Tag Archive: Reading For Writers 101

Reading for Writers 101: Resolving a Disconnect Between Show & Tell

Sometimes when I’m reading a book, a scene takes me right out of the story because I don’t “buy” it. It’s not that what is taking place is completely implausible, it’s that the writer has not convinced me of its truth. I have faith that a skilled writer can make a reader believe anything. The catch? There must be solid reasons the characters do what they do (aka character motivation), and I blogged about that in this post Reading for Writers 101: Character Motivation. However, the issue I encountered in the book I recently read is not so much a lack of character motivation, but rather a lack of factual actions to back up that motivation.

Reading101-DisconnectShowTellHere’s the situation…

The protagonist (let’s call her Jane) finds out that another character (Diana) did something that endangered others. Jane reacts by wondering if Diana is a psychopath for putting those people in danger. However, Diana has never displayed psychopathic tendencies like a lack of empathy or self-centredness. Instead, Diana’s behaviour indicates she is naive and sheltered and does not understand the consequences of what she did. So when Jane has doubts about Diana, instead of me feeling the same concern Jane does and becoming worried for Jane’s safety, I became annoyed at Jane for having these baseless thoughts, which are later proved to be exactly that – baseless.

This is what I call a “disconnect between show and tell.” The author showed us a character that is clearly not a heartless psychopath, but then had the protagonist tell us that the character might be a psychopath to cast doubt. And I didn’t buy it. Why not?

Because actions speak louder than words. How characters act is more powerful than what other characters say about them. Think of it like evidence in a court case. What is more likely to convince a jury of guilt: a witness saying he saw the suspect shoot the gun, or video footage of the suspect shooting the gun? Obviously the latter. Showing is always more convincing than telling.

But what if a writer purposely wants a disconnect between what’s shown and what’s told? Okay, but for that to work, this needs to happen: acknowledge the disconnect. Either the protagonist or another character has to recognize that their opinion is not based on factual actions; it’s just a hunch. Own it. Readers accept hunches; they do not accept leaps of logic based on nothing.

However, if the disconnect between what’s shown and what’s told is unintentional, fix it by adding actions that support the tell. What behaviour could Diana exhibit that justifies Jane’s suspicions? Of course, the key to this is to show BOTH sides – naive Diana and unempathetic Diana – so Jane (and the reader) are not sure which behaviour is Diana’s true nature, and which might be an act.

After actions are added to support the tell, the writer might realize they can remove the telling completely because the actions themselves establish the doubt. Simply have the protagonist remember the action that makes them doubt the character, and the reader will fill in the blanks. Huzzah!

In conclusion, resolving a disconnect between what’s shown and what’s told often comes down to supporting the tell with action and then removing the tell. And this reinforces the old adage “show don’t tell.” Though not a hard-and-fast rule, there’s a reason this advice is given so much — it can solve a lot of story problems!

 

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Reading for Writers 101 Roundup

Reading101_2A work crisis, a funeral and a deadline have made this week rather chaotic for me, so it is time for a roundup post!

I created the Reading for Writers 101 series because I believe reading critically is an essential component of learning writing craft. Plus the series gives me an outlet to not only express my frustration when I’m disappointed with books (which I never name because, you know, niceness), but to learn from them. And if I’m impressed with a book, I can shout it from the hilltops and share the brilliance! So, without further ado, here are the lessons so far…

(Click on titles to read the full post)

What Book Jackets Teach About a Story’s “Hook”

  • When book jackets lead me to expect something and then do not deliver, I learn the importance of correctly identifying one’s story hook.

Books I Did Not Finish… 3+ Reasons Why

  • I pinpoint the three main reasons I stop reading and make a checklist to ensure I don’t make the same mistakes in my own novel.

Character Change, part 1

  • I examine why character change makes a story worth reading.

Character Change, part 2

  • I outline the three steps of creating character change so it evolves naturally and doesn’t appear out of nowhere.

Is Your Story Ending ‘Right’?

  • It’s hard to get an ending just right, but I’ve come up with three steps to help.

Unreliable Narrators

  • Can unreliable narrators work when written in 1st person tense? It’s tough but doable, so I study two novels that did it well.

Character Motivation

  • I examine two common situations where heroes lack motivation, then offer solutions.

Hope you learn as much from those posts as I did! And next week, if the world doesn’t throw me another curveball, I’ll be back with a new blog post.

 

PS – A great resource for studying stories to learn writing craft is The Story Structure Database. Check it out!

 

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Reading for Writers 101: Character Motivation

I read a lot. And since I’m a writer, reading isn’t just entertainment, it’s instructional. I learn from every book, whether good, bad or middling. That’s what inspired “Reading For Writers 101.”

Today’s lesson: Character Motivation.

Have you ever read a book where the hero does something that seems forced, out-of-character or unbelievable? I have. Lots. And the thing that drives me crazy about this is that it’s such an easy fix! Why? Because fiction writers can literally make up reasons for anything! When a character’s actions are unmotivated, it’s because the writer didn’t create, set up or communicate those motivations. Here are a couple examples and solutions…

CASE STUDY 1: The Stranger With All the Answers

STORY – Something peculiar has happened to the heroine. Maybe she has amnesia, or was bit by a werewolf, or is institutionalized with no explanation. Whatever. Point is, something odd is happening to her and she doesn’t know why and she wants answers. Enter someone (usually a hot guy) that she doesn’t know. He claims to have answers, but for no reason she doesn’t trust him.

Character Motivation CartoonWHY AUTHORS DO THIS – If the heroine trusts the stranger she’d get the answers she needs and the story would quickly come to a conclusion in under 100 pages. Can’t have that! But unless the heroine distrusts everyone, there must be a reason she doesn’t trust this particular guy. In other words, the heroine has to be motivated to distrust the stranger.

POSSIBLE FIXES

  • Have the stranger do something suspicious that makes the heroine doubt what he says.
  • Set up early on that the heroine was kidnapped by a handsome stranger as a child and therefore has trouble trusting good-looking young men.
  • Have the heroine catch the stranger in a lie.
  • … or anything else that makes the stranger seem dangerous or devious.

CASE STUDY 2: The Obtuse Hero

STORY – The hero has a problem that could be solved if he just did X, but for no reason he doesn’t do that and instead gets into more trouble until finally, at the very end, he tries X and succeeds.

WHY AUTHORS DO THIS – There wouldn’t be a story if the hero knew what to do right away. (Are you sensing a pattern?)

POSSIBLE FIXES

  • Give the hero a damn good reason for not just doing X in the beginning, like X will hurt the woman he loves, or X is impossible because of his fear of snakes, or X can’t be done until he does Y.
  • Make the hero incapable (mentally or emotionally) of realizing X will solve his problem. Don’t just have him dumbly ignore the solution; give us a reason he doesn’t see the solution.

This isn’t rocket science. Characters must have reasons (aka motivation) behind their actions. So why do so many characters lack this?

Perhaps the answer is that writers don’t realize their characters’ motivations are unclear. We’ve all been warned not to use too much exposition and not to over-explain the story. Readers are smart! Don’t tell them everything! And this is good advice, but not if it leads to completely hiding your heroine’s motivations.

SPIDERS in Australia

Spiders hanging from trees in Australia

The other explanation could be that the writers think their hero is reacting the way most people would and therefore his motivations don’t need to be spelled out. For example, a writer who is scared of spiders may assume everyone would freak out at the sight of a huge, harry huntsman spider. But have you ever been to Australia? Big arachnids are everywhere and the locals are used to them and not afraid. So a reader from Australia would certainly wonder why a fearless hero is suddenly freaking out over a harmless spider. Don’t make the mistake of assuming everyone has the same perspective as you or your character.

Beta readers will help with both of these things: unclear motivation and assumed motivation. It’s best to get a few beta readers with different perspectives.

Or if you’re still developing the story and are not sure if your character’s actions make sense, describe the scene to a few people, tell them to put themselves in the hero’s shoes, and ask what they would do and why. Their answers should point out if your character is ignoring an obvious solution and give you a sense of what would motivate a real person in that situation.

Finally, don’t confuse “motivation” with the hero’s “goal.” A goal is what the hero wants; motivation is why he wants it. If you’re mixing up the two you’ll find yourself saying things like, “The hero foolishly risked his life because he has to save the princess.” Instead of, “The hero foolishly risked his life because he loves the princess so much he’d rather die than live without her.” In other words, motivation is not plot points, it is emotions. And with the myriad of emotions available to us human beings, it shouldn’t be a problem to find one or two that motivate your hero to do even the craziest of things!

Next Up from Heather… I reveal the secret to how I’m keeping my new year’s resolution to be more productive.

 

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Reading for Writers 101: Narrators

I should start calling this the “Spoilers” series, because if you haven’t read CODE NAME VERITY by Elizabeth Wein or DANGEROUS GIRLS by Abby MacDonald, stop reading this post right now. Heck, I’m not even going to tell you the real topic of discussion until you read those books. Go!

Did you read them? Okay, let’s begin…

Today’s lesson: Unreliable Narrators

I know. I didn’t even want to put the “u” word in the title and give it away. That said, I won’t reveal any major plot points from these two novels aside from the fact that their narrators can’t be trusted.

But first I should clarify that there are two ways to use Unreliable Narrators: 1) from the beginning so the reader knows or at least suspects the narrator is unreliable, or 2) as an end twist, an oh-my-gosh-that-is-what-really-happened surprise. Obviously we’re going to talk about the latter today or I wouldn’t need the spoiler warning. I don’t want to ruin books for you!

BookCover-UnreliableNarratorsWithin the two ways to use Unreliable Narrators, there are different ways a narrator can be unreliable. William Riggan wrote a book in 1981 classifying unreliable narrators into 5 main types:

  • Braggart: A narrator who exaggerates or brags and thus distorts the facts of the story’s events.
  • Madman: A narrator suffering from any type of mental illness that affects their perception of reality.
  • Clown: A narrator who does not take things seriously and plays with conventions, truth and the reader’s expectations.
  • Naif: A narrator whose perception is immature or limited.
  • Liar: A narrator who deliberately misrepresents him/herself.

An important thing to note is that the first four types each have a built-in reason for being unreliable: it’s part of their personality. But the fifth type, the liar, needs a plausible reason for not letting the reader know the truth. This is especially important when writing in the 1st person. If the reader is in the narrator’s head, how can the narrator lie? Because that would mean the narrator is lying to him/herself, right? And we’d classify that kind as a Madman or Naif.

So can the Liar type be written in 1st person? Yes, and here are two examples…

CODE NAME VERITY

Book Cover - Code Name VerityThis novel is written in first person so you feel just like you’re in the narrator’s head, but you’re not. What’s actually happening is the narrator is writing a story for someone else, and though she’s writing it in first person, the reader is never wise to her private thoughts (i.e. that she’s lying), so it totally works! It’s a neat trick to pull on the reader – make us feel like we’re in the narrator’s mind so we don’t even suspect that what she’s saying isn’t true. This novel could have been written in the 3rd person, but then I think the reader would guess the narrator was lying due to the nature of her predicament.

 

DANGEROUS GIRLS

BookCover-DangerousGirlsIn this novel, the reader is in the narrator’s head, so when I first read the end twist, I didn’t buy it. How could we not know the narrator was lying if we were privy to her thoughts? But then it occurred to me that there might be a way to do this, so I went back and reread parts of the book and discovered two crucial things:

1) The narrator never expresses remorse or claims she’s innocent except in dialogue. She never thinks she’s sorry or innocent, she only tells other characters that she is. Holy crap! I completely didn’t notice that while reading! But it’s there and makes the twist plausible because the narrator never lies to herself or the reader, just to the other characters in the story. Well played.

Okay, but there was one other thing that was bothering me – the flashbacks. These were written as if the narrator really had no idea what happened or what she did in the present. How is that possible? Well…

2) The whole novel is written in present tense, even the flashbacks. Those past scenes were told from the narrator’s POV as she experienced it back then, not now. So the narrator doesn’t have to lie in those flashbacks because she legitimately does not yet know what is going to happen. Mind blown!

So there you have it folks: two ways to make an Unreliable Liar Narrator work with a 1st person POV. Do you have any other examples? What are your favorite unreliable narrators?

More in the Reading For Writers 101 series:

–       Is Your Story Ending ‘Right’?

–       Character Change Can’t Come Out Of Nowhere!

–       How Character Change Makes A Story More Satisfying

–       What Book Jackets Teach About A Story’s “Hook”

–       Books I Did Not Finish… 3+ Reasons Why

Next Up from Heather… Now I want to reread FIGHT CLUB and talk about that narrator too, but I probably won’t have time to finish it in a week. Instead, I’m figuring out the Writer’s Back-To-School To Do List.

For more posts from Heather, click here.

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Reading for Writers 101: Is Your Story Ending ‘Right’?

BookCover-MockingjayI read the first book of The Hunger Games series when it came out six years ago. Then I read the next one when it was released. Before the third and final book of the series arrived, I pre-ordered the box set.

And put it on my shelf. For years.

It’s not that I didn’t want to read it. I did. It’s just that the books literally take me away from the world for hours. I never seemed to have a whole day free to read Mockingjay. And, who am I kidding, maybe I was just scared for it to be over. Why? Because endings are hard. What if I was let down?

I stress about endings in my own writing. Is the ending impactful enough to touch readers’ hearts? Is the ending surprising enough to blow readers’ minds? Is it satisfying enough to live up to readers’ expectations? Is the ending right?

Right. This is the hardest requirement to determine. When plotting a story, there seem to be so many ways it could end, but there’s only one right way and it all comes down to the hero.

So did the Hunger Games let me down or did the ending feel right? Here’s what I think… [Warning: spoilers coming.]

First, the world Suzanne Collins set up is brutal and realistic. Humans have proven throughout history to be capable of atrocious cruelty towards their fellow man, and the past makes it clear that everything is not solved even if “the good guys” win the war. So I had no expectations of a perfectly happy ending. Second, the heroine Collins’ created is a prickly personality driven by a need to do what she thinks is right not what is nice or expected. Because of that, Katniss constantly defies authority. She never intends to become a rebel, but she’s naturally rebellious.

Throughout the series, Katniss battles with what is right, who to trust, and when to rebel. This all comes to a head in the final pages of Mockingjay when she kills the person we don’t expect. But it had to be done. It was the only way to free Panem from The Hunger Games. And only Katniss could do it.

As for how the love triangle wrapped up, this was inevitable. I admit I was a member of Team Gale for the first two books, but in Mockingjay it becomes obvious that Gale isn’t the right partner for a PTSD suffering Katniss. Only Peeta understands. Their end reunion isn’t particularly romantic, but it’s true to Katniss’s personality – she’s never been spontaneous or lovey-dovey, so it makes sense that a relationship would take time to grow with Peeta and not be instantly awesome.

So yes, the ending of The Hunger Games trilogy felt right. Resolving it differently wouldn’t make sense for the hero. Katniss was never going to lead Panem – she didn’t want to be a leader or be responsible for people. Katniss was never going to end up with Gale – living through The Hunger Games had changed her too much from the girl she was in the woods.

Yet if the ending was right, why did some people dislike it? Well, “like” is subjective. People enjoy different kinds of stories, and one story won’t please every reader. The only thing authors can do is ensure the ending is earned and true to character.

3 Key Steps to Make an Ending Right

  1. Set up that the hero has the skills to win the battle all along so that when they win, it feels earned. For example, if Katniss had always been a crappy shot with a bow and arrow but in the final moments made a perfect shot to kill the president, that ending would be unearned. A hero can develop this winning skill over the course of the story, but it cannot come out of nowhere to save the day.
  2. Respect the hero. Don’t make her do something because you need the story to turn out a certain way. Think of her as a real person and ask what would she really do? Or if you really need her to do that thing that doesn’t jive with her personality, go back to page one and redevelop her into the hero you need her to be for the story’s end.
  3. Obey cause and effect. Characters can change and surprise readers, but the authors have to lay the groundwork. I was surprised when Katniss shot Coin instead of Snow (effect), but it works because Coin reinstated The Hunger Games (cause). That was why Katniss did it – she had proof that Panem would be no better under Coin than Snow and therefore Coin was the real threat who had to be stopped.

Even if you apply these three steps, endings are hard. You’ll never please everyone! And you shouldn’t try. But as long as you’re true to your characters, the ending won’t be wrong.

 

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Next Up from Heather… I discover the Mirror Moment that will help me write my hero’s character arc.

For more posts from Heather, click here.

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Reading For Writers 101: Character Change, part 2

ReadingForWriters101Last week’s lesson was about how Character Change makes a story more satisfying, and I evoked the good name of James Bond to make my point. Audiences and readers, now more than ever, want characters who grow and evolve. But figuring out your character’s change is just one step; you also need to develop how that change occurs.

Today’s lesson: Character Change can’t come out of nowhere!

So I was reading this book and the middle section (what we screenwriters refer to as Act II) was a bit boring. However, I soldiered onward because it was a book club read and I needed to finish it. Near the end of Act II, the main character learned something about herself and had an epiphany: “So that’s what’s wrong with me! Now that I’m aware of this flaw, I can overcome it in order to achieve my goal!” For those familiar with Blake Snyder’s SAVE THE CAT beat sheet, this is a classic Dark Night of the Soul + B-Story moment. For the uninitiated, what that means is at the end of Act II, the main character is beaten, down in the dumps, left for dead, or any other version of hopeless defeat. She’ll never achieve her goal now! But then, usually because of something the B-Story character has imparted upon her (read this post for more on that), she realizes what she’s been doing wrong all this time and heads into Act III (the Finale) armed with the knowledge to change herself and triumph!

Hence the three steps of Creating Character Change:

  1. Change comes from a personal flaw set up in Act I.
  2. That flaw must prevent the character from achieving their goal in Act II.
  3. Overcoming that flaw helps the character triumph in Act III.

But in the book I was reading, the character’s end-of-Act-II epiphany fell flat because, though the author had figured out step one and three, she hadn’t done step two.

If step two is overlooked, the character’s change comes out of nowhere and is wholly unsatisfying. Flaws must create trouble for characters and impede their goals. For example, if the character’s flaw is “blindly following authority and not thinking for herself” then throughout Act II there must be numerous moments when following orders actually makes things worse for the character.

This is why I was so bored in the middle of that book. Though the author had touched on the character’s flaw so its existence wasn’t a total surprise, the flaw never held the character back. And that meant there was no conflict. The character moved from plot point to plot point with relative ease, instead of being thwarted by her flaw.

So don’t forget Step 2. It’s common to miss it because we’re often concentrating on how the antagonist and the external forces fight against our protagonist, and not how the protagonist is inadvertently fighting herself. But if you want readers to really connect with your character, give her a flaw she doesn’t even recognize at first, have it dog her for the whole story, then give her a chance to overcome it in the end. Because, really, that’s what character growth (of both fictional people and readers) is all about.

More in the Reading For Writers 101 series…

Next Up from Heather… I go into more detail about Act II (aka the “Mushy Middle”).

For more posts by Heather, click here!

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Reading For Writers 101: Character Change, part 1

CharacterChange

My inner kid explains character change.

I read a lot. And since I’m a writer, reading isn’t just entertainment, it’s instructional. I learn from every book, whether good, bad or middling. That’s what inspired “Reading For Writers 101.”

Today’s lesson: Why character change makes a story worth reading.

Months ago I read a book where, frankly, the main character was a precocious, spoiled brat. I hated her but continued reading because I expected her to change – encounter some hard knocks, setbacks and meaningful life experiences that would transform her in the end. After all, a story’s purpose is to dramatize a life-changing moment. Whatever happens it should affect the characters for the rest of their totally-made-up-but-true-to-the-reader lives!

So when this character remained a brat to the very last page, I was super disappointed. But why? It wasn’t because I disliked her. I’ve enjoyed many stories with unlikeable protagonists, some who started out that way, and some who ended up that way. The difference is all went through some kind of change. What is it about “character change” that makes a story more satisfying?

It comes down to two things: 1) Affect, and 2) Meaning.

No one writes about the office worker who goes to work day in and day out and… that’s it. That’s not a story. Something has to change for there to be a story, and that change must affect the character.

For example, in the book I read, people are being murdered and the main character is helping with the investigation, yet she seems wholly unaffected – she continues to be more preoccupied with the social scene than the murders. Sure, she claims to be “worried” and “scared” there’s a murderer loose, but those declarations are unconvincing because her behavior hasn’t changed.

At this point I was annoyed, but I kept reading because I thought surely, by the end of this book, these gruesome murders will change her! After all, if the character is not affected by the events of the story, what’s the point of the telling it? Why would readers care?

The short answer is: they won’t. The long answer leads to a discussion of humanity’s obsession with finding meaning in our lives. We humans search for meaning everywhere – in coincidences, in tragedies, in love, in death, and especially in stories. Which is why when a character goes on a journey and comes out the other side unaffected, we feel let down. We want to see them overcome their faults and change! Or, on the flip side, succumb to their flaws and self-destruct. We don’t want to believe that the experience meant nothing and affected no one.

Of course, there are exceptions to everything. Especially in such genres as mystery and action-thriller, character change isn’t always present. However, as our culture’s storytelling chops evolve, so do the audience’s expectations. More and more they want to see character growth, not just a solved mystery or thwarted bad guys.

The classic example of an unchanging character is James Bond (movie version), but in the most recent film (“Skyfall”) the writers gave Bond an emotional issue to overcome that forced him to be a different man by the end of the film. Audiences still got all the excitement and mystery of a Bond movie, but with the extra bonus of seeing a more human side of Bond, a side searching for meaning, a side the average person can relate to.

Unlike the girl in that book who was all, “Oh yeah, murders are happening, and sure, I’m scared, but really I just want to go to this party and show off my pretty dress and maybe meet a boy who tells me I’m pretty. What? Am I supposed to care about those dead people?” Ugh. By the end of the book I just wanted the murderer to kill her. Probably not the reaction the author wanted me to have.

Simply put, the elements of Character Change (Affect + Meaning) lead to a Human Connection with the reader.

We all want readers to connect with our characters, so next week’s lesson is about how to make sure you, the writer, pull off this character change. It’s not easy. We’ve all read books that tried, but fell flat. I’ll teach you how to not make the same mistakes.

More in the Reading For Writers 101 series…

Next Up from Heather… Character Change Part 2: It can’t come out of nowhere! I’ll write about how to set up this important story element.

Click here for more posts from Heather.

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Reading For Writers 101: Books I Did Not Finish… 3+ Reasons Why

101 photo 1I always have a pile of books on my bedside table. This month in particular I checked out more books from the library than I had time to read. At one point the pile was twelve high! Craziness! How could I possibly read them all? Well, since I have a job and stuff I’m trying to accomplish (like finish my own novel), I can’t. There’s not enough time to read every book that has a nifty premise or garners great reviews or wins awards. So the simple solution is… don’t finish every book.

[Insert collective *GASP OF HORROR* from reading purists.]

Some people believe if you start a book, you must finish that book. But why? With over 2 million books published each year, there’s no reason to settle for a book you’re just not that into! I’d rather not waste my time. Then again, reading is never a complete waste of time for a writer. Even when I don’t finish a book, I learn from it…

Today’s lesson: Books I Did Not Finish… 3+ Reasons Why.

We all have different likes and dislikes, genre preferences, time restraints, etc. A novel I put down after 50 pages could be someone else’s favorite book ever! With that in mind, the reasons listed below are mine alone and certainly don’t apply to everyone…

1.    Boredom. This is the #1 reason I put down a book. I read because I want to be entertained, not put to sleep. But boredom is a broad term, so I’ve broken it down into sources of boredom:

  • Protagonist has no goal. A goal is what makes me interested in the main character. Without that, I have no reason to stick with this character for hundreds of pages, no matter how witty or mysterious she may be. But if the protagonist has a goal, I’ll keep reading to find out whether or not she achieves it.
  • I don’t care about the protagonist. Even if the character’s goal is to save her lover from certain death, if she is unsympathetic, robotic or annoying, I won’t care about her plight. And if I don’t care, I’m bored and moving on.
  • Nothing happens. The character wants something and is totally likeable / sympathetic / interesting… but doesn’t take action. Nothing bores me more than a character who just thinks about what to do instead of doing it.
  • No conflict. The character is pursuing her goal and stuff is happening… but there’s no conflict. One action just leads to the next without obstacles (physical and emotional). If the journey is too easy, the goal too attainable, I get bored.

2.    Writing Style. This is definitely a matter of personal taste, but here’s what makes me stop reading…

  • Pacing. Too slow is usually my reason for putting a book down. This is probably why I read more YA than adult literature. YA novels are generally paced faster. Though if the pace is too fast an author runs the risk of the reader not getting to know the characters well enough to care. But honestly, I rarely encounter that.
  • Dialogue. Some people don’t like novels with a lot of dialogue. I’m totally fine with dialogue as long as it’s good. As a screenwriter, nothing makes me cringe more than pages of conversation so wordy and on-the-nose no one would ever say it. Tip: read dialogue out loud to make sure it sounds natural.
  • Description. I used to say that I didn’t like too much description, but I now realize that’s not true. I love description. In fact, if I can’t picture what is happening in my head, I feel the author’s prose is lacking. BUT the key is to describe only what matters. I’ll stop reading if the author constantly chronicles details that are irrelevant to the protagonist’s plight.

3.    Believability. This doesn’t mean I only read real-life stories. I love reading sci-fi and fantasy too. Believability isn’t “that can happen in my world”, it’s “that can happen in the world of this novel.” If the story isn’t believable, I lose faith in the author, and that’s another reason to stop reading.

  • Authenticity. Authors have leeway with this if they’re creating their own fantasy or sci-fi world, but authors writing contemporary or historical fiction better have personal experience or do their research. Or both!
  • Science. The popularity of action movies shows many people don’t care if the laws of nature are obeyed. Personally, I can look past cars exploding that would never actually blow up from a single gun shot, but I can’t look past the protagonist who was shot in the leg and is running like an Olympic gold medalist the very next day.
  • Character. I get mad when a smart character does something stupid without good reason. The thing is, writers can make their characters do anything as long as they set it up properly. Does that smart character always lose her head when a certain someone is around? Well that explains why she messed up! Bottom line, if she does something uncharacteristic, there must be a reason or it’s not believable and the character ceases to be real in the readers’ minds. And when that happens, I lose interest in the character and, you guessed it, stop reading.

These reasons for not finishing books have become a “What Not To Do” checklist for my own writing. Especially the “Boredom” category. I’ve noticed if I’m struggling to write a scene, it’s usually because I’m bored with it. Why? Have I forgotten about my character’s goal? Is there a lack of conflict? Is my character acting like a robot? It’ll be one of those things, and I’d better fix it and not give anyone a reason to stop reading my novel.

What about the books you didn’t finish or struggled to get through? What made you stop reading? What did you learn from them and how has that helped you become a better writer?

Next Up from Heather… Write, Revise, Repeat – Are You Stuck in a Rut? (Or am I?)

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Reading For Writers 101: What Book Jackets Teach About A Story’s “Hook”

101 photo 1I read a lot. And since I’m a writer, reading isn’t just entertainment, it’s instructional. I learn from every book, whether good, bad or middling. Because of this, I’ve decided to start a blog series called “Reading For Writers 101” about all the writerly things one can learn from reading books.

Today’s lesson: Book Jackets that LIE.

Recently I’ve encountered many books that disappointed me because the book jacket led me to expect certain things and then did not deliver. Let me give you a couple cryptic examples…

The first book jacket promises a haunting mystery about a heroine who can’t remember anything about the night all her friends died and she survived. Instead, the book is a Twilight-esque romance where the heroine promptly forgets about her dead friends when she meets a mysterious, hot, rich, foreign-accented boy.

The second book jacket promises a heroine who becomes a paranormal creature and must balance her new paranormal life with her regular life. Instead, over a hundred pages later, the heroine still doesn’t know what’s happening to her even though it’s obvious to the reader because we read the book jacket.

The problem in these two very different examples lies with the novel’s “hook.” The hook is what draws you to a book, piques your interest, and makes you want to read it. The hook attracts readers.

The first book uses a whole different genre to hook readers. The mystery is the most intriguing part of the story, and then it is largely ignored. Not cool! A hook drives the story. It’s not an add-on to make the story more interesting. If you find yourself pitching a book with a hook that doesn’t have much to do with the actual story, either redefine your hook or rewrite your story. Because the two should match.

The second book doesn’t mislead the reader about genre. In fact, I think it gets the hook right, but gets the story structure wrong. The mistake it makes is very common, and is a mistake I’ve made myself – too much set up. If the hook is what is intriguing about the story, what draws the reader in, it should happen at the beginning, not halfway through the novel. Otherwise, there’s no suspense because the reader knows what is going to happen and is impatient for the story (that the book jacket promised) to start.

Reading these novels and their book jackets made me think of what would be on the jacket for the novel I’m currently writing. What’s my hook? How do I pitch this story? And I noticed something – whenever I told people about my book, I told them about the second half. So I tried to pitch the book with just what happened in the first quarter… and it wasn’t as intriguing. Reality sunk in; I was making the “too much set up” mistake!

And this is why reading not-so-great novels is useful. We all make these mistakes. Instead of getting angry and ranting about the injustice of said crummy book being published, take a hard look at your own writing and make sure you’re not doing the same thing. Trust me. I know the set up rules, but I really thought that that was where my story started. I was wrong, but these mistakes can be hard to spot until you see someone else make them.

Learn from the greats, but also learn from the books that don’t quite pull it off.

Next Up from Heather… How to enjoy the holidays even though you don’t really get a holiday because you’re a writer and you are ALWAYS writing!

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