This is one of the hardest, nubbiest challenges of writing a good novel.
You know your world backwards and forwards. You know what makes your characters tick. You can picture what’s happening. You know what you’re trying to say.
But unless these elements actually make it onto the page, your reader is left in the dark.
It’s really, really hard to put yourself in the shoes of one of your readers and accurately assess what you have and haven’t told them.
Here are some tips for making sure you have what you need on the page:
Err on the side of clarity
I was one of the less-promising students in my creative writing classes in college and I seriously doubt any of my teachers thought I would be someone who went on to be a published author. Among the many problems with my writing was one big flaw: I expected too much of my readers.
After receiving feedback that it was too difficult to follow one of my stories, I still remember the look of frustration on my creative writing teacher’s face when I insisted, “It’s all there on the page!”
Sure. Maybe. The problem was that it was way too difficult to piece everything together.
Don’t make your reader go digging for clues for the basics of what’s happening. Try not to beat your reader over the head with obviousness, but remember this: you’re probably not being as clear as you think you are.
Always establish the physical setting
This is one of the easy ones and yet so many writers neglect it: The reader has no idea where they are unless you tell them.
Always set the scene. You don’t need pages and pages of paid-by-the-word 19th Century style description, but you should at least give the reader enough information so they can picture their surroundings.
Imagine someone you know reading your novel
One of my favorite techniques for self-editing is to take a pass reading your novel while imagining someone close to you reading it.
Ideally this is someone you know well and who would be one of the target readers of your novel. Take a pass reading a scene trying to imaging how they would react.
Chances are you’ll spot things that are unclear as you look at your novel through someone else’s eyes.
Choose your mysteries wisely
It’s fun to try to unravel a mystery. It’s not fun to wander around in the darkness trying to figure out where in the heck you are.
What are those voices? Who’s talking? Where am I? What’s happening?
Don’t be vague for the sake of being vague. Choose your mysteries judiciously.
Remember: You’re telling a story.
Do you have any tricks for making sure you have what you need on the page? Take to the comments!
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Art: Marktszene bei Mondschein by Pieter Geerard Sjamaar