Friday, June 28, 2013

Simplify Your Story 1 - Major pillars

Clever, contorted, complex prose drives away readers. Unless you have rabid fans or you've become an honored author or you don't care about having an audience beyond your friends, don't do it. Or edit it out.

Most readers want to be absorbed into a book. They want a page-turner. They do not want to be confused or forced to reread. So clarity is a fundamental value for any writer who aspires to having a large audience. It's okay for drafts before the final to be jumbled, fuzzy, and self-indulgent. They are the prototypes and experiments, not the production models. But the last draft, no matter how deep and challenging the subject matter, needs to be clear and (mostly) effortless to read.

The clarity of your story depends on three major pillars: the beginning, the goal, and the ending.

The beginning is how you make your first impression. For some reason, a lot of amateurs choose to unleash the pyrotechnics here, evoking everything literature profs wallow in. This is no place to fall in love with your poetry, to strain a metaphor, or to make promises you don't intend to keep. The beginning has enough challenges -- setting up the world, establishing the genre, providing the story question, introducing the main characters, and getting things going -- without complicating the job. And all of this needs to be done without making the reader wade through a lot of heavy narration.

Charm. Seduce. Engage. Use simple sentences and make it moment-to-moment. Don't backtrack or reflect. Don't worry about what the reader "needs" to know (or, worse, what you want him/her to know). Above all, don't worry about impressing the reader. Readers don't show up for writers; they show up for stories.

Your audience can only root for the protagonist if they know what the goal is. And I favor Michael Hague's view that there should be a visible goal. If you can't imagine a photograph that shows success -- the outlaw lying dead in the sand, the astronaut stumbling out of his pod alive, the athlete clutching her trophy, or the lovers in an embrace -- try again.

This doesn't mean a story can't have internal goals (it should) or that the protagonist needs to be aware of the true goal (what he/she needs rather than what he/she wants). And it is fine to have the main goal evolve and change. In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy goes from wanting to justify Toto (and herself) to wanting to leave home, to wanting to get back home. It all follows logically, with no confusion. It also nicely raises the urgency along the way. And her enabling goals (getting to the Emerald City, getting the broom of the Wicked Witch) are also clear. (In a larger sense, Dorothy always wants to be secure and -- as represented by Toto -- intact.)

Having the goals change to reflect changes to the character and including tactical goals is just fine. But if a reader cannot state the goal at any point of the book, or if the shift to a new goal is difficult to explain, that's a problem. And, from my reading of unpublished manuscripts, it's a common problem.

Some protagonists seem to have Attention Deficit Disorder, constantly picking up and discarding goals, abandoning tactics before they come to fruition, circling back to earlier goals, and changing their minds. They also seem to make unexplainable choices, what a mentor of mine called "advancing the plot by stupidity." They pursue multiple goals at once, seemingly trying to edge forward on many front simultaneously. Multi-tasking heroes are crazy-making.

The ending is where the writer closes the deal. Like beginnings, endings need to do a lot of things at once -- paying off the investment the reader has made in emotions and time. I go into detail on creating endings in other posts, but, above all, the audience must know what happened. Did the protagonist succeed or fail? Did he or she grow and change? Does success make the world better or worse? Does the ending make sense?

I'm all for nuances and the bittersweet and unintended consequences and even a few blanks for the reader to fit in. However, 1) none of this should be unintentional, so if a beta reader praises an accidentally complex ending, fix it, and 2) there still should be a Hague photograph, even if its deeper meaning is ambiguous. One more thing: unless a sequel is built into the story, tie up the important loose ends. Don't frustrate the reader.

Of course, there's a lot more to simplifying a story. Sub-plots need to support the main story. Viewpoints need to be consistent and properly selected. Language needs to be cleaned up, refined, and distilled. Failing in these areas can pull readers out of your stories and make them stop reading. I'll cover these aspects in future posts.

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