Annie On Writing

July 2, 2009

Common ways to abuse your readers

After reading a bunch of really poor fiction, I had a gutful of how they might be published and I — well – sat here being jealous…… Over at Write Anything I had my more gracious spit about it all.

If you want a sure fire way to turn your readers away in droves, clutter your inbox with negative feedback and wallpaper your lounge room with rejection letters; then it is to abuse them by treating them like idiots. Short stories have rules of their own – especially flash fiction, the sort of stories many of Write Anythings readers pursue. You only have a limited amount of time to get your message across, so don’t abuse your readers by wasting time or words on unimportant or mundane details, bad structure or clichés.

Writers have a few responsibilities.

  • Readers deserve to be delivered a great story. We as writers have a duty not only to them, but to the essence of the story itself, to shape and expose it in the most interesting manner we are able.
  • We have a responsibility to ourselves to honour the gift or talent we hold in weaving this story and
  • We owe our muse, be it an inner or outer projection, to remain strong enough to stab to the inner heart of the story; not to wimp away or cop out when the going gets tough.

Having assisted in editing and reviewing a number of short storie over the years, I have formulated a list of the “Most Wanted” abuses a writer can undertake.

Show not tell – A stark image of a naked body may bring certain emotions to some people, but the addition of  whisper thin draping and dimmed lighting, will allure a greater percentage of people; some sighting it as porn, others expounding the qualities of the artistic manner its portrayed. The same can be said about a story. Tantalize your reader with snippets of information – don’t do a full frontal immediately.

Misuse conventions of dialogue. Overuse of things like screamed, shouted, said, yelled, fumed. The most famous writer who abuses this convention is Stephenie Meyer – (Twilight for those living under a rock) By telling the reader how the character states their words, tells them that you as the writer have no faith in the readers intelligence or imagination, nor do you have faith in your ability to convey the emotions your characters are experiencing. If you are writing evocatively you don’t need to tell your readers how the characters convey their dialogue.

State the Bleedingly Obvious. Only mention details that are important – or interesting. An example of this might be “she sat in the café chair at the table across from him ”, if she was sitting on the floor in the café or she’d been sitting there for so long her bottom was numb, it might be important or interesting.

Awful clichés – avoid boring clichés such as the “rugged trapper”, “kind prostitute”, “crooked cop”, “gorgeous girl”, “her flashing green eyes”, the sighing constantly scenes or the melodramatic or predictable storylines. That is, unless it is important to the story that the girl was drop dead gorgeous – where a plain or normal looking girl would do exactly the same things….or that was your objective and purpose – some very clever twists can be undertaken by using these overused conventions and giving a new look at the situation.

Don’t think you are smarter than your readers – and try and prove it. Your readers will correct your grammar, point out your spelling mistakes and misues of tenses and other writing conventions quicker than you can hiccup. There will always be someone who knows more Latin, more about pigeons or is a ballistics expert and will read your story and rip it to shreds for its inaccuracies.  Its best to start off on a good standing, without insulting thier intelligence first.

Spoon feed your readers – See notes on Stating the Obvious and Show not Tell. There is a fine line between handing the story to the reader on a platter and making them search for the meanings between the lines. Readers actually enjoy being a little confused as the story unfolds. However, some plots and themes are so obscure, only the writer can safely discuss them – so care does need to be taken not to be TOO obscure.  Some genres such as science fiction or fantasy need a little more detail of the worlds and society make up, but clever use of dialogue and other show not tell conventions can be used to by pass paragraphs of explanation.

Give Excruciating detail on what they are wearing or character descriptions – unless it is integral to the story. The reader will always create what a character may look like in their own minds eye, without you laying it down in detail. Information on what the character ate for breakfast or wore to work, unless it is crucial to the plot development – or characterization, is best left out. Some readers find it disconcerting to be suddenly thrust a description of the outward appearance of a character and may inwardly battle this image while attempting to continue to read.

Head out on the Road to Nowhere. Especially with Flash Fiction, your story needs to be punchy, to the point and have direction. If your story wafts about, your loyal readers will get to the end and feel cheated, dissatisfied and that they have just wasted their precious time. As a writer, you need to invest in your readers, not allowing the to leave your space feeling cold or lost.

Lilith Saintcrows article got me started on this track of thought and is well worth reading. She discusses how her muse hates a cop out from a writer. She also highlights good points about readers not wanting be coddled or have their hands held through prose.

Bring back a little bit of burlesque in your writing, a hidden sparkle or treat to be presented with a flourish at the end. Treat your readers well and they will remain loyal. Tantalize and tease your readers and they will beg for more.

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