HOW TO WRITE A NOVEL READERS WON’T PUT DOWN
A friend alerted me to an interesting “infographic” posted on Goodreads. The subject: Why readers abandon a book they’ve started. Among the reasons:
– Weak writing
– Ridiculous plot
– Unlikable main character
But the #1 reason by far was: Slow, boring.
Makes sense, doesn’t it? With all due respect to Somerset Maugham, I believe there is at least one “rule” for writing a novel, and that is Don’t bore the reader!
So if I may channel my favorite commercial character, The Most Interesting Man in the World:
Find out the things readers don’t like, then . . . don’t do those things.
I thank you.
Let’s have a look.
This probably refers to pedestrian or vanilla-sounding prose. Unremarkable. Without what John D. MacDonald called “unobtrusive poetry.” You have to have a little style, or what agents and editors refer to as “voice.” I’ll have more to say about voice next week. But for now, concentrate on reading outside your genre. Or read poetry, like Ray Bradbury counseled. Simply get good wordsmithing into your head. This will expand your style almost automatically.
Thriller writers are especially prone to this. I remember picking up a thriller that starts off with some soldiers breaking into a guy’s house. He’s startled! What’s going on? Jackboots! In my house! Why? Because, it turns out, the captain wants him for some sort of secret meeting. But I thought, why send a crack team of trained soldiers to bust into one man’s suburban home and scare the living daylights out of him? Especially when they know he’s no threat to anyone. No weapons. No reason to think he’d resist. And why wake up the entire neighborhood (a plot point conveniently ignored)? Why not simply have a couple of uniforms politely knock on the door and ask the guy to come with them? The only reason I could think of was that the author wanted to start off with a big, cinematic, heart-pounding opening. But the thrills made no sense. I put the book down.
Every plot needs to have some thread of plausibility. The more outrageous it is, the harder you have to work to justify it. So work.
Unlikable Main Character
The trick to writing about a character who is, by and large, unlikable (i.e., does things we generally don’t approve of) is to give the reader something to hang their hat on. Scarlett O’Hara, for example, has grit and determination. Give readers at least one reason to hope the character might be redeemed.
The biggie. There is way too much to talk about here. I’ve just concluded a 3-day intensive workshop that all based, like just about everything I do, on what I call Hitchcock’s Axiom. When asked what makes a compelling story he said that it is “life, with the dull parts taken out.”
If I was forced to put general principles in the form of a telegram, I’d probably say:
Create a compelling character and put him in a “death match” with an opponent (the death being physical, professional, or psychological) and only write scenes that in some way reflect or impact that battle.
The principle is simple and straightforward. Learning how to do it takes time, practice and study, which should never stop.