Bad fiction usually boils down to this: the writer isn’t giving the reader the information they need to conjure a scene.
But very often it’s because the author has lost sight of what is and isn’t written on the page. The writer knows what’s happening, and they fail to see they’re leaving their readers in the dark. They leave out crucial details and context, particularly around what’s motivating a character and what’s at stake in what they’re trying to do.
One of the most underrated skills good writers possess is the ability to put themselves in a reader’s shoes and understand how they might interpret a scene. Being a strong writer isn’t just about having enough empathy that you can conjure believable characters, it’s also about having the empathy to imagine how a reader will interpret what you actually write down.
Here are some tips on how to avoid this pratfall and see your work fresh.
Precision is half the battle
So much that underlies good writing comes down to being extremely specific and precise. I talk about this a lot in query letters, where vagueness becomes blindingly clear, but it applies to the narrative voice as well, particularly with action and physical description.
For instance, let’s say the writer shows us a protagonist stumbling across a “gruesome murder.” The writer will picture the entire scene in their head, but the reader only knows what’s on the page. “Gruesome murder” can literally mean almost anything. So the reader will feel a bit disoriented, casting about for what we should imagine.
If a writer strings together a few needlessly vague elements in a row, the reader might lose the plot entirely. Let’s say the writer follows up the aforementioned vague “gruesome murder” by telling us the the protagonist “starts running,” but doesn’t specify where to. Then the protagonist encounters a “shadowy figure in the dark.”
We’re still trying to figure out who or what got murdered and how. Then we don’t know where in the heck the protagonist was running to. Are we inside or outside? Can we at least know that? Now we have to make sense of a “shadowy figure.” Is it a three headed-alien? A scarecrow? A very friendly puppy?
The writer knows the protagonist found their nemesis stabbed with a dagger in a castle, fled down a moonlit path, and ran into the dark knight. All the reader knows is that someone died, the protagonist ran somewhere, and encountered someone or something. When the vague mysteries pile up, at some point the reader is just going to throw up their hands and decide no story is worth this kind of an effort to figure out.
Your writing will improve drastically just by making sure you’re being precise. Swap out “gruesome murder” with the protagonist’s “nemesis lies dead with a black dagger sticking from her neck,” “starts running” with “flees the castle down a winding moonlit path,” and “shadowy figure” with “the outline of a knight wearing dark armor,” and we’re suddenly reading a very different story entirely.
Make sure motivations, stakes, and hopes/dreams are clear
There are some writing elements you can’t possibly be too clear about. In particular, readers anchor to a protagonist’s motivations like they’re a north star. We orient ourselves in a story around what the characters need to do and why, then we get invested in the outcome by seeing how much skin the protagonists put in the game trying to get that thing they want. The greater the rewards and consequences for the protagonist, the more the events in the novel will feel like they matter to the reader too.
In genre fiction, the motivation might be a goal that’s external, physical, and explicit, like needing to defeat the dragon that’s been stealing all the apples. In literary fiction, it might be something more abstract, internal, and implicit, like needing to figure out how to move on after a divorce. But motivation must be readily apparent to the reader. It’s the lens through which we can interpret a protagonist’s actions and assess how they’re going about getting what they want.
It’s extremely difficult to understand a story without knowing why characters are doing what they’re doing. Without knowing the motivations, it turns a story into a lot of confusing running around.
It’s even better if you can articulate what’s at stake in the character getting what they want and achieving their hopes and dreams. A character who “is dying for a promotion” is vague and generic. A character who “is dying for the corner office so they can lord it over their idiot colleagues” is much more vivid.
Make sure these motivations and the stakes are on the page. It might feel a bit strange and a bit pedantic spelling these things out, but readers lap them up because they’re the foundations we use to engage with a story.
Jogging yourself to see your writing fresh
Sure. You might know in the abstract that you should “be precise” and “spell out the motivations and stakes,” but putting it into practice is something else entirely. No writer is immune from projecting things onto the page, particularly if you’ve allowed your opening to cement in your mind.
There’s a trick I like to use when I’m self-editing my novels that helps me see things fresh. I pick someone I know extremely well (often my parents or a close friend), and I try to read a scene through their eyes. I imagine their reactions, where they might be confused, even whether I think they’d laugh or be shocked.
I’ll notice different things in a scene when I’m imagining a different person is reading it. It’s one of the best tricks I’ve found to jog myself into seeing my work fresh.
Editing is crucial
Even the best self-editor is going to miss things that they’ve neglected to put on the page. That’s why it’s absolutely crucial to get feedback on your manuscript before seeking publication, whether you’re going traditional or self-publishing.
A good editor will reflect your novel back to you, and you’ll learn a great deal from their reactions, particularly if they’re being very honest with you. They’ll be able to help you see what is and isn’t there.
Don’t just assume you’re being clear! Do everything you can to be precise, and even then you’ll inevitably have work to do to see your work with fresh eyes.
It often takes help to see what is and isn’t there.
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Art: The Japanese Bridge by Claude Monet