Wednesday, March 21, 2012

My readers keep getting lost! -- Writing tip

Question: I had my book published and have had a couple of reviews that say it isn't "well-grounded in time and space," but a good story nonetheless. My best friend said she was on my side, and she loved my book and my story, but she DID keep getting lost. LOST? Any ideas?

Answer: As a publisher, when I tell someone a book is not "well enough grounded," it's usually because the transitions are poorly done. I can't say if that's the problem with your book, but you might want to check all the opening sentences of scenes and make sure the scene is grounded and that the Who? When? and Where? questions are answered as soon as the scene begins. That's my best guess, Fran. It may be wrong, however. I can only say what I usually see in my submissions files.

A lot of this is plain common sense. I can't tell you how many manuscripts I see where scenes open with conversation between two people, but we don't know who or where they are. Many don't even have names, just "He" or "She." Nothing irritates a reader more than not knowing where they are or who they are witih.

Worse, many times a third person will say something, then following the speech, will be the words, "Kevin Shaunessy joined them on the post office steps." It's plain disorienting for Kevin to speak, before he joins them. Sort of like someone sneaking up behind you and poking you in the back when you're not looking. And it's even worse if the first two people have been talking for half a page before we find out they're at the post office. Especially if we've already built them a street corner, or a grocery store parking lot in our imagination.

Reading is a participatory sport. It's a partnership between you, the writer, and the reader's imagination. If you give the imagination the cues, all well and good. If you don't, it will go to work all by itself and knowing that the two people must be SOMEwhere, will create somewhere for them to be.

In a movie, it's all there for them to see. When a new scene begins, you have an "establishing shot of the post office and the two people coming out the door. Then the camera moves in and they begin to talk to one another. When Kevin comes over, we can see him in his postal employee uniform with his mailbag over his shoulder, so we're not too surprised when he joins in their conversation uninvited.

But in fiction the reader takes what you show them with your words, and builds the set inside his or her mind. Therefore, it's the writer's responsibility to let the reader know Kevin Shaunessy is there, and the readers' responsibility to "create" Kevin in his or her imagination, from whatever cues the writer gives them. That's why it's so important to describe a character when he or she first appears. From the name, the reader will usually infer a bluff, perhaps red-headed Irishman and would be startled later to learn that Kevin was a swarthy-complected Episcopal priest.

Readers want surprises, twists and turns, the unexpected. But they also want to be cued so that when something unexpected happens, they say, "I should have known!" Not "What the hell?"

1 comment:

  1. Arline,
    This is a great post! My favorite line is "reading is a participatory sport." It seems to me as a writer,there is a fine line between giving enough information to bring the reader into the scene while also giving the reader credit for filling in the blanks. Surely, providing the basics is essential in engaging the reader and orienting them to the scene and story. Thanks for this important reminder.