Anciently, monks tried to evaluate sins to determine which were the most deadly. Is it worse to compose rude Facebook posts or to funnel money to terrorist organizations? Is it worse to eat carbs or throw hamsters into meat grinders?
Obviously, we could create a hierarchy of sins a hundred pages long, and it wouldn’t do us much good. We’d each still have our own weaknesses that we need to overcome.
Yet as a contest judge, I often find myself looking at stories for weaknesses in my evaluations. One story might have weak visuals while another author hides the name of her viewpoint character at the start of every scene.
With writing, there are thousands of sins you can commit. I’ve often said that there are a hundred thousand “right” ways to write just about any story, but there are millions of wrong ways.
Personally, I like to lump writing sins into just two main categories:
- “Thou shalt not CONFUSE the reader!”
Did you just tell me that Tom walked into the bar when you meant that Dick walked into the bar? Or that the bar wasn’t really a bar but an inn? Or that he ordered a beer when you really meant ale? You can’t do that.
Your job as a writer is to be like a television antenna that transmits your story clearly. Your job is to let the reader feel, hear, see, smell, taste, and touch the story, to live through the action vicariously. The reader needs to see into the protagonist’s thoughts and understand what is going on.
If you use wishy-washy language, or worse—begin hiding information—your readers will abandon your story like rats fleeing a sinking ship.
The reader must be able to replicate what is going on.
In fact, the sole gauge of whether you are a good writer is this: “How clearly do you transmit an engaging story?” If your language is vague, convoluted, or just plain wrong, the reader will leave.
- Thou shalt not BORE the reader. Do you have a protagonist that is uninteresting and unlikeable? If the protagonist is both, you’ve got unrecoverable problems. Your reader won’t develop rooting interest in that protagonist. So you have to make the protagonist either likeable or intriguing in some ways. This is the “engaging” part of the definition above.
The reader will also lose interest if the protagonist doesn’t have a “significant” problem. If the main conflict is easily resolved or if the protagonist doesn’t have clear emotional stakes in the problem, your reader just won’t care.
Sometimes we can bore a reader just by having long passages where the story doesn’t grow or move forward. In judging stories for my contest, I had dozens of well-crafted stories where the author took many pages just telling me where the story was set. For example, I recently had one 80-page story where the first ten pages were spent showing the world the protagonist lived in. The author never did give me information about who the character was or why I should care. I never even found out what the main problem was. I just got to the point where I realized that too many rats would be jumping ship.
In the same way, readers are often bored by predictability. This can happen in dozens of ways. A lot of writers use worn-out settings (the everyday high school or the standard fantasy world), contrived characters, overused tropes, or uninspired plots.
You have to anticipate your reader’s needs, surprise them. Recently I just happened to be passing through the living room when my wife turned on the television to watch a movie. I stood and watched the opening credits. The title told me that it was a murder mystery. As the protagonist walked out to his car, his neighbor’s hesitant wave told me that something was wrong with the relationship. My wife asked if I wanted to sit and watch it, but I told her, “No thanks, the neighbor kills the wife.” I went to work instead. My wife came into my office 90 minutes later and said, “I’m so mad! How did you know?” Well, that’s what I do.
Sometimes a story is so plodding or predictable, that there might not be anything wrong on the level of prose. Sentence by sentence, the story seems fine. I’ve seen many beautifully written works that are ultimately soporific. If at any point an editor wants to set a story aside out of boredom, it is a valid response. The story SHOULD be rejected at that point. There is something wrong with the story.
For example, last week I got up at 2:00 A.M. and began judging stories for a contest. I was reading one well-written story an hour later and felt something indefinably boring about the story. I read the first three pages three times, searching for something that might hook readers into the tale, and really couldn’t find anything. I wondered if perhaps I should go back to bed and get some sleep. Instead I rejected the story.
Five minutes later, I was enthralled by a completely different tale. I’d come wide awake.
You see, the description in the first tale was fine, but the writer hadn’t put in any engaging hooks. They hadn’t created a character I cared about. They hadn’t shocked me into alertness.
As a writer, you need to figure out how to make readers ache in behalf of your characters. You need to transport the reader into your story physically, so that the setting comes alive for them, but you also need to pluck their heartstrings and take over their thoughts. If you can do that, if you can create an energizing experience for them, then you may actually transport them into a state of mind where they feel hyper-aware of your story: it becomes more memorable than everyday life, and affects them on a deeper level.
Tomorrow (714/202) Apex will be hosting Amy White. She will be given members of the group some new ideas on plotting. We are excited to have her! You can become a member of Apex now. Start by, messaging the word “Apex” to email@example.com or visit thecompleatwriter.com for more info.
There is still time to sign up! Dave will be teaching on “Clark Kent to Superman” in an online workshop to be this Saturday, July 18. Register here at Fyrelite Master Classes: https://www.fyrecon.com/fyrelite-master-classes/
The Sale for the SUPERBUNDLE is still going on, but not for much longer! A 2,900 dollar value for only $139. Find it on mystorydoctor.com