Sunday, October 6, 2013

Who’s Doing the Heavy Lifting?

People read fiction for various reasons—escape, entertainment, and illumination, information, or insight. But probably not one reader would add “enduring an exhausting workout” to that list. That’s what the gym—and the job—are for.

Tip: The less hard the writer works, the harder the readers have to.

Novelists can fatigue readers with what they put in or leave out. Here’s a partial list:

  • Picturing context for the characters.
  • Transitioning between moments, places, and external/internal realms.
  • Shifting point of view.
  • Including numerous characters.
  • Assigning distracting character names.
  • Introducing ambiguous metaphors.
  • Isolating images, subplots, and themes.
  • Composing lengthy sentences with multiple phrases and clauses.

Many readers enjoy ambiguity; that isn’t on the list. Readers don’t enjoy having to guess and compute. Sometimes that’s unvoidable. Attempt to make everything clear and easy, and you could wind up sounding graceless and boring. As often applies to the craft of fiction, balance is the key. These questions help test whether you make readers cope with something they needn’t.

  • Do you ground your characters in physical space?
  • Do you avoid unnecessary shifts, especially of short duration?
  • Do you transition whenever you change time, place, point of view, etc.?
  • Do you include the smallest number of characters you can get away with?
  • Do your characters have accessible names, i.e. as close to familiar as credibly possible?
  • Do taglines help identify characters, i.e. the one with green eyes or that oversized purse?
  • Do character names start with the same letter or sound similar?
  • Does every symbolic reference make complete sense on the literal level?
  • Do you weave imagery into motifs, or recurrent patterns?
  • Does every single subplot link to the central one?
  • Are your themes tied both to the protagonist and to each other?
  • Do you divide sentences for rhythm, variety, and clarity?

 Responding to all these questions sounds like a lot of work. It sure is. Novelists are supposed to work hard so readers don’t have to. Occasionally, you’ll have no choice: The plot or theme or psychological exploration simply demands a certain amount not of obscurity, but of complexity. Just be able to honestly justify asking your readers to “work.” And never put them on duty more often than you can help. 

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