most original way to show this? I make lists, challenging myself to come up with twenty or more ways this could be achieved. The first few will be the cliches, the repetition, the boring. The next few will be wild flights of fantasy, then slowly I’ll get to the nuggets of gold. Sometimes two or more points can be combined to achieve my goal. This method has never failed me.
5. Don’t finish what you start
This is guaranteed to keep readers out of your story world, because the point of entry is the finished book. Whether on a device or in print, your book must be where readers can access it. Erica Jong famously said for a long time she avoided finishing anything. As long as it was work in progress, it couldn’t be rejected. Your book will never be perfect. Using the points here can get you a lot closer, but the last step – putting your story in front of an agent or editor – is essential. As a writer friend put it, “books in my head will never get read unless I get up and write them.”
Do any of these sound familiar to you? Do you keep readers out of your story world? How have you overcome these problems? Please leave a comment here.
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