How to Get in Your Reader’s Way

How To Get In Your Reader’s Way

When the movie Avatar came out, I went to see it on opening day at a theater that was nearly empty.  I predicted in my kick for that day that the movie would be a blockbuster and possibly become the bestselling science fiction movie of all time.

Why?  Because the acting was superb?  Because the characters were the most memorable, ever?  Because the dialog was inspired?  No, I suspected that the movie would be considered the best because it transported the viewer to another time and place better than any other science fiction movie.  That’s the single most important factor in determining the financial success of a book or film.

Yet, when you’re trying to tell a story, to transport a reader, many authors try to get into the reader’s face.  I have a good friend who recently taught a writing class and said, “The only real reason to write is to win awards.”  In other words, as writers he felt that our main reward is to gratify our egos.  Well, I disagree.

My goal as a writer is to gratify my audience, and in order to do that, one of the things that I try to do is to get out of the reader’s way, to let them enjoy the story.

I describe the setting, get deep into a character’s point of view, and simply tell the story.  I try to write invisibly, so that the reader forgets that I’m even there.

But many writers work too darned hard to impress.  They’re trying to show you how intelligent they are, how talented.  They’ll throw in beautiful metaphors that don’t need to be there.  They’ll lovingly craft sentences that describe mundane objects.  They’ll stack adjectives and write purple prose.  They’ll break into the story and begin narrating their own life philosophies.

Such a writer is a bit like a movie director who carefully sets up a shot, gets his actors and lighting ready, shouts “Action!”—and then walks in front of the camera, smiles and waves and tries his best to block the shot.  We’re so conscious of this pretentious prig, we can’t even see the scene in the background.  The story becomes obscured.  Because of this, we will quickly lose interest in the movie and leave the theater.

Among writers, I see the equivalent of this in stories all the time—most often when looking at books that are on the major award ballots.  Writers who work too hard at winning awards will often write eloquently about nothing at all.  As stylists, they’ll wow us, but as storytellers they tend to leave readers starving for a good tale.

The prose may be marvelous, but the harder the author works at impressing the audience, the more obscured the story becomes.

So don’t stand in the way of your reader’s enjoyment.  There are times in your story when you may want to wax eloquent—not to further your own agenda, but in service to your tale.


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