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Making the Reader NOT Work Too Hard is Hard Work

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After reading a lot of fiction drafts, I know a common problem for writers, myself included, is trying to write a novel or short story that gives “just” the right amount of details to your readers so they

1. Understand what is going on in the story.
2. Aren’t bogged down or bored by details.
3. Root for your protagonist.
4. Know where they are in the world (or “other worlds”)–and when, too.

The number one thing you should never, ever do as a fiction writer is purposefully keep your reader guessing so many details that they become frustrated and feel disoriented in the story. Don’t try to be clever.

Let’s take for example a who-dunnit mystery. The detail that you don’t want readers to know is the criminal, but you still have to give readers setting and character details, including enough description of the criminal that eventually the protagonist, and maybe a careful reader, can figure out which suspect is to blame.

Your job as the writer and creator of the story is to orient your readers in the story. If you’re purposefully being vague because you’re worried you’re giving too much away, you probably aren’t giving enough away. Remember, you know your entire plot (most likely–even pantsers have some idea of how the book or story is going to end…), and this is why you think everything you write is so obvious that your reader will be bored or have the entire story figured out in the first paragraph.

How do the best mystery writers do it? How do fiction writers keep you turning pages? How do those authors who are good at putting twists at the end of their books and movies build scenes and orient readers and still surprise at the end? Study these books and figure that out. As always, the best way to learn how much detail and description to put into your novel is to read in your genre and pay attention to what published authors are doing.

The other thing you absolutely should do is let someone else read your writing. If you don’t live by any other writers for an in-person critique group, then you can find an online one. Ask Facebook friends to be beta readers and if there were any points where they were confused at your plot, characters, or setting. Enter a contest and pay for a critique (from a trusted sponsor–like WOW!). Hire an editor who has worked with another writer you know. There are a lot of ways to find someone to read your work, but it’s a must. You just can’t critique your own writing.

One of the biggest pieces of feedback that I’ve been giving lately is what I’ve been talking about here…orienting your reader. So remember: every time you start a scene in a new place, every time you introduce a new character, and every time an important plot event takes place, you have to give your reader enough details to know what’s going on!

Margo L. Dill is a novelist, writing coach and teacher, and WOW!’s managing editor. To find out more about the classes Margo teaches for WOW!, including the novel class that starts the first Friday of every month, go to our classroom here. To find out more about Margo and her books, go here. 

Compass photo above by Jurgen Appelo on www.flickr.com 

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