Without them, we’re just writing for ourselves. Would that be easier? You bet. Would that be preferable? Certainly not.
Tip: Whatever gets you to work harder gets you to work better.
If you don’t “show” when you ought to, make emotion genuine, plot causally, keep tension on every page, respect genre conventions, and word precisely, you can write as fast as you can type. But what kind of goal is that? Write for a reader, however, whether an individual (real or imaginary) or a congregation of them, and your standards rise to meet theirs.
~ “Showing” versus “Telling.”
Sadly, nothing about this is easy. If you never “tell,” readers can’t follow the story, even if it’s 250,000 words long, as will likely be the case. The trick is not to “tell” what you can “show.” Though there’s no formula, if a moment involves emotion, you probably want to reveal rather than describe.
~ Genuine emotion.
Have you considered just how fake emotion can be? Watch commercials for greeting cards or pet food. Or a movie where one coincidence follows another until, thanks to a miracle save, the hero, through no resource of her own, lives happily ever after. Cheap. Fake, Shallow. Manipulative. In fiction, the only source of real emotion is real plot.
~ Causal plot.
Don Maass has famously said that unless you construct a plot where no scene is expendable, you haven’t plotted the way you need to. Your not-so-secret weapon is causality. Every decision or action causes the next, nothing left to circumstance, nothing engineered from anything but character choices and assets.
~ Tension on every page.
If the character (and thus reader) emotions stem from a causal plot that produces the outcome of every scene right up to the climax; and if events rather than abstractions like terror or agony deliver those emotions, then the tension will be right there. Let your characters and plot—rather than you the author—deliver the story.
~ Genre Conventions.
This is where an image of a particular reader, representing a particular audience, really helps. For example, in fantasy or historical fiction, readers cheerfully tolerate so many characters that they’re offered—and willingly consult—lengthy lists of role and identity. But in genres like romantic suspense or women’s fiction, readers will balk at endless minor characters, no matter how melodic your voice or captivating your plot.
Read widely in your genre, and only current fiction counts. How people wrote mysteries when Agatha Christie reigned won’t necessarily tempt today’s mystery addicts. Do your homework. That’s neither cheating nor wasting time. After all, agents and publishers are, first and foremost, readers.
~ Precise wording.
This underlies everything readers seek. But it’s the last step—not the first.
Writers are a rebellious bunch. Many of us don’t instinctively appreciate constraints or critique. Of course you can ignore all that. Do your own thing. Just not if you want readers.
In this time when we need to count our blessings, if only to maintain our sanity, let’s count readers among those gifts. They keep us on our toes. They bring out our best. They remind us why we do this. And I, for one, couldn’t be more grateful. To our readers!