After you get that first rough draft done, and your alpha readers have lovingly bled all over it, and it has had time to simmer and mature on the back burner of your mind, you pull it back out and re-read it. Your eye and heart are refreshed from other activities and you read your story with a slight bit of objectivity. What kind of things do you need to tackle?
That’s a question which has been tackled by many a writer. There are whole books written about editing and taking your story to the next level. What I want to talk about today is Communication with your Reader. What are you telling them? Are you telling them one thing and leading them in a different direction? And not on purpose.
For instance, if you tell me that something dangerous is lurking around the house of the protagonist and that she must have an honor guard to school every day, don’t have the honor guard sleep in without something bad happening. If you tell me this and then don’t follow through, I’m not gonna believe your hints. I will have no heightened sense of worry or fear. Obviously, if the protagonist is being lied to about the danger level and this is how they realize it, then it’s okay to do this. Just make sure they confront the lie a.s.a.p. If they don’t, the reader will be confused about what direction the story is going. Your protagonist will also feel flat. Where’s the injustice!!!!? In a similar case, don’t tell me the princess is super super important for the survival of the hidden magical people and then have the hidden magical people abandon her without major questions being asked by the princess. If she just goes on her merry way, I’m gonna wonder why I’m even reading your book.
In a first rough draft, when you’re pouring your heart and soul out onto paper, this is okay. As you edit, you need to look for these unrealistic human interactions and fix them. Always ask yourself if your protagonist and antagonist are acting how people act. If you’re not sure, go get a movie or a book featuring a similar tragedy and let that spur your thoughts. Pay attention when you read other books and watch movies for character development and emotion. This will help you.
If you’re going to hint at the beginning of your book that something strange is going on, but have a time of ‘normal life’ before it really gets going, this communication idea is even more important.
First off, don’t bring the abnormal up just once. Your story is not the only thing going on in a reader’s life. They will need a reminder that something strange is happening. Have a ring in the protagonist pocket which constantly weighs on his mind.
Second, make sure the ‘normal life’ part is interesting enough to carry me on until something bigger and deadlier comes along. Take Harry Potter, for instance. At the beginning of the book, a problem would often present itself. Harry would peck at it through the rest of the novel. Clues are given, other problems weave in and out, but the main part of the book is Harry going to school. Why isn’t that boring? Cause he’s going to wizarding school!!! Even his normal life is really interesting. In addition, we’re only given enough everyday stuff to move us along in the timeline, not every second of Harry’s existence. Whole months of Harry’s life are skipped so the story doesn’t bog down. If you’re ‘normal life’ is very normal and starts to read like a boring journal – woke up, ate oatmeal, went to school, came home, studied, went to bed, repeat – you’re going to need to add in something. That something is conflict!
Third, ask yourself what your main conflict is and what the themes of your story are. These can act as guideposts for each and every paragraph. If a scene isn’t helping the reader understand the character better or moving the plot along, cut it!
Fourth, write interesting descriptions and overviews. You have to give your protagonist a world to live in, don’t skip this. It is the heart and soul of a well-written story. Have beautiful and rich descriptions. If you need to pass over big chunks of time, write an overview, a transitional sentence, or scene to help the reader see that the story is moving on to something else. These are great opportunities to practice wordsmithing!
Fifth, watch how you set reader expectation. I wrote a whole article on reader expectation for Josh Magill’s Blog. Check it out here. Ask your alpha readers and yourself if you set reader expectation correctly and then fulfilled it. There is nothing worse than reading a book you think is one thing only to find it’s not. I’m not talking about twists and turns in the plot. I’m talking about books like Tana French’s novel In the Woods. It is a beautiful book, well written, amazing and not a crime – mystery novel. It’s not about solving mysteries. It’s about how a haunted past affects a cop and about psychopaths walking amongst us. It’s very well written, but it’s marketed as a mystery. If you read it that way, you will be very disappointed. If you don’t, you’ll really enjoy it. It’s vitally important to set a readers’ expectation clearly and correctly. If you’re a paranormal or urban fantasy write, have something fantastical happen. If it’s going to take a while to get to the fantasy, make sure your protagonist life is interesting enough to keep me going, which is conflict! (Again, this doesn’t mean don’t have twists and turns, or normal scenes, just infuse them with conflict!)
If you find moments like this in your story, don’t worry! We all write scenes we think are amazing which ultimately have to be cut. Just save it in a file labeled My Favorite Scenes that No One else Appreciated. Find the moments your characters are flat and flesh them out. If they’re acting without emotion, add some in. Make them believable. And remember, don’t bore your readers, excite their imagination.