Friends and readers, you have reached the final installment of Building Your Own Boat, a craft-centered column for fellow self-taught writers in progress. Thank you for sticking with me!
If there is such a thing as a golden rule in the writing of fiction, it is that you must keep the reader engaged. A “likable” main character or at the very least a relatable one? Story beats? Genre tropes and conventions or the clever subversion of them? Exposition to help the reader understand and navigate the rules of the world before launching into the central conflict or none at all? All that is window dressing if your reader becomes bored and puts down the book.
To be clear, I am not saying you should toss out all the guidelines, craft notes, and plotting advice you have collected up to this point. What I am saying is that it is okay if your draft doesn’t fit neatly into a three or five-act structure, Save the Cat beat sheet, or other recognized model. It is okay to break a rule or two to serve your story. But the last thing you want to do is waste your reader’s time. You need to keep them engaged.
A Caveat on Subjectivity and “Rules”
With rule-breaking in mind, please take the advice that follows with a grain of salt. I am, after all, just one individual with a particular, sometimes arbitrary set of tastes that will likely change and evolve over time.
Consider and adopt whichever recommendations work for you, and try not to worry about the rest.
Keep Your Reader Engaged
So if the only rule is to engage the reader, how do you accomplish it? If I’m working on a story that, despite my best efforts, refuses to position itself neatly into a recognizable story shape, I use the following three goals to frame my writing and rewriting process.
- Be Brief.
- Be Specific.
- Be Gorgeous.
If you are reading this, you probably already recognize the value of brevity in writing. We are counseled by peers, mentors, and editors to ensure each word or sentence serves a purpose and justifies its inclusion in the final draft. There is no surer way to tire your reader than to clutter your manuscript with pages of unnecessary information or passages overburdened with unintentionally pedantic prose.
Do I always love the ruthless cutting and paring involved in the writing process? No, but in doing so, I almost always improve a piece. The pressure of a shorter word limit often forces me to tighten a story’s pacing, momentum, and escalation, clarify its through-line, and craft a stronger ending.
As you revise your next manuscript, I encourage you to ask these questions. Does each line/paragraph/scene move the action forward? Does it add new or key information? Does the piece function or have the same effect without it?
For me, specificity is the key to believable, memorable characters who readers care enough about to follow to the last word of a piece. Tell me your main character works in a restaurant, and I might be interested enough to keep reading. Give me the ache in her knees and lower back at hour five of her shift, the flutter of panic in her chest at the start of the lunch rush, the smell of drip coffee hissing on the burner, how her hands move as she anxiously checks and re-checks that her apron ties are smoothed flat against her waist, and I will begin to see her as real. I might even begin to understand her perspective of the world, and I will definitely be engaged enough to keep reading.
It can be tempting, especially when wrestling with a big question or timely message in your work, to widen the scope of a piece. Specificity can keep such work from verging on the strictly didactic and keep your reader engaged throughout. Ground your work in the precise, intimate, partial, flawed, and ultimately human experience of a character and you allow the reader to enter the story, to feel the consequences of larger events on a deeply personal level.
This final aim to be gorgeous, comes from the sublime Ursula K. Le Guin and an exercise in her influential work Steering the Craft.
There are times I become so preoccupied with addressing technical or plot-related aspects of a piece that I lose sight of the primary reason I write. And what am I here for, if not in part for the sheer joy of working with language? The truth is too that readers respond to beautifully crafted work that evokes emotion. There’s a reason most of us don’t read technical manuals cover to cover for entertainment.
So write with flair and for pleasure. Manipulate rhythm, repetition, and the musicality of language. Delight in the sound of your sentences. Be beautiful and irresistible, constructing sentences that make apathy impossible for your readers. Write the great, true, gorgeous sentences that speak to both your writer’s and reader’s heart.
A Final Prompt
Write a short but complete story in which some sort of secret is revealed. This secret can be anything from the quotidian (an extra box of holiday chocolate hidden from the children in the back of a cupboard) to the surreal (an intergalactic conspiracy to conceal the formula of a serum that grants immortality).
Aim for between 500 and 1200 words. Be brief, but specific, and of course, gorgeous.
The elder daughter of Korean-Canadian and Austrian immigrants, F.E. Choe currently lives in Columbia, South Carolina. When she is not at her desk trying to craft true and beautiful sentences or piecing together her latest short story, you will find her feeding the dog scraps under the table, reading, or training her backyard flock of hens to walk backwards. Follow her on Instagram @f.e.choe.