Is your plot skeleton showing?

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

I started writing short stories eighteen months ago. Seduced by the competitions and submission opportunities, I thought it would be easy money and acclaim – spend a week (or a weekend) writing 500-3,000 words, hit send, and wait for the shortlist nominations to roll in.

Ha.

Needless to say, the reality does not match the fiction. When my initial efforts failed to fire, I got frustrated. But I was still seduced by the bright lights, so I kept writing and submitting. And then something strange happened – I fell in love with the short story form. And I committed myself to teaching myself on how to write a great one.

And that’s when I started reading short stories. I know, I know – how did I think I could write a short story when I wasn’t reading them? Like I said, I was naive – I thought I could just apply my novel writing sensibilities. It was still writing. It was just with less words.

Ha.

I’ve been trying to uncover and distil the magic behind great short stories for a year now. And it was only last night – while I was sitting in a French bistrot in the middle of Sydney, drinking the perfect Hendricks G&T, reading Lincoln in the Bardo, and waiting to see George Saunders at the Sydney Writers Festival – that I got a taste of it.

And, happily, it’s something that can be applied to both short stories and novels.

 

Decoding the Special Sauce

George Saunders is a master storyteller. I’ve read and re-read so many of his short stories, and each time I find myself challenged, entertained, enlightened, inspired, and (to be honest) a little awestruck. When I first tried to figure out the special sauce ingredients, I could see the things that other people had found: efficiency of prose, specificity, sensory details, evocative nouns and verbs, authentic dialogue, empathetic characterisation. But, for me, I still couldn’t figure out the super secret ingredient.

It’s like this. Geppetto was a fine craftsman; he could carve the most beautiful puppet, perfectly shape it and paint it – but without that fairy and her sparkly wand, Pinocchio would have stayed a pretty lump of wood.

You can have a strong plot and turn a pretty phrase, but that only makes a story good. You need something else to make it great.

It’s all about the plot

So, last night, as I was sitting there, reading the first few pages of Lincoln in the Bardo, it all came together in one KO sucker-punch. The magic ingredient – the thing that makes  a good story great, the je ne sais quoi that (is part of what) makes George Saunders a literary genius –  is how the plot is treated.

Anyone who has read my blog before knows that I am obsessed with plot – how to create a compelling, coherent, plausible arc of character development and events that tells a story of change, growth, and resolution. Having a plot is essential for good storytelling – stories have to have purpose and meaning, otherwise they are just pretty words on the page (and pretty words on the page do not make a story).

Knowing how to plot is important, but (as I learned last night), how you show it is just as important.

With Saunders’ work, you can sense the plot is there but you never see it. There’s a strong sense of structural integrity, of the story moving in a certain direction and with purpose, but it never makes itself openly apparent. Lincoln in the Bardo is a classic example of this – there’s no narrative exposition; the story is told, not explained. The plot is always inferred – through character actions and dialogue – never shown.

The Red Bow (which you can read here) is another brilliant example (and perhaps my favourite Saunders’ short). Throughout the story, you’re never in doubt about the plot,  but you never see it directly – it reveals itself in a process of discovery and you discover deeper layers of it as you read.

woman with black and white body paint covering half of her face with her hands

IMAGE by Joshua Fuller on Unsplash

 

Exoskeleton vs Endoskeleton

The plot is the skeleton of any story, but stories can be exoskeletal (skeleton on the outside) or endoskeletal (skeleton on the inside). And the best ones, in my opinion, are endoskeletal – always hinting at the plot (a sense of purpose and direction, a sense of structural integrity and solidity, a sense of shape and dimensions) but never actually shining a direct light on it.

In this way, a great story is a sleight of hand – a watch that hides its mechanisms below the face, a magic trick that never openly reveals its secrets, a puzzle to be solved. It is a decadent meal at a fancy restaurant without knowing the recipe, the sensation of rain on bare skin without analysing the chemical composition of the water droplets, the magic of listening to a piece of music on the radio without needing to understand the science and technology behind the recording and transmission.

The plot never pushes beyond its role as structure into narrative. (Bones protruding from the body is never pleasant – better to cover them with flesh and skin and hair).

So, while plot is something that every writer should know intimately, it is also something that should never be directly shared with the reader. When plot skeletons start showing, it is a red flag that you have moved into explaining the story, rather than telling it.

Monica Ali, in her judge’s report of the 2018 Bridport Prize, wrote:

Reading through this year’s entries I thought a lot about what makes a great short story truly great. The best ones make the back of your neck tingle. They make you feel newly alive to the world. They suck you in fast, and they do it by weaving character, setting, story, voice, dialogue and whatever other elements of the craft, into a scene that makes you wonder what will happen next, what has happened before. Many of the less successful stories, though fluently written, relied too heavily on narrative summary, so that the reader was kept at a distance, relying on second hand information instead of watching the story unfold.

There’s a lot of writing advice out there about “show don’t tell”, but maybe another way of saying that is “tell the story, don’t explain it”.


WHAT ABOUT YOU? ARE YOU STRUGGLING TO BE PLOT-STRONG, BUT NOT PLOT-HEAVY? TELL ME ABOUT IT IN THE COMMENTS!

 

Divided Elements - Book 1 and 2
You can now purchase Resistance, the award-winning first book in the dystopian Divided Elements series, and its sequel, Rebellion,  from awesome bookstores and ebook sites around the world.

Click here to start reading now!

 

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Is your plot skeleton showing?

Energising your plot

One-sentence theme: Working with narrative energy to improve story pacing 

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

As most of you know, I’m in the second act doldrums of my current WIP (but not for long, because the break into the Act III is just around the corner – take that, writer insecurity!). Like most writers, this is a time of despair, and self-loathing, and doubt, and pretty much staring at the page and cursing its blankness. But also, for me, it is a time of introspection – I’m the sort of person, when faced with a problem, will keep attacking it until I solve it. I don’t cut knots off, I tease them out.

I’ve been stuck, this week, in a chapter where nothing really seems to happen. There’s a lot of things in motion, and there’s definitely forward momentum, but it’s all one foot in front of the other (some more hesitantly than others). When, if I were to follow my own advice of ‘every scene needs conflict’, it would be more a case of one step forward and then two steps back (preferably because something big and terrifying and intimidating had shoved it).

So here I am, in this problematic chapter (which comprises three scenes of 400, 600, and 300 words, respectively), and I’m trying to figure out what to do with it. I’m close to the my third act, where I know the action and conflict will come on in spades; I don’t want to manufacture conflict when all I need to do is really drive these characters to the trigger for Act III; I know that I need to keep things at a sufficient level of tension to not let this sucker drop below the lifeline threshold (and commit my poor WIP to the slow death of a saggy middle).

And anyway, I started thinking, what if every chapter needed conflict, but every scene just needed energy.

(Now I fully appreciate that this may just be me indulging in delusional wishful-thinking – so call me out in the comments if you need to. I’n kind of just spitballing this in a stream of consciousness, so we’ll see how it plays out…)

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Photo by Max Bender on Unsplash

Two primary types of energy

When we talk about energy, we are talking about two primary types:

KINETIC and POTENTIAL

Kinetic energy is energy possessed by something in motion.

Potential energy is energy possessed by something because of its relative position to something else.

So far, so good – it’s easy to see how both concepts can be applied to fictional narratives: scenes with kinetic energy have direct, obvious, tangible conflict – bodies and things in motion; scenes with potential energy have the promise of conflict only because of where they sit in relation to other scenes.

Image result for types of energy
Graphic by Aniruddha Pochimcherla

If your scenes hold kinetic energy – you’re all good. You have pace, you have drama, you have in-your-face conflict. There’s no risk of saggy middle, go do a celebratory dance and leave the rest of us miserable writers alone.

But, if your novel has a run of potential energy scenes, you may be drifting into second act trouble. And if you have this run of potential energy scenes in the first or third act, well then, you’ve got bigger problems than I…

So, let’s check out these potential energy subtypes and see if we can apply them to fictional narratives. And then let’s evaluate whether that helps us ascertain whether we have a problem or not.

Four types of Potential Energy

So, obviously we can’t use the literal meaning of the Potential energy subtypes. But we’re talking about fictional narratives, so I am going to use a little creative licence.

Let’s say Chemical energy is romantic tension. No action, no sexy-time, no sneaking kisses behind the gym – but the almost-kiss, the lingering looks, the brief touches, the racing heart. There’s an energy in the scene, not because there is action, but because there is no action. Just the potential for action is enough (and maybe better) – the hint of the tension possibly being realised.

And let’s say Nuclear energy is a ticking time-bomb. The countdown to an inevitable disaster – the Titanic bobbing up and down before it goes under, the flashing numbers on a explosive device ticking down, the deterioration of a terminally-ill patient, the continued regression of Benjamin Button.

We could shape Gravitational energy in one of two ways: a) as the coming together of two objects, reluctantly and/or against their will  – the tension of opposite things occupying the same space (but without direct/realised conflict, remember); think Ann Hathaway and Jason Sudeikis in Colossal just eyeing each other off; and/or b) as one thing going through a metamorphosis of a sort and transitioning (without resistance) between two states or environments (like falling from air to earth); think of scenes where a character is processing a revelation, like Elizabeth Bennet reading a letter in Pride and Prejudice. Not the aftermath, mind you; not the part when her world is turned upside down, just the part where there is the hint (or the promise) that it will.

And we could treat Elastic energy as the stretching of something away from its home, its destiny, its true North, just before it is inevitably snapped back. Like Scuffy the Tugboat (incidentally, I have (in my adult years) grown to hate that book, despite its beautiful prose, because of its depressing message of ‘don’t dream beyond your limits’), or like Jonah in the Bible.

That all seems to work, so what now?

Yes, it’s quite the neat little package, isn’t it? All these things have energy – and seem to be very reasonable alternatives to their kinetic counterparts. I mean, who doesn’t love simmering tension in a hate-to-love story or the thrill of a race against time?

Oh, and, great question.

So, as I was writing this, I came to the conclusion that potential energy in fictional narratives works the same as in reality: It’s stronger a) when it is closer to the object it has a relationship with, and b) when the object it has a relationship with is strong in and of itself. 

In narrative terms, this means your potential energy scenes lose energy the more you distance them from kinetic (action) scenes. And that they have less energy if the nearby or related kinetic scenes are weak themselves. Moral of the story: Don’t run a lot of potential energy scenes together. And make sure that you boost your kinetic energy scenes to give your potential energy scenes more gravitas.

So, your problematic chapter is fixed, then?

Sadly, no 😦 While this was incredibly helpful in identifying ways to imbue ‘sequels’ or reaction scenes with energy, I’ve realised that none of these potential energy types are in my three bogged-down scenes (and that I’ve broken my own advice and linked them together in one, horrendous run). So it’s back to the drawing board for me, but I hope it’s been reassuring for you.

Let me know what you think in the comments! And don’t forget to share on social media. 

Energising your plot

Divergence and Convergence – the curse of the second act

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

It seems that every time I reach the middle of a WIP, I start musing on the problems a second act can cause a writer. Second acts are notoriously difficult for writers – there are hundreds of books and articles out there decrying the flabby belly, the second act bog, the meandering middle, the belly of the beast, “the time which is not the beginning and not the end, the time in which the artist and the protagonist doubt themselves and wish the journey had never begun” (David Mamet, Three Uses of the Knife).

My struggle, it seems, is all to do with divergence and convergence. As a former intelligence analyst, the process of positing a reasonable theory involved both modes of thinking – divergence: brainstorming as many ideas, variables, possibilities as you could think up, and just running with them; and convergence: critically analysing the options to identify the strongest and then pushing them to their limits to see which would break and which would stand up to the assault.

It’s the same with drafting a book. Act I is drafted with what I call acute divergence – all wild ideas are welcome and there is no internal consistency that has been established or needs to be obeyed. This is creativity unleashed – it’s the exciting, adrenalin-fuelled writing rush. It’s why I have a thousand story ideas lurking on index cards and why I started a dozen stories in my youth but never got beyond chapter five.

But, after Act I, comes Act II. The first part of the second act (Act II(a)) is drafted with I call obtuse divergence – there’s still a lot of room for movement and creativity, even though the rules of consistency have been established. The world, the characters, the way things work have shape and form, but are still, to a certain extent, malleable. Like a child out of the womb; the features are formed – eyes look like eyes, toes like toes, the external tail of the embryo now a coccyx – but the bones haven’t yet set. When I draft Act II(a), I know there isn’t as much free reign or creative licence I had in Act I, but there’s still enough to take one of the story threads and let my imagination exploit it.

Mikhaeyla Kopievsky - Writing Tips and Tricks

That all changes after the Midpoint and the arrival of Act II(b). Now, I’m firmly in obtuse convergence. The parameters of the story are well-established – the bones have set – and I can feel myself chafing against the harder boundary. What’s worse, there’s no forward/downhill momentum – everything is still so vague with all these story threads to manage, it all just seems to coalesce in the middle. The epitome of a sagging belly! There’s no magic cure for this – you just have to power through it. Keep converging your story – tightening the plot, weaving the story threads closer together, shedding dead weight, and sharpening the spear-point.

Because if you do that, you’ll get to Act III – the point of acute convergence. Here there is no creative licence to go off track – everything is firmly in place. But in a good way. With everything finally tightened, you have  clear sight to the end. You have the forward/downhill momentum. It’s at this point, much like the first act, where the story seems to take on a life of its own – the driving force of the earlier acts pushing it towards its natural conclusion. I find that I write fastest (and with the most confidence) in the first and third acts – because there is acute plotting, drafting, and creativity at play.

Knowing that obtuseness is the enemy of my writing productivity, I’m now on a mission to discover tips and techniques to help deal with it… I’ll keep you all updated on what I find!

And if you have tips and techniques of your own – share them below in the comments! 

Divergence and Convergence – the curse of the second act

Time for Reflection (2) – What I learned about first drafts

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

Recently, I was feeling all kinds of nostalgic about nearing the finish line for Divided Elements | Resistance, and decided it was a good time to reflect on all the big lessons I have learned as a first time author. Last week I talked about the very sage advice of setting up your author platform (seriously, if you haven’t already done this step, add “start wordpress blog” and “set up at least one social media account” to your list of things to do). This week, I want to talk about the lessons I learned (and some I should have avoided) and the things I figured out for myself in writing a first draft.

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Lesson 1: Gnothi seauton. (Or, for the non-ancient Greeks, “know thyself”)

This is a lesson I had to figure out for myself and one I’m still trying to fully figure out. Every writer is different – in what we write, in how we write, in why we write. Inspiration for story ideas will come to each of us differently. There are those of us that start with a character (e.g. I want to write a story about your average suburban girl who has found street cred and a way to brush off her legacy of schoolyard geekery via zombie hunting), those that start with a genre (e.g. I want to write a supernatural dark comedy), others that start with a theme (e.g. I want to write a story about love overcoming prejudice), those that start with a setting (e.g. I want to set my story in post-apocalyptic Australian suburbia), and those that start with a premise (e.g. I want to write a story about a  zombie hunter whose mum has just started dating a zombie).

Each of these starting points represents a key aspect of the story you are about to write. Regardless of whether you are a plotter (someone who structures their story before they write it) or a pantser (someone who writes by the seat of their pants without a roadmap), figuring out each of these is important for determining your story’s trajectory. Knowing your character is a starting point. Knowing your character, and the setting, theme, and tone (indicated by genre) of their core conflict (indicated by premise) – that’s trajectory.

Figure out yourself, figure out the gaps, and figure out the story trajectory. A story about a surburban zombie hunter in a paranormal mystery is a very different story to a one about the same hunter in a coming of age story or a dark comedy.

Lesson 2: Don’t write shitty first drafts

The old adage ‘write shitty first drafts’ abounds in writer circles. I agree with its underlying sentiment – “just write!” – but don’t agree with its call to action.

For me, ‘write shitty first drafts’ belongs in the same proverb bag as ‘he who hesitates is lost’. But, for every pithy idiom is another to contradict it –

“Look before you leap!”

“Haste makes waste!”

“Measure twice, cut once!”

“A stitch in time saves nine!”

I am not one of those writers who can vomit out words and then spend an inordinate amount of time going back and editing that word vomit into shape. I prefer to get my stories mostly right and then undertake strategic edits to fix problems that are the exception and not the rule.

Having your story trajectory sorted will help with not writing word vomit – so will these other awesome tips:

  • Read and watch and listen to good stories. When I get stuck or feel that the quality of writing (or dialogue, or setting description, or exposition) is sub-par, I read a few pages of a writer I admire or a book that I see as a benchmark. It serves as inspiration, motivation and a quick ‘how-to’ guide.
  • Understand story structure. Regardless of whether you are a plotter or pantser, you need to recognise that the human brain is pretty much hard-wired to absorb a story in a very specific way. It seeks out certain patterns and conventions. It’s why romance readers demand their happily ever after, why thriller readers demand their moment of ascendancy for the antagonist, why mystery readers demand their subtle clues and red herrings.
  • Know your end-point and where you want to go. This one is a little trickier (as I note in the next lesson)

Lesson 3 – Don’t go in blind. But, don’t plan too far in advance.

Okay, hard-core pantsers, you may look away at this point – this is one for the plotter-leaning amongst us (like most things, I think it is more accurate to think in terms of a Kinsey-like scale of plotting/pantsing, rather than strict binaries).

I love story structure. I spend each new novel planning stage extrapolating an outline from the bare premise I start with. I think you need a game plan before you run out on to the field. That said, I don’t think you can anticipate everything in advance. If your story writing process is anything like mine, your characters will have a way with assuming control of your story and shifting it along unexpected tangents, or your research will uncover some new and exciting aspect to the story that seems to shift its tone or direction.

You need to have a plan, but you also need to be flexible and open to new directions.

My approach goes like this:

  • Figure out my story trajectory and use that to frame the broad parameters for writing. Everything should be consistent with the trajectory, and the trajectory should be wide enough to allow for some deviations within the lines.
  • Outline (and write) in stages. Typically, I outline (and then write) each gap between the five key turning points. This gives me some structure to write to (which makes for much more productive writing sessions), while also allowing for new tangents, developments and ideas to be picked up in the next part of the story. Outlining in stages also helps me to keep fresh the key points I need to be hitting in each part of the story.

 

Well, that was cathartic! Hope you found it helpful 🙂

 

Image courtesy of DangerPup via Flickr Creative Commons

 

 

 

 

Time for Reflection (2) – What I learned about first drafts

Plotting to the Midpoint: Why you need a half-time plan

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

With Divided Elements in the hands of my copy-editor, I’ve been using July to get some new writing done. Having signed up for both #JulyWritingChallenge and Camp NaNoWriMo, I was worried that my efforts would falter the way my first attempt at NaNoWriMo did – a lot of angst and procrastination, not much writing. Pleasantly enough, I am slaying it! (Already at 12,000 words (I set my target at 15,000))

The two secrets to my success?

  1. Detailed and logically-structured plotting – thanks to my awesome plot roadmap
  2. Detailed and logically-structured plotting only up to the midpoint

The second secret is the important one (at least, for the purposes of this post).

I’m not sure whether it is pure genius or a product of my creative limitations, but it seems to be working. The thing is – when I get an idea for a story, it usually goes like this:

  • Thematic image and general premise – aka A visual and a one-liner ‘this is a story about…’

    Since I don’t want to give away the juicy details of the new WIP just yet, let me show how this would work if I was writing Sons of Anarchy … (bear with me, it’s been a while since I’ve watched it and the memory may be rusty…)

    Jax and Tara

    I would picture that moment where Jax takes on the Presidency and Tara stands behind him as his Old Lady, a corruption of two individuals who had the potential to escape a violent and toxic environment but have ended up as the next generation of everything they didn’t want to be – Clay and Jemma.
    That image also gives me my premise – the story of a son who seeks to escape the corrupted legacy of his father, who finds that escape in the return of an old girlfriend, but who ends up corrupted and corrupting her in his efforts to escape. Like struggling in quicksand – it only conspires to work against you.

  • That image and one-liner (okay, okay – one paragraph) give me everything I need up to the Midpoint – I get the status quo (Jax in the MC, Tara at the hospital), the hook (Jax finding his Dad’s journals), the inciting incident (reconnecting with Tara), the first plot point (going after Clay), the Midpoint (Jax and Tara as the new Clay and Jemma).

And that’s usually where the ideas run out – not because I can’t think of what happens next, but because there are so MANY paths this story can take. I generally know where I want it to end. I just don’t know how to get to that end.

This is why the first half of my plot outline for the new WIP is pages long and full of cool details. And the second half is … um, well… it’s blank.

I was kind of worried about this, but then I figured it could be a good thing. And I figured this while watching my beloved Wests Tigers play (and lose) another game (don’t get me started…).

A book, much like a game of football, is a tale of two halves. Every team goes into a game knowing the starting point (kick-off) and the end goal (walking away with a win, preferably a crushing defeat, that supplies two points on the ladder and a fantastic points differential). There will also be a detailed game plan – based on last week’s performance, where they are on the ladder, what current issues/injuries are affecting them, players playing out of position, whether it’s a home game, what they focused on in training, etc, etc.

But that game plan is only good up to the half time siren.

You walk into the sheds at half time with a 20 point deficit, you shake things up. You end the first forty minutes with three major injuries and a player sent off, and you start thinking twice about your earlier plan of putting on early points.

What it boils down to is this:

You can’t plan your second half until you know what position your first half has put you in. 

Same goes for stories. I’ve spoken about this before – sometimes the little details you use to fill in your plot outlining can introduce a range of subtleties and nuances that shift the direction of your story. In the beginning the shift is negligible – but as it continues on that same trajectory, the difference becomes more and more noticeable.

Tangent

It was the same with Divided Elements – what I had planned for my second half and what I executed were wildly different. In a good way. If I had stubbornly kept to the original game plan, I would have ended up with a incoherent, disjointed story with a lot of loose ends and an unsatisfying ending.

Which is why I am blissfully writing my way through the first half of this WIP without having a game plan for the second half. That can wait. I figure I will use the Midpoint as my new status quo and plot from there once I know my backstory (the first half).

What about you? If you are a plotter, do you plot the entire novel? And if so, do you ever allow yourself to change the plan late in the game?

Plotting to the Midpoint: Why you need a half-time plan

Show, don’t Tell – What it really means

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

I have to admit, I’ve always been a little confused by the old adage ‘show, don’t tell’ – I mean, we’re authors, we work in a written (not visual) medium; the whole point of storytelling, is to to tell (see? it’s right there in the name).

But, then again, I do like Chekhov’s call to arms:

Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass

Okay, so say I do as you ask, Anton, and instead of writing:

It was a full moon.

I write:

A silver light glinted off broken glass.

It’s still telling, isn’t it? I’m still verbalising a visualisation, still passing on information as a seeing woman would to a blind man.

So what, reallyis the difference?

moonlight

One definitely has a more engaging voice – a poetic sensibility and sense of storytelling rather than mere telling. 

But, how far can we (should we) take it. What if, instead of writing:

She smiled.

I write:

The corners of her mouth twitched upwards.

Seems a little overdone, no? Like I’m now turning my back on my other literary hero, Hemingway, and using seven words when two would suffice.

Which bring us back to the original question: What really is the difference? What does ‘showing’ really mean?

My answer, after much consideration and consternation (and rewrites after rewrites of telling drafts and over-written drafts), is this:

It is not the poetry of description that identifies ‘showing’, it is the dominance of the active verb.

Telling uses passive verbs. Showing uses active verbs.

Passive verbs are those that are static and/or exist solely inside one’s head. The ‘to be’ verbs. The ‘thought’ (liked, remembered, desired, wished, despised, etc) verbs. (Chuck Palahniuk has a great post on eliminating thought verbs here).

Active verbs are dynamic, the ones you can actually observe and engage with.

Let’s look at the examples again and throw some more in for fun:

  • It was a full moon VS a silver light glinted off broken glass
  • She smiled VS the corners of her mouth twitched upwards
  • The box felt heavy VS the box settled in her arms like lead
  • She detested the zombie VS she aimed the rifle at the space between the zombie’s dead eyes
  • She ran to her mentor VS her feet thundered along the road to her mentor
  • Jasper was tired VS Jasper rubbed the sleep from his eyes with a weary hand.

 

If you’re up for it- why not join me in responding to Chuck’s challenge and start the process of eliminating passive verbs from your writing? Let me know how you’re going with it in the comments!

 

Image courtesy of Abbyladybug via Flickr Creative Commons

Show, don’t Tell – What it really means

Writing for your readers…and yourself

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

During the initial drafting of Divided Elements, I realised that I needed more eyes on it than just mine. As an untested author, I was unsure whether I was on the right track, whether the story idea was genuinely interesting, whether I had the chops to pull it off. To that end, I joined two online critique groups and found a local critique partner with whom I could exchange ideas and chapters. Feedback is critical for any writer, but sometimes reviews and critiques can seem like a version of ‘how I would write this book’, rather than ‘this is a problem for your story’. In this post, I talk about how to manage reader expectations to avoid the former criticism…

Getting feeback

Honest feedback and constructive criticism from other writers and readers can be incredibly useful in identifying technical areas for improvement, such as:

  • plot holes
  • crutch words
  • writing flaws (spelling, grammar, punctuation,etc)

Feedback, especially when critique partners are also assessing your WIP as readers, can also become more subjective. Personalities, reading preferences (genre, style, audience, etc), and whether they are in a good or bad mood when it comes time to reading that particular chapter, can all impact on how these readers assess:

  • Your characters – are they likable, sympathetic, competent, intriguing?
  • Your world – is it believable, over the top, too dominant, too generic?
  • Your plot lines – is the midpoint what they expected/wanted, does the ending satisfy their need for a perfect resolution of plot?

This is where the subjectivity of reviews and critiques becomes tricky. Yes, you need to write for your readers. But you also need to write for yourself.

This is your project, your creativity on a page, your piece of soul and worldview in ink.

Your responsibility as an author

That being said, you also have a responsibility as a writer to not mislead your readers. Readers may not like your characters or enjoy your world, but that is something that will become apparent early on in the story. It’s okay for this to happen, because at the beginning of the story, the reader’s investment in the book is still low. They may have only spent half an hour reading your novel before realising it is not for them.

No harm, no foul.

But what happens when a reader gets halfway through the book, or worse – to the climax, and their expectations or desires for the story are thwarted? They’ve been rooting for the protagonist to enter into an epic sword fight with her arch nemesis, but at the final moments she is disfigured and loses all of her strength and sword-wielding abilities, ruling out this plot line…

Or they’ve been reading eagerly through the chapters, enthralled by the developing attraction between the two main characters and awaiting that moment in the climax when they just know the two are going to finally put aside their resistance and actually admit they love the other, but just before the peak of this build up, one of the characters dies…

These are the sort of things that can send Goodreads review into vitriol territory – Hell hath no fury like a reader scorned.

Ned Stark - Brace Yourselves

Now, while it is not the author’s job to pander to reader desires – it is the author’s job to manage reader expectations. That is the whole purpose of a story – to take a reader on a journey with the author (and the characters) – and to set parameters within which plot twists and key events will be surprising, but in a way that enhances the reader’s appreciation of the story.

Managing reader expectations

The key to this is managing reader expectations from the start.

This is why the start of a book is so critical – it not only establishes the characters and the world – it should also establish the style, tone and theme. In a way, the start of your book is its constitution – the set of rules and laws by which your book will abide from beginning to end.

George R.R. Martin did this expertly in “A Song of Ice and Fire” – *** WARNING – Spoilers for those who have been hiding under a rock, living in another universe, living a life without television or internet and do not know about GAME OF THRONES ***

– when he killed off Ned Stark early on in the piece he illustrated his story’s constitution – indicating that killing off beloved characters was not something he would shy away from. Because it happened early in the piece, readers and fans were able to forgive him this (they were still orienting themselves to the story), and future instances of untimely deaths (they were, by then, used to his sadism).

So, dear authors, by all means introduce plot twists and intense character arcs and story surprises in your novel – just ensure that you have adequately prepared readers for the possibility of these things by successfully establishing your story’s constitution in the opening chapters where you introduce style, tone and theme.

 

Have you ever been disappointed or infuriated by a story plot point later in the piece? Has an ending ever made you regret picking up the book in the first place? Tell me about it in the comments section! 

 

Writing for your readers…and yourself