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Saturday, October 17, 2020

The reader's first impression, or 'what comes before the plot'

Writing.

You're an aspiring author. And your work just... sucks. Potential readers run away with polite excuses, and it seems they can't understand your great vision. Fear not! You can get better, or at least better than me 😁

It's not that hard. But before you craft wonderful plots, believable characters, and encompassing worlds, you might want to have a quick peek at the basics, and what kind of first impression your work will leave behind.


Disclaimer

I am neither a professional nor a successful writer, so please take all my advice with a lot of salt. But I'm happy that some people found my words helpful, and perhaps they might help you.

There are a huge number of resources online that delve more deeply into these different topics (and deal with them way better than I do). Use this post as a starting point, but Google any of the topics that you feel you need more help with.

(If you have a link you like me to add, drop me a line and I'll check it out.)


So, form over content?

Absolutely not! But if you don't package it right, you will lose readers. Period. So, get the basics right, then you don't have to worry about those pesky little things when you come to what really matters: your story.

So, first let's have a look at the very first impression your work will leave behind, which is very much defined by its 'format'.

Another way to think of this is: you're a carpenter, crafting fine works. Before you can do so you must learn to use your tools...

Ask yourself: if someone else wrote your work, would you read it?


A short 'quick reference' list

Check your work before publishing or sharing it. It doesn't have to be perfect yet, but if you want feedback you may have to pay attention to the following aspects. Try to understand them more or less, and then after you've written your first chapter check it using this little checklist.

Your readers will definitely appreciate it!


Format

  • Paragraphing
  • Person and tense
  • Dialogue
  • Commas
  • Clarity
  • Repetition

Other
  • Grammar
  • Non-native writers
  • Knowledge
  • Motivation
  • Logic
  • Consequences
  • Alive and living
  • Dirt and flavor
  • Show don't tell


Why?



Reader versus writer


You're the writer, the author. You know what to expect, you know the worlds your characters live in. You know what goes on in their minds, but the reader does not.


So, things that are perfectly clear and logical to you, are not to the reader.


To make it easier for the reader there are certain conventions to follow, certain ways to present the story. That will make it much easier for a reader to follow your tale. A reader should spend his or her time reading and enjoying, not to puzzle out the exact meaning of a sentence, who does what, or where that comma should go.


That's your job, as a writer.



Why even care?


True. If you write entirely for your own enjoyment, you should not. But if you want to reach a larger audience on an online platform such as Wattpad, you should write in such a way people can enjoy your works. If you want to become a professional writer, you should definitely make your work as accessible as possible, to reach the biggest audience possible. It's your income, after all!



Save time on editing


No matter how good your writing, you probably still want to do a full re-check of your work. Wouldn't it be great if that re-edit (which is one of the most boring things to do when it comes to writing) would cost you less time, and would allow you to focus on story-related issues, instead of grammar or format? The more you get right up front, the easier editing will be.



Get feedback


If you want others to give feedback, then don't make it too hard to figure out what you're writing, where lines start and end, or which character speaks or does something.


Unless they're paid, those commentors / critiquers / editors are willing to help you for free. Make their life easier by properly preparing your work. Don't expect anyone to have a good look at what you wrote if it looks horrible, even if it's a great story with fantastic characters in a unique world.


If you think that courtesy isn't worth it, you might consider another hobby...



Format



Paragraphing


Before doing anything else, first format your text properly. By giving it the correct format, you'll accomplish ten things:


  1. Readers will find it easier to understand what is going on
  2. It will be easier to find and fix your mistakes
  3. It will be easier to find and fix your mistakes
  4. It will be easier to find and fix your mistakes
  5. It will be easier to find and fix your mistakes
  6. It will be easier to find and fix your mistakes
  7. It will be easier to find and fix your mistakes
  8. It will be easier to find and fix your mistakes
  9. It will be easier to find and fix your mistakes
  10. Readers will find it easier to understand what is going on


No matter what you do, first fix your paragraphing! 




Person and tense


There are four common forms to write your story in. As a general rule, pick one, and do not switch. You might decide to combine different styles to great effect, but it isn't easy, and only a few can pull it off. For now, I suggest sticking to one flavor.


There is no 'best' choice. Pick a form that matches the story you want to tell, and consider the readers. For example, First Person / Present Tense may get a strong, negative response from certain readers.


  • First Person / Present Tense
  • First Person / Past Tense
  • Third Person / Present Tense
  • Third Person / Past Tense


First Person / Present Tense


Everything happens now, as seen from the point of view of the main character. It has become more popular with the rise online platforms but is often frowned upon as being 'non-literary', often being used by younger and beginning writers. Be careful of self-inserts and repetition (more about that later).


Example

  • I watch the man in green play his flute. The children dance and dance, until they pass the gate of Hamelen. That's when I stand up and draw my sword.


Books


First person / Past Tense


Everything is written in the past tense, from 'inside' the character. Some writers may want to jump from character to character, which can get confusing. If you do so, consider focussing on a single character each chapter.


Example

  • I watched the man in green play his flute. The children danced and danced, until they passed the gate of Hamelen. That's when I stood up and drew my sword.


Books

  • Roger Zelazny - Amber


Third Person / Present Tense


Everything happens now, as seen from an outside viewpoint. This style often jumps from character to character. 


Example

  • He watches the man in green play his flute. The children dance and dance, until they pass the gate of Hamelen. That's when he stands up and draws his sword.


Books

  • Neal Stephenson - Cryptonomicon


Third Person / Past Tense / Objective


Everything is written in the past tense, from 'outside' the characters. The reader never is told what characters think or feel, but is only observing their actions.


Example

  • Peter watched the man in green play his flute. The children danced and danced, until they passed the gate of Hamelen. That's when he stood up and drew his sword.


Books

  • Suggestions welcome!


Third Person / Past Tense / Limited


Everything is written in the past tense, describing the world as seen from a single character, including that character's feelings, observations, etcetera.


Note that the perspective never changes. The story is told as if seen through that same character, from beginning to end, and the reader is witness to his / her feelings and emotions.


Example

  • Peter watched the man in green play his flute. The children danced and danced, until they passed the gate of Hamelen. That's when he stood up and drew his sword. He felt the tension in the air, and considered his options. The man in green looked a little too happy.


Books

  • Suggestions welcome!



Third Person / Past Tense / Omniscient


This is the most common format.


Everything is written in the past tense, describing the world as seen from multiple characters, including their feelings, observations, etcetera.


Note that the perspective often changes. Some authors may focus on a single character for part of a chapter, or part of the story, then continue with another character, limiting themselves to that character for the duration. Other stories may offer insight in the emotions of multiple characters at the same time in the same scene.


Example

  • Peter watched the man in green play his flute. The children danced and danced, until they passed the gate of Hamelen. That's when he stood up and drew his sword. He felt the tension in the air, and considered his options. The man in green felt too good to pay attention.


Books

  • Terry Pratchet - anything Discworld
  • J R R Tolkien - Lord of the Rings



See also:




Whatever you do, make a choice and stick to it.



Dialogue


Writing good, witty dialogue is difficult. What helps is following a specific format, which (dare I say it) requires good Paragraphing.




Commas


Commas are a disaster for non-native English speakers. Compared with all other possible problems they are just a minor thing, but it's best to have them (roughly) fixed before working on clarity.




Clarity (references)


With format, tense and dialogue fixed, the next thing is to make sure the reader understands who or what you are referring to. Who is doing what, who is saying which.


Re-read your chapter, and on every line, ask yourself: could the reader misunderstand what I've written? Who is the he or she I refer to? Again, proper paragraphing helps immensely!


“Oh, that?” The dark-skinned stranger looked at the raven in his hand and raised it. “That's my meal.” he said.


Ted aimed his bow at him.


The captain looked at him in silence. “I understand you have a thing for birds.” He carefully threw the raven at him.



With some minor changes:


“Oh, this?” The dark-skinned stranger looked at the raven in his hand and raised it. “That's my meal,” he said.


Ted aimed his bow a the stranger.


The stranger looked in silence at the short man holding the bow, then sighed. “I understand you have a thing for birds.” He carefully threw the raven at the man.



Repetition


Avoid endless repetition. Look for synonyms, different ways to build sentences. Nothing is more annoying than every second sentence starting with the same word.



Other



That's it for format. The following items are not something related to structure or format, but they are so common I decided to add them here, just as short reminders. 



Grammar


Work on the grammar. Find the mistakes and fix them. Things don't have to be perfect, but they must be good enough. What is good enough depends on your audience. You'll get away with a lot when writing online fan fiction, but your readers will find and complain about any mistake they find in a purchased work.


Improve your English! Check out these sites:




Grammarly


Tools like Grammarly, though not perfect, do help, but do not completely rely on them. When in doubt, look op the correct grammar yourself.



Non-native writers


... face additional own challengers.




Suspension of disbelief ('too easy')


If you, as a writer, stretch things too far the reader will laugh and walk away. In movies and TV shows, this 'leniency' by the viewer is often typified as 'Suspension of Disbelief', and is a whole topic by itself.


If you doubt you may have stretched things too far, ask yourself this question: are things 'too easy' or not?



Knowledge


You (the author) may know what a certain symbol means, may speak a certain language. You may know everything about the relation between two characters. But does the reader?


Or, perhaps just as important if not more so: does the character? If the character acts upon knowledge he or she can not possibly possess, it will break the illusion.



Motivation


Whenever your character does something, ask yourself: why? Does he / she have a reason to do something? Do you think your reader will believe the action of your character, if that character has no reason to do something?


What is acceptable, and what is not, depends on the reader, the genre, and the audience. You may be able to get away with quite a bit, but take things too far and 'poof' the illusion is broken.



Logic


If your character walks outside, and it rains, he or she will get wet. Will that affect weapons? Will matches get wet? If your character wears armor, can he or she still sneak up on to an unsuspecting guard? If your story is set in 1940, then there won't be mobile phones, not even electronics.



Consequences


Anything that happens, has consequences. Make sure those are covered. Throw a stone through a window, and the rain will come in, making the room cold and wet. Kill the father, and his children may come for revenge. Spend your money on booze, and there's nothing left to feed the horse.



Alive and living


A world should also be alive. There's a difference between a 'living' world and a 'world alive'. Not sure if I use the right wording here, but it's the way I think of it.



Living


A 'living' world never stops. There are things happening outside the MC's view, outside his / her control. If the MC goes on a holiday, the war in country XYZ still continues. Someone else broke into the Louvre and stole the Mona Lisa whilst he was admiring the Eifel tower.



Alive


A world 'alive' is a world that has been 'lived in'. Things aren't squeaky clean, there's wear and tear and neglect, it's not only action / talk / action / talk, but there's flavor in the air. This can range from the smell of a flower, the crack in the window, or the texture of the carpet. To make a world come alive, it needs some dirt and grime.



Dirt and flavor


Nothing is new. Make the story believable by adding dirt, describe the environment. This is a very personal thing, and depends on the taste of the reader. Some readers like to hear bout the world the characters live in, the texture of the clothes, the moss on the stones. Other readers prefer to jump straight into the action.


Keep in mind that some dirt and flavor is required to make the world a believable place. A story without flavor isn't a story, it's an accountants' yearly report.



How to


Adding 'dirt' or 'flavor' is pretty damn easy. First decide on how much you want to add (it's easy to go overboard). You might also consider the impact of the flow of your story. Too much 'flavor' in an action scene may make it stilted and unreadable.


Ready? Then sit down and close your eyes. Walk through the scenes. Put yourself int he position of the character. What does he / she see?


'He walked up to the building.' becomes 'He took the narrow path towards the old building. The weather had not been kind to the masonry.'


'He opened the door.' becomes 'The door loudly protested when he opened it.'


Consider the other senses as well. What does he / she see? Smell? Hear? Feel? Touch? And how does that affect the character, emotion-wise? What does the character experience?


Add touches of that. What does he / she feel under his / her toes. Does it rain? How does it smell? Sweaty armpits? Are his trousers too tight? Itching buttocks? Just don't go overboard.


'Dirt' is what turns a 'beginners' story into a real-world, full of life and history.



How much detail?


This isn't just a matter of personal taste, but also of relevance.


It's obvious that not every location should be detailed perfectly, especially if the scene isn't about describing the place. The amount of detail would differ from writer to writer, scene to scene, but should be relevant to the narrator. Too much could bore the reader, not enough and the world looks sterile.


For example, a first-person narrator, returning home after twenty years at sea, is bound to go into (painful) excruciating detail, but a third-person, secondary character is unlikely to notice the details. Such a character wouldn't comment on the fine carving of the furniture unless that character is a woodworker himself.


In other words: use what's required to bring the scene to life. Don't overdo it.



Detail isn't prose!


Flowery prose can be horrible. Here are two examples I encountered. The top one isn't that bad, but it takes an 'acquired taste'...


In the cold, dark night his soft steps lead her from the flower laden carts towards the endless marble steps that lead up to the Jade palace where multicolored birds sang like inspired muses, competing for the attention of the listener. The daunty angle his sea blue hat sat at couldn't distract her from the blinding headache she had been carrying for days on end, nor from the torrent of beats her heart unleashed, every time she looked upon his long, golden locks, so very different from the black hear resting on the shabby brown coats of her bothersome, loud and bumbling countryman.


It can get a little tiresome. Would you read something that rambles on like that, endlessly? Here's another example that uses some nice imagery but might be a bit wordy, depending on your taste.


She placed her hands on her knees, steadying her balance as she gazed out the window, seeing the stars dancing with their partners until an idea struck her. She smirked devilishly. He said we had to be there within ten minutes, but he never said how we should get there. She stepped towards the windows, gulping a large breath of stale air. Dense smoke glided its way out from her lips. Slow and curbed burning, smoldering fire. She let out a powerful breath, her chest rising and falling with a gust of burnt orange blazing from her mouth. The murky, glowing embers leaped and twirled in a flowing dance, turning to hot swirling air before tasting the cold glass and shattering into pieces. Her breath seemed to stutter in her lungs before she could let it go, suffering from the tension draining from her body. After a little more than five minutes, her breathing returned to its normal pattern. Climbing over the ledge, she squatted down a bit to get her head through.


Perhaps one or two pages, but not a hundred. If you don't like to read other people's endless prose, then consider not writing it yourself either. It's just a thought 😁



Show don't tell


Then, finally, one of the most talked-about topics. There are different explanations and takes. For now I'm going to keep it very simple.


Don't

  • I could see the car in front of the building was red.
  • I see the lights of the city lighting up the sky.


Do

  • The car in front of the building was red.
  • The lights of the city lighted up the sky.


(I'll add some better examples another time.)


See also:



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