Sunday, 29 January 2012

Why you shouldn’t always give the reader what they want

At the risk of sounding contrary, this is actually good advice. But what does it mean? And aren’t writers supposed to give the reader what they want, rather than the other way around?

Well, no, not always.

You need to give the reader what they want in terms of delivering the complete story – watertight plot, rounded and believable characters, background and pacing, lots of conflict and tension, atmosphere and emotion etc - but when a writer deliberately doesn’t give the reader what they want, it’s because they are teasing the reader and prompting them to want to know more. 

The story is a two-way connection between you, the writer, and your reader. You lay the foundations and paint the background, you indulge them with information and description, but they also have to do some of the work too by trying to figure out what might happen next, what the characters might do and how the story might end etc. That’s precisely what keeps the reader turning the page.

The true art of writing is involving your reader from the moment they read the first paragraph, until the closing sentence at the end of the story. That means they have to be willing to work a little for that effort for them to be rewarded with a good story.

The Art of Holding Back

Holding back from your reader is rather like playing mind games with them. As the writer, you need to impart information that’s relevant to the story– but not too much; otherwise, you blow your chance of surprise and revelation later in the novel.

Deliberately withholding information is the perfect way to dangle the carrot, to stoke the reader’s interest.

Crime, horror and thriller writers employ this to great effect. They plant clues and snippets of information, but they hold back from telling the reader everything, because later in the story, they might have a revelation to surprise the reader, and in the meantime, that keeps the reader guessing.

Other writers hold back on revealing everything about their characters. Others hold back certain elements of the story that could form a twist later in the novel.

Keeping Secrets

How well can you keep secrets? This is another device employed by writers to sustain the tension. This is where the writer lets the reader in on something that the protagonist – the hero or heroine of the story – won’t know, but the writer doesn’t give the full picture of what it is, so the reader is left guessing the outcome later in the novel.

Again, this device is designed to keep the reader interested. They know something, but not everything. Keep them in the dark about stuff.

Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code is a good example of this. He throws in bits of information for the reader to piece together, where necessary, then surprises the reader further into the story by completely wrong footing them, while the story twists in another direction. 

He also lets the reader in on certain aspects of the story that the protagonist isn’t aware of, thereby leading the reader to keep reading to find out what happens. They have to keep reading.

This is a prime example of not giving the reader exactly what they want.


Dropping clues for the reader to work out what might happen is another way to tease the reader, and again this helps sustain the tension and keep them reading. Hinting at things to come is an age-old mechanism used in literature and movies alike, but again, you’re not giving the reader exactly what they want. You’re whetting their appetite by deliberately remaining coy and not giving them all the relevant information.

If we write a story that tells the reader everything they need to know from the outset, then the reader has no true reason to keep reading. Many new writers do this in the early chapters of their novels – they explain everything in the misguided belief that’s what the reader wants, but it means the rest of the story crumbles later on because the reader knows pretty much everything. That means there will be few surprises, twists or revelations.

And trying to add these as an aforethought tends to make the whole thing contrived because they don’t always seamlessly fit together and don’t always make sense.

Hold back on information, keep secrets and foreshadow whenever possible. Don’t be afraid to play games with the reader or mislead them. Close doors, put barriers up and lead them on a wild good chase if you want to.

But, sometimes, it pays to not always give them what they want.

Next week: Emulate but don’t copy – Why you should avoid writing like your favourite authors.

Saturday, 21 January 2012

Dialogue versus Description

Dialogue versus description – or in simple terms – how much of each should you aim for in your fiction?

This is a common question asked by many writers, and more often than not, if you ask a question like this you will get a hundred different answers, simply because there are no absolutes in fiction. Some people say lots of description is preferable, others say lots of dialogue is better. This can leave writers understandably confused.

The one thing to remember is that fiction is about balance. The dialogue to description ratio doesn’t have to be an exact science, but a healthy amount of both is better than a story that relies heavily on one and not the other, which may leave the whole thing lacking. This then begs the question - why does there need to be a balance?

Dialogue and description depend on each other; they co-exist, rather like strawberries and cream. One without the other just isn’t the same and sometimes it doesn’t work so well.

One element imparts vital information and moves the story forward. The other paints the background, creates a fictional world and supports the entire story with added layers. Every story needs both of these elements.


Some stories thrive on a lot of dialogue, short stories in particular. That’s because the market and genre sometimes demands it. Women’s magazines, for instance, use more dialogue in their structure than description simply to move the story along within the short amount of words allocated. Those kinds of stories won’t have time to dwell on luscious descriptions when keeping to 1000 – 5000 word counts.

If the word count is more generous, however, then the writer can afford to add more description to bolster the story and therefore help balance it, so something like 3000 – 10,000 words has more chance of balance between the two elements.

Some stories need description. Thriller and horror style short stories, for example, really do need something more substantial than large chunks of dialogue, otherwise how will you show your reader the atmosphere, emotion, tension or suspense? Romance markets also like plenty of description to create mood, emotion and allure.

If you are writing a story primarily made up of dialogue, remember that you can only achieve so much with it.

A novel in particular needs more than large blocks of dialogue to sustain itself, otherwise there is a risk of the reader losing interest simply because there isn’t much for them to go on. With 80,000 – 100,000 words to play with, you can be very generous with both dialogue AND description. 


A novel or short story top heavy on dialogue will miss a critical key factor in fiction writing, and that is the ability to SHOW the reader what is happening, to move the story forward, create a sense of atmosphere and tension and create an overall picture for the reader. Dialogue can’t really do that, but description can.

Conversely, if you have too much description and not enough dialogue in your novel, then you risk alienating the reader because then they have to trawl through large chunks of it, at the risk of becoming bored. Pages and pages of endless text is hard work unless the writer can thoroughly and cleverly engage the reader.

And here’s a strange thing: Short stories made up entirely of well-constructed description do work – but they have to be very well written.

Dialogue only stories, on the other hand, don’t work. This is because there is nothing for the reader – no sense of mood, no sense of conflict, no atmosphere and no emotion to hook them, other than a few descriptive sentences here and there. These types tend to be sterile and lack lustre and don’t always engage the reader.

As previously mentioned, the balance between the two doesn’t have to be exact. Look at your favourite novels and the majority will have a healthy description: dialogue ratio.

One important point here - having the right balance of description and dialogue increases your chances of being published. Why? Because editors expect it, they are looking for that balance between the two, and they like detail.

Of course, this doesn’t mean your story has to be middle of the road, or ‘safe’, or constructed exactly to ‘how to’ writing instructions, it simply means you have paid attention to the structure of the overall story and made sure one element doesn’t overshadow the other.

Your writing should have a healthy balance of both.

Next week: Why you shouldn’t give the reader what they want.

Saturday, 14 January 2012

Do too many characters spoil the story?

Often I’m asked how many characters are too many for a story, but the honest answer would be to assess the story or novel and make an informed decision on how many characters are central to the story. In truth, there is no definitive right or wrong. Some novels have many characters, like the Harry Potter novels, and Lord of the Rings, while others have a bare minimum.

Firstly, too few characters are not necessarily a bad thing. Many novels have just a few main and secondary characters and they work well because the main focus is constantly on them throughout the novel. That means there aren’t less important characters stealing some of that limelight, and thus fewer subplots to write and to keep an eye on.

In short stories it’s somewhat different – the fewer the characters, the better. That’s because you may only have between 1000 and 10,000 words to tell the story and having too many characters may complicate the whole thing and make it difficult for the reader to keep track of them. Most short stories thrive on 2 – 4 characters.

But what about too many characters?

Having too many characters in a novel can complicate things. This is where beginners tend to trip up by throwing in lots of characters into the mix with a multitude of viewpoints, thinking that it will make the story more exciting, but this only detracts from the story for the reader trying to follow so many people. The problem is that there is a tendency for the reader not to empathise with or relate to the characters because there are so many of them to follow.

Not only that, but trying to write each individual character, complete with personalities etc, can become confusing for the writer. Sometimes there are many secondary characters with subplots, and the writer then realises that those subplots need concluding by the end of the novel. Sometimes this complicates things and the writer needs to have a major character cull o get back on track.

The other thing to avoid when there is a large amount of characters – and this is common – is upstaging. This where secondary or minor characters take over and inadvertently shadow the main character. If that happens, the balance of characters is wrong and needs correcting. Never allow secondary characters to overshadow your main character.

As with many elements in fiction, however, it’s all about balance. The question you need to ask is how many characters can effectively tell the story?

Pivotal characters – the protagonist and the antagonist - are the main focus of every story. In addition, there are the secondary characters, but only those who are still central to telling the story.

Peripheral characters – minor ones - might only have a few lines or maybe appear in the background, and so will not clog the narrative with superfluous ‘padding’. Keeping peripheral characters to a minimum is wise. The rule of thumb is ‘if they’re not key to the plot, then cut them’.

In any story, the writer is looking for character development; fully rounded personalities that can move the story forward and evoke the reader’s empathy and emotions through conflict. It’s important that your reader cares for you characters. If you have too many people loading the narrative, the reader won’t know which character to bother with.

In an ideal world, the number of main characters would be around 4 to 10. Secondary characters would be around the same numbers. Peripheral and background characters should be just that, flitting in and out of the background.

So, can you still engage your reader with, say, 25 characters? Can you do it with less than 10?

Think carefully about how many of your characters can tell the story, think about their development and conflicts, and decide what will be best for you. Find the right balance of characters and remember who is central to your plot.

Next week: Dialogue versus description.

Saturday, 7 January 2012

The Importance of Feedback

This is a subject previously touched upon, but it deserves another look.

The process of feedback is very important for a writer, whether the feedback is negative or positive; it still forms an integral part of a writer’s journey and their ability to learn.

It can be daunting letting someone else read your work, because you are not entirely sure whether they will a) understand it, b) dislike it or c) like it. 

Handing over work for feedback is the act of opening yourself up for the worst criticism, but by letting others read your work, you are inviting their opinion, their response, and without it, or indeed constructive critique, you will be unable to grow as a writer.

One of the most important reasons for feedback is to enable others to see errors in your story which are not always apparent to you, they will tell you if the story works, they will comment on your characters and description, they will tell you of it all makes sense and so on. 

This process allows you to understand your story from an objective viewpoint because a fresh pair of eyes will guarantee to find flaws.

Receiving feedback is easy. Accepting feedback is altogether different. In truth, no one likes to be criticised, but writers have to accept this as part of the job, whether they like it or not. Sometimes we’re right and sometimes we’re wrong. It’s accepting that we got it wrong that separates the true writers from those who value arrogance above all else.

The feedback that is most ignored by writers is the kind of feedback that he or she finds hard to accept, because they will find a hundred excuses to justify it, such as ‘they didn’t understand what I was trying to say’ or ‘they don’t appreciate the genre’ or ‘I deliberately wrote it to be like that…’

Feedback highlights the issues that the writer hasn’t spotted, so it doesn’t matter whether the reader doesn’t understand the genre, or whether they are the world’s greatest grammarian, what they are giving is an honest, open opinion. All writers should respect this and then re-examine the work to see where they can make improvements.

It doesn’t really matter who provides the feedback, whether it is a friend, an avid reader or whether it’s a professional critique, each one is still a reader. And it’s what they think of the work that counts.

And of course, once you have some feedback, it’s how you deal with it that is important. Do you shrug it off with arrogance? Do you take on board their comments? Do you examine what you need to do in order to improve? 

What you do determines the kind of writer you are, and how much you want to learn.

Rewriting and editing following reader feedback is just as important as the creative part of writing, because it allows you to take a critical look at it again. The ability to reflect on your own work is a fundamental principle of creative writing. This means you need to be able to edit your work appropriately, you need to be able to take on board any comments and make your work much better. Some writers prefer to eschew this process and plough on regardless. These writers are seldom published.

Antisthenes once said, “Not to unlearn what you have learned is the most necessary kind of learning”.

Antisthenes, once a pupil of Socrates, was onto a good thing there. In other words, by not learning from your errors, you will never learn. And if you don’t learn from such mistakes, you never improve and grow.

There is a very simple process to follow – whether the feedback is good, bad or indifferent.

Once you have written your work, give it to people to read to gain their opinions and views. Their responses might be very positive, they might be very negative, or they could be constructive. Once you have that feedback, it’s important to reflect on it, to understand why or how, to interpret their analysis and to form objective judgement based on their views. Only then can you go back, edit and improve – as long as you are not afraid of humility and you have the desire to learn. 

  • Write and edit your work
  • Let others read it, gain some feedback
  • Examine all opinions and comments
  • Reflect on your work
  • Edit and improve 

I’ll leave the last word to Mark Twain: "The public is the only critic whose opinion is worth anything at all".

Next week: Do too many characters spoil the story?

Monday, 2 January 2012

Passive Voice

This is a subject previously touched upon, but still causes problems for writers.

Passive voice is one of those things that give all writers a headache from time to time, because sometimes it’s needed and sometimes it isn’t, but knowing when to correctly use passive voice causes the confusion.

Firstly, the use of passive voice isn’t always grammatically incorrect. This creates uncertainty for writers, who believe it’s a writing no-no, but there are times when passive voice is actually required, and preferred.

But what exactly is passive voice?

Passive voice is produced by using an auxiliary verb (e.g. to be), which is used with a past participle. If you are not sure of the verb forms of to be, they are - is, are, am, was, were, have been, has been, had been, will be, will have been and being.

A past participle is a form of the verb that usually, though not exclusively, ends in ‘-ed’. Verbs are either active or passive.

In passive voice, the target of the action takes the subject position, for example, ‘the plant was watered by John’, or ‘the door was closed by Amy’. In other words, both John and Amy are the recipients of the action, rather than the other way around, where the subjects (John and Amy) are doing the action.

In the active voice, these sentences would look like this:

John watered the plant.
Amy closed the door.

In an active sentence, the subject performs the action. John is the subject of the sentence because he is doing the action, therefore the sentence is active.

Amy is also the subject of the sentence because she performs the action of closing the door. Again, the sentence is active. 

You need to identify who or what is doing the action; therefore, if the subject is performing the action then the sentence is active. If, however, the subject of the sentence is receiving the action, then you have constructed a passive sentence.

The word to look out for that contrives passive sentences is ‘was’. Avoid too much use of ‘was’ in your narrative.

Of course, when we’re in the flow of writing, we don’t always spot passive sentences, so during the editing stages we can go back and correct them because we know what to look for.

As already mentioned above, passive voice isn’t entirely bad. There will be instances where your spellchecker will highlight a passive sentence (rather over zealously) and fill your screen with green little underlines. For instance, in the second paragraph of this article the sentence ‘sometimes it’s needed’ is passive. In the second paragraph, ‘we’ve been taught’ is also passive, however it’s preferable to leave the sentences passive otherwise the flow and fluidity of the whole thing will become awkward if changed, so in this instance passive is preferred.

Passive sentences are very common in dialogue, and are typical representations of everyday speech, so there is little need to change them, for instance:

‘She has been told several times,’ he said. 

‘Has been’ is the passive part of the sentence, but it’s in keeping with what we’d say in real life, so there is no need to change it, otherwise the dialogue will become stilted if we were to change it to ‘Told several times, she was.’

So while some passive sentences need eliminating, some are required. Learn about auxiliary verbs and past participles, become familiar with them to help you spot passive sentences. Don’t always rely on your spellchecker.

On the whole, limit passive voice, otherwise your narrative might become awkward. Keep the writing tight and concise and remember to keep sentences active rather than passive wherever possible.

Next week: The importance of feedback