Your Reader is Smart
by, Alex Yuschik
Audience is kind of a nebulous concept. Writing solely for someone else doesn’t seem like a very inspiring thing– I don’t know about you, but anything good I write is almost always stuff I’ve made for myself. Still, if your goal as a writer is to get other people to read (or represent or buy) your work, then audience is important.
(And I’m going to interject with a disclaimer right here that not everyone is going to love your work. I don’t think that there’s enough times that you (or me, or anyone who writes) can hear that this is subjective. Some people, whether they are interns, agents, editors, publishers, or people who post reviews on Goodreads or Amazon, are going to love your work and others just aren’t. And that’s okay.)
I am a firm believer that you have to write what you love. Ultimately, since you are the storymaster creatorperson in charge, it’s always up to you how much you work to accommodate your audience. Maybe some narrators are more accommodating than others, maybe you need to write certain things in certain ways for the purpose of the story: to all this I say, cool. That is your purview and I don’t want to encroach on it.
That being said, there are some things that I see when I’m reading submissions that disengage me as a reader that don’t have to anything to do with characters or plot devices; these are parts of the writing that need help. You’ve read books where you stop early because you’ve already figured out who the villain is, or maybe you’re bored by the writing, or it seems like conclusions are being stuffed down your throat, and it’s just not fun. This is what I want to talk about.
Show vs. Tell: You’ve all seen the excellent Chuck Palahniuk article about thought verbs (and if not, look, I just gave you a handy link). You’re a veteran. You know that this stuff isn’t as simple as “Mary was nervous” versus “Mary’s hands tugged at the hem of her shirt, and her throat caught the light when she swallowed.” It’s insidious, and it’s actually really hard to do even though “show, don’t tell” has been handed out as a piece of writing advice for ages. Sometimes I don’t even spot it and it’s embarrassing when my sainted CPs point it out.
Think about your story as a movie and your reader watching it. No actor on screen wears a sign saying HEY I’M <INSERT EMOTION HERE> or I AM MOVING SNEAKILY, at least not seriously– the movie viewer infers these things from observation. Likewise, in Real Life® people don’t do this either. Describe actions and let your audience pick up on the emotions associated with them. Don’t spoonfeed your reader feelings by name– part of the fun of reading is figuring out how characters are feeling rather than being told it.
Giving away too much, or heavy-handed writing: I can tell when I’m being forced to dislike a character. We’ll only see them in a negative light, beating down on the protagonist, always having more, better, cooler things than they have, etc. I like to be able to think for myself. If you have a villain, then I want to like/dislike them on my own terms. As authors, our job is to present characters as they are. Because your protagonist and villain are both people, there’s going to be stuff that’s good and bad about both of them (and yes, good stuff about your villain). I’m going to write about villainy later because villains are no joke my favorites, but the abbreviated version is: your villain has their pros and cons. The more a reader sees both, the more believable and real an antagonist, or any character, becomes.
Balancing feeding in information without giving away too much is tricky. You want all the pieces you’ve so carefully sprinkled in to snap together at the climax and have the reader’s heart pounding as the protag scrambles to do What They Must Do. Study how your favorite authors have left you clues. Read your peers’ work and figure out where they reveal too much– when you were able to spot something crucial too soon. Start pulling together a group of loyal betas and fearless critique partners who are willing to tell you honestly what characters aren’t believable, what plot twists they spotted miles away, and what seemed like a deus ex machina.
Knowing the Stakes are Low: Another thing that turns me off in reading is dreams. (Prefacing this: if you have a creative way to incorporate dreams into your ms, awesome, you’re golden– or like anything in writing, if you can do it well enough, you can get away with it. Just make sure you can do it well enough.) When a reader knows they’re in a dream, they also know that the stakes are low. I mean, for serious, what’s the worst thing that could happen? Your character wakes up. Whoop-de-dah. So what if they wake up terrified? It’s not like they actually lost that arm or anything.
The problem with dreams is that the stakes are very low. We’re partway checked out of the emotions a character feels because we know the dream isn’t real. And when a character wakes up from something we were convinced was real, we feel cheated, like all those times we were on edge for this person didn’t matter because hey, it was just a dream all along. Low stakes = low interest. As a little kid, I would deliberately read books until I’d gotten the characters to a “safe place” midway where they weren’t being threatened and then stop. Don’t let your reader stop.
Dreams sometimes also fall into the too-much-obvious-foreshadowing category above. It’s not hard to make the leap from “Dominic has a recurring dream of a sinister, rusted iron fence, a car’s tires screaming, then nothing, and oh yeah coincidentally he also has this weird scar that he doesn’t know how he got” to “Dominic was once seriously injured in a car accident and he’s blocked the memory out.”
So what can you do? Well, knowledge is power. Knowing that these are some things trip up readers might help you start to pick them out in your writing. You’re writing for someone as smart as you are but who’s never seen your work before. Part of what makes this so hard is that it’s difficult to spot where you’re not connecting with a reader. Starting to work with critique partners or beta readers is extremely useful. Even if you don’t work together forever, you’ll have an idea of what someone else thinks about your story.
Most of all, don’t get discouraged! Writing is a process, it takes basically forever, and while your improvements may seem invisible, you’re still making them. Like Kate, I’ll also encourage you to check out the #keepgoing hashtag on twitter for some writerly “a year ago” tweets, and to just remember that we’re all here with you. You can do it, so keep going.
Alex Yuschik interns for Entangled Publishing and can be found on twitter @alexyuschik.