One of the most important parts of being a good storyteller is the ability to get our reader’s rapt attention, and keep it. The opening few lines get their interest and set the scene, but it is the subsequent sentences, paragraphs and chapters that determine whether they’re coming along for the ride.
What throws readers off? There are several things that can remove the immersion. A wandering storyline, a plot twist that doesn’t ring true, word repeats, even poor editing and typos can break the spell. Perhaps the biggest problem I have with reading a book is when there are structural problems. As soon as the reader has to stop, back up, and work out who said what, or why they said it, or connect what they just read with what they read before, the moment is lost.
Perhaps we can illustrate it this way: You’re sitting at the dining table with your children, telling them a story. You’re leaning forward, intense gaze moving from one set of wide eyes to the next, and you are delighted to see their little mouths open in anticipation of the next bit. You know, the good bit, where the baddies get their comeuppance or the captive princess makes her bid for freedom. You put both hands down on the table. “And then…” you say dramatically. They all lean in a little bit more… And the phone rings. Or the dog starts barking. Or the cat sends a piece of china crashing to the floor. Everyone jumps in alarm, and you just know that even if you finish the story after attending to the interruption, you’ll never get those kids back to the thrilling place they were before.
Structural problems do the same thing; they ruin the moment. It may not happen at a dramatic place. Indeed, they can happen anywhere. Filling in some background, moving the plot along with some dialogue, it doesn’t matter. What counts is the breakage of immersion that happens when we’re interrupted in our reading.
A good way to deal with structure is to re-read what you’ve written. But, do it at a remove from the writing phase. Put aside some time each working day to sit down with a cup or glass of something you enjoy, and read through your work from the day before. I personally do this at the start of my working time. Forget about what you plan to write today, just relax and read through your previous day’s work.
What you’re looking for is a snag, a little delay in the flow. It’s almost like a safe-cracker feeling for that little click that tells him there’s a tumbler point there. As soon as you feel that little bump, just highlight the word and read on. Don’t get caught up with what the problem might be. Every time you feel your attention being nudged, highlight that sucker.
Once you’ve gone through it all, it’s time to go back and root out the issues. So, what are we looking for? One thing I am a shocker at is sentence structure. The following is a Drayman classic:
The race was due to start at noon. John was feeling confident and ready to run, but Frank was still having issues with his knee. Mary worried that Frank might end up with a permanent injury, if he was foolish enough to run. Frank pretended he was fine, and was hoping Mary didn’t notice.
This kind of thing drove Rob mad, but I guess everyone has their foibles. There’s nothing actually harming the story there, but it’s a bumpy ride, isn’t it? It’s all about the order of events. It’s how we show our readers what’s going on. We can either take them smoothly from frame to frame, or jerk them about all over the shop, showing them rapid fire bits and pieces of the story like a modern music video.
Have a look at the structure issues involved in that sample. First we’re looking third-person at the time for the race. Then we’re looking at John, then we find out Frank has a knee injury. Then, we’re Mary, having two thoughts the wrong way round. Finally, we’re Frank, pretending and thinking in two different tenses. We’re also seeing the whole shebang as narrative summary. There’s so much there that could be entertaining, if we weren’t being jarred and shoved around. In reality, it’s more of a scene outline than a passage.
Let’s have another go. I’ve chosen Mary as the focus, because women are more emotionally focused than men, thus making the viewpoint logical:
Mary checked her watch: 11:50. Only ten minutes before the race started. She looked across to where Frank was tying up his shoes. She saw him wince as he lifted up his left leg. “Your knee is still bad, Frank.” she said. Why don’t you just forfeit? It’s not worth getting a permanent injury just to beat John.”
Frank smiled weakly at her. “It’s not a problem, love.”
John tapped on the change room door. “You ready Frank? Is that knee going to be okay?”
Mary tried to keep her heart steady as Frank’s face darkened. “I’m fine. I’ll be there in a second.”
By changing the narrative to a scene with dialogue, we’ve actually forced ourselves to put events in the right order. We’ve also prompted the reader’s imagination by alluding to the knee injury rather than just baldly spelling it out. We’ve constructed some scenery; a change room, simply by getting John to tap on the door. We’ve also set up the enmity between Frank and John with Frank’s last comment. Now the reader is wondering about Mary’s involvement here. Is there a love triangle?
I’ve written before about letting a story write itself, and this helps to illustrate that point, too. It could be that, up to the moment where we re-wrote that passage, we hadn’t considered putting Mary in between those two men. Now, it’s almost as if the story is begging for it to happen.
I hope someone finds this as helpful as so much of the advice I find in other people’s blog posts.