Do you know what entices a reader’s brain and what frustrates it? I enjoy learning about how brains work, and as a writer I particularly appreciate Lisa Cron’s book Wired for Story, which uses brain science to explain how to create a satisfying story.
I have combined what I’ve learned from Wired for Story with the insights gleaned from years of writing conferences and classes to develop what I call the Secrets of Story World. Understanding the rules that govern Story World will help writers avoid the blunders that frustrate readers and instead craft stories that readers will love. Here are five blunders to keep an eye out for.
1) Allowing key events to happen off-screen
An editor friend complains that she sees this mistake all too frequently. Manuscripts lack impact or get bogged down in explanations when key events happen off-screen. Stories grip readers when they see how the plot affects the characters. A good story lets the important events unfold on the page so the reader can observe how those events impact the characters’ emotions and decisions.
Two types of off-screen scenes that cause trouble:
- Important events are told second-hand rather than allowing the reader to experience them through the eyes of a POV character.
- Important events are treated as backstory rather than part of the plot. Some scenes don’t make sense without the context of a previous event. The wise writer includes all plot-critical events in “real time” rather than attempting to provide sufficient explanations later.
Story World Secret: Apply the Show Don’t Tell rule to your scenes. Don’t tell the reader about key events after they’ve occurred, instead show all important action in “real time.”
2) Neglecting to explain a character’s motives
I have drummed my fingers through high-action film scenes because the movie never bothered to explain why it was so important that character X risked his life to accomplish Y. Since I didn’t know why it mattered, I didn’t care what happened (no matter how star-studded the cast).
In order to be gripped by a story, readers need to understand what motivates the main characters to act as they do. Furthermore, believable characters should have selfish reasons for their actions. It’s nice that your heroine volunteers at the women’s shelter, but her self-sacrifice won’t connect with readers until you explain her personal motive. Is she atoning for something? Hoping the handsome director will notice her? Looking for her runaway sister?
Story World Secret: In order to care, readers need to understand why characters act the way they do, especially if that reasoning is flawed. Make sure motives are clear.
3) Neglecting to identify the goal of each scene
An experienced writer told me she considered it a major achievement when her editor didn’t eliminate a single scene from her latest manuscript. Writers can spend loads of time editing a scene until the dialogue is snappy and the details are perfect, but if the characters have no specific scene goal, the plot meanders and the scene ends up vague or confusing.
Just as a plot needs an overall story goal, so each scene needs a scene goal. Scene goals keep the plot moving forward and clarify what does and does not belong in each scene.
Story World Secret: When editing your manuscript, type the POV character’s goal at the top of every scene. The more difficult it is to define the goal, the more you should question the purpose of the scene.
4) Allowing inconsistent or random actions
In real life stuff just happens and people do things for no apparent reason, but in Story World everything must make logical sense. Readers expect characters to remain consistent and the plot to follow a cause-and-effect path. Fictional characters should not make random decisions that don’t fit with what has happened thus far.
Be especially wary of this issue with a story based on real events. “But that’s the way it really happened” does not always make the best fiction.
Story World Secret: Things must not appear to happen out of the blue. Make sure the reader can see how every action a character takes results from a previous action or decision.
5) Using distracting or misleading details
Descriptive details are vital in good writing. However, readers assume the writer has filtered out the boring stuff and only provided important information. Therefore, offering readers the wrong details can muck up the story. Here are three kinds of details to avoid:
- Extraneous details. Don’t overload a reader’s brain with too many details. (Today’s readers are quick to skip over them.) Mystery writers intentionally use excessive details to disguise clues. The rest of us should pare descriptions to the most relevant details or risk readers skipping over information we want them to notice.
- Confusing details. Beware of vivid details that confuse the reader by clashing with other facts. Like Blunder #4 above, take care that colorful details make sense for the character or situation.
- Dangling details. Look out for memorable details you toss in for color and then forget about. Mention your character takes fencing lessons and readers will expect fencing to show up sooner or later. Don’t disappoint readers by leaving details dangling.
Story World Secret: Fill your draft with vivid details, but when editing make sure each one has a reason for staying in your manuscript. Are they deepening the story or diluting it? Adding clarity or confusing things?
Lisa E. Betz believes that everyone has a story to tell the world. She loves to encourage fellow writers to be intentional about their craft and courageous in sharing their words with others. Lisa shares her words through dramas, humor articles, historical mysteries, her blog about intentional living and Twitter @LisaEBetz. Lisa also encouraging writers at Almost an Author, where she currently serves as Assistant Managing Editor.