Sunday, March 1, 2015

Flirting with Boredom

Fiction offers an unspoken contract: Writers try to anticipate what readers want, and generally satisfied readers forgive novelists for not always anticipating correctly. Maybe that seems unrelated to boredom or flirting. But boredom has everything to do with the eye of the reader-beholder, and novelists who refuse to flirt are doomed to boring others. Take no risks, and you’ll never say anything new or exciting.

Certain things are boring about 98% of the time:

~ Repeating. Once is great, twice not at all.
            Angry to the point of fury, she raised her clenched fist at him.

~ “Doubling.” Don’t clarify unnecessarily.
            Ann had made a decision, and she turned to go.

~ “Showing” and then “telling” (or the reverse). Pick one or the other.
            His deep sadness caused tears to fall from his eyes.

~ Judging. Save the editorials for your friends—or, better yet, your journal.
A person who wanted tropical sun and humidity, even in winter, was clearly nuts.

~ Lecturing. Save the info-dump for your nonfiction book, your friends—or your journal.
Aristotle, master of science, philosophy, poetry, and human nature, continues to affect us millennia after his death.

After you’ve eliminated boring habits, start flirting. Be playful. Inject sexual innuendo, and invite rather than fulfill. Fiction readers adore humor, sensuality, and the chance to reach their own conclusions. Of course novels flirt a bit differently than people do.

  • Ground the story.
Setting for its own sake can bore, but setting that gives the characters a home intensifies the plot and highlights the themes.

  • Tease.
Leave scenes incomplete. Sustain problems, mysteries, obstacles, and secrets till the last possible moment. Answers can bore. Questions rarely do.

  • Differentiate essential material from tangential.
Learning about monarch butterflies sounds educational, except in Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior, where understanding them clarifies their symbolism, beauty, and value. Nothing boring there.

  • Set up.
Maybe preparing readers for the climax feels meticulous or over-zealous. But the opposite feels like a miraculous rescue, i.e. no fun at all. Flirt with foreshadowing.

Tip: Seduce us by making us wonder what you’ll do with the details. After all, that’s where the devil resides.

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