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Common ways to abuse your readers

April 22, 2009

If you want a sure fire way to turn your readers away in droves, clutter your inbox with negative feedback and wallpaper your lounge room with rejection letters; then it is to abuse them by treating them like idiots. Short stories have rules of their own – especially flash fiction, the sort of stories many of Write Anythings readers pursue. You only have a limited amount of time to get your message across, so don’t abuse your readers by wasting time or words on unimportant or mundane details, bad structure or clichés.

Writers have a few responsibilities.

  • Readers deserve to be delivered a great story. We as writers have a duty not only to them, but to the essence of the story itself, to shape and expose it in the most interesting manner we are able.
  • We have a responsibility to ourselves to honour the gift or talent we hold in weaving this story and
  • We owe our muse, be it an inner or outer projection, to remain strong enough to stab to the inner heart of the story; not to wimp away or cop out when the going gets tough.

Having assisted in editing and reviewing a number of short storie over the years, I have formulated a list of the “Most Wanted” abuses a writer can undertake.

Show not tell – A stark image of a naked body may bring certain emotions to some people, but the addition of  whisper thin draping and dimmed lighting, will allure a greater percentage of people; some sighting it as porn, others expounding the qualities of the artistic manner its portrayed. The same can be said about a story. Tantalize your reader with snippets of information – don’t do a full frontal immediately.

Misuse conventions of dialogue. Overuse of things like screamed, shouted, said, yelled, fumed. The most famous writer who abuses this convention is Stephenie Meyer – (Twilight for those living under a rock) By telling the reader how the character states their words, tells them that you as the writer have no faith in the readers intelligence or imagination, nor do you have faith in your ability to convey the emotions your characters are experiencing. If you are writing evocatively you don’t need to tell your readers how the characters convey their dialogue.

State the Bleedingly Obvious. Only mention details that are important – or interesting. An example of this might be “she sat in the café chair at the table across from him ”, if she was sitting on the floor in the café or she’d been sitting there for so long her bottom was numb, it might be important or interesting.

Awful clichés – avoid boring clichés such as the “rugged trapper”, “kind prostitute”, “crooked cop”, “gorgeous girl”, “her flashing green eyes”, the sighing constantly scenes or the melodramatic or predictable storylines. That is, unless it is important to the story that the girl was drop dead gorgeous – where a plain or normal looking girl would do exactly the same things….or that was your objective and purpose – some very clever twists can be undertaken by using these overused conventions and giving a new look at the situation.

Don’t think you are smarter than your readers – and try and prove it. Your readers will correct your grammar, point out your spelling mistakes and misues of tenses and other writing conventions quicker than you can hiccup. There will always be someone who knows more Latin, more about pigeons or is a ballistics expert and will read your story and rip it to shreds for its inaccuracies.  Its best to start off on a good standing, without insulting thier intelligence first.

Spoon feed your readers – See notes on Stating the Obvious and Show not Tell. There is a fine line between handing the story to the reader on a platter and making them search for the meanings between the lines. Readers actually enjoy being a little confused as the story unfolds. However, some plots and themes are so obscure, only the writer can safely discuss them – so care does need to be taken not to be TOO obscure.  Some genres such as science fiction or fantasy need a little more detail of the worlds and society make up, but clever use of dialogue and other show not tell conventions can be used to by pass paragraphs of explanation.

Give Excruciating detail on what they are wearing or character descriptions – unless it is integral to the story. The reader will always create what a character may look like in their own minds eye, without you laying it down in detail. Information on what the character ate for breakfast or wore to work, unless it is crucial to the plot development – or characterization, is best left out. Some readers find it disconcerting to be suddenly thrust a description of the outward appearance of a character and may inwardly battle this image while attempting to continue to read.

Head out on the Road to Nowhere. Especially with Flash Fiction, your story needs to be punchy, to the point and have direction. If your story wafts about, your loyal readers will get to the end and feel cheated, dissatisfied and that they have just wasted their precious time. As a writer, you need to invest in your readers, not allowing the to leave your space feeling cold or lost.

Lilith Saintcrows article got me started on this track of thought and is well worth reading. She discusses how her muse hates a cop out from a writer. She also highlights good points about readers not wanting be coddled or have their hands held through prose.

Bring back a little bit of burlesque in your writing, a hidden sparkle or treat to be presented with a flourish at the end. Treat your readers well and they will remain loyal. Tantalize and tease your readers and they will beg for more.

Image courtesy of Flickr

Annie Evett is all hot and flustered just thinking about burlesque writing. She looks forward to reading yours from her ice cold bath. You can catch her growing amount of websites and blogs here
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  1. April 22, 2009 3:20 am

    One that I know I’ve been very guilty of in the past is misusing the conventions of dialogue. Everyone whispers, yells, shouts, exclaims, mumbles and more in a lot of my work.

    Every list of writing tips I’ve read, from the casual blog all the way up to King’s On Writing all advise not to do this – that “said” is what should be used, and you should be relying on what is being said in what situation to convey emotion.

    And the reason I did it for so long? Because it was drummed into me from an early age in school that it was the “correct” way. We were told that only bad writers used “said” – if you were a good writer you would find other ways to say it. “Said” was a boring word used in boring writing, and in one class it was banned outright. Characters could never, ever “say” anything, to the extent that it’s now a knee-jerk reaction. If I see a passage I’ve written where “he said” or “she said”, my immediate reaction is to edit!

  2. April 22, 2009 4:38 am

    Paul – I absolutely agree with you – I too am very guilty of sprinkling my work liberally with shouted, whispered etc….for similar reasons to you too……..but no longer!!!! we are all on a journey and as long as we whip out our writers toolbox and blowtorch once in a while and attempt to be better with every piece we write… then we continue down the track….

  3. April 22, 2009 5:17 am

    brilliant Annie!

    Charlaine Harris – writer of the Sookie Stackhouse novels (now the True Blood tv series) does something horrifying too – she repeats the same things over and over. Descriptions of her characters’ clothing and expressions again and again just bored me to tears and ruined an otherwise funky little story (actually, the books are appalling but the tv series is SO compelling that I wanted to read ALL the books and see what was coming next but I just couldn’t get through them). … Frumpy middle aged women should also refrain from making fashion statements – stick with what you can describe with some authenticity I say! (sorry, that was bitchy 🙂 )

  4. April 22, 2009 7:56 am

    Having watched the movie of Twilight last night – it was so wonderful to see the characters just ‘doing their do’ -so many times while reading the books I was dragged out the story by bad writing.

    While I am (rather embarrassinly admitting to being!) a huge fan of the Twilight story I still shudder to understand how the books ever got published – or what the editor was actually doing at the time of editing. I think Meyer abuses every single one of King’s “do not do” and it is a triumph of some very compelling characters that the story managed to rise above some atrocious writing.

    Like everyone here, I’ve been an avid abuser of the conventions of dialogue – because as Paul points out – at school ‘said’ fell into the same word bucket in English as ‘things’ and ‘stuff’ (my best friend was an english high school teacher for many years and I actually happened to wander into her class one day during the ‘stuff’ and ‘things’ lesson!!) Unless you need to specify who is talking – let the dialogue do the talking.

    I have to admit the first writer I ever read who uses NO dialogue direction was Nick Earles and I had to battle hard to understand who was saying what in a four way conversation … but I think that’s because lots of writers/authors have allowed their readers to get lazy through their spoon feeding – especially of dialogue.

    Fantastic article Annie – I’ll be printing it off and nailing it above my writing space – just as a gentle reminder 🙂

  5. April 24, 2009 8:08 am

    This was a well written post !! I am not aware of abusing my readers much but still i will remmeber all these points next time i write !!

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