Monday Motivation: How not to write the bits that readers skip
Elmore Leonard said: “Don’t write the bits that readers’ skip.” One reader* asks the obvious question: What are the bits that readers skip?
On the face of it, it’s obvious: they skip the boring bits.
But beneath that rather banal answer lies a much more complex answer that’s related to another more pointed question: “What makes our attention wander when we’re reading?”
So let’s dig a little deeper.
My attention wanders when I’m no longer certain in what direction the story is going. My attention wanders when I don’t really care whether the protagonist succeeds or fails in his quest. My attention wanders when the stakes are so inconsequential that, even if I like the protagonist, it seems they’re intent on forging a path towards a more-or-less pointless destination.
Let’s dissect each of those propositions.
Every story ever written is about a protagonist in search of a solution to a problem that to him or her is all-important. You capture the attention of your reader early in the story by detailing that problem – and the protagonist’s commitment to solving it. In some way or other every scene that follows tracks the protagonist’s path towards a solution.
So let’s say that your protagonist is trying to track down something important to him. This might be a will that his father has left but that his antagonist has concealed somewhere. It might be, as in Donna Tartt’s Goldfinch, a picture that’s gone missing that the protagonist seeks.
If you write scenes in which the protagonist goes completely off piste, and instead of doing something – anything – that promotes the success of his primary aim, or reflects the various moods or emotions engendered by that quest, indulges in an unrelated excursion, then you are, literally, losing the plot.
So, in a manuscript that I’m currently advising on, the hero, instead of sticking to his last, has a little romantic fling. Now, romance is always interesting, of course – but if it’s purely gratuitous, playing no other role than to titillate the reader, then it should be tucked away for use in another story.
In short, my attention wanders and I grow bored, or frustrated or impatient if the writer seems to have lost her way.
Secondly, my attention wanders, as I said, when I don’t care whether the protagonist succeeds or fails in his quest. And the reason I don’t care is simply because the writer hasn’t succeeded in making her protagonist one I can empathise with.
We empathise with characters if we share their preoccupations, their hungers, their desires and their flaws. Create a detective who feels nauseous at the sight of blood, a funambulist who suffers from a fear of heights, a larcenist who experiences acute pangs of guilt, or a mob boss who’s brought low by panic attacks, and, other things being equal, I’ll be interested to see how they cope with the obstacles you throw in their path.
But if I don’t care what fate holds in store for a character, then my attention will wander to the degree that I’ll throw the book at the wall in indignation. (I’ve done this on more than one occasion.) Writers, I’ve said before, promise implicitly to keep their readers entertained – and an essential part of that promise is that their protagonists will be engaging. (Perhaps readers should have the right to sue writers who fail in this respect. Just saying.)
And finally, my attention wanders when the stakes are inappropriately low. This is not to say that the stakes have to be objectively high. The fate of Faust’s soul doesn’t figure high on my list of priorities – but to Faust it’s all-consuming. So when he sells his soul to the devil for unlimited knowledge and all the carnal pleasures he can imagine, when it comes to the final reckoning his soul is of immeasurable value. The stakes could not be higher.
Or when Dave loses Dogger, the stuffed toy which means more to him than anything else in his life, we realize how large the ache and high the stakes. I wasn’t surprised to learn that Shirley Hughes’s Dogger has sold over ten million copies.
So give us a story that sticks to the tracks, a character that we can engage with and stakes that we can see are high – and I’d bet that Elmore Leonard and I would not skip many bits.
P.S. There’s more to this subject than I’ve been able to squish into a single blog. A writer intent on keeping her reader fully engaged will also not indulge in gratuitous description, tedious explanation, or scenes that lack the tension that only literary conflict can supply. But more on that later, perhaps.
* Thank you, Sandi Durnford-Slater!
Read Jo-Anne’s latest blog: ‘Writing Secrets: Why you shouldn’t be using dialogue tags‘
Stow-on-the-Wold Writing Weekend: 7 – 9 June