by Terry Burns
As writers we study books on writing, attend conferences and workshops, are active in online groups and face to face groups that teach the craft, submit our work to critique partners and editors who help polish and perfect it. Is all that necessary? After all, our readers don’t have all this training, they don’t know when writing has the proper structure and flow and formatting and all of the things we seek to perfect in all this study.
Is that true? Don’t you believe it.
A mature reader who has devoured a substantial number of books may not be able to sit down with an author and discuss pov problems, story flow or scene structure, but they know when something is wrong. They know when something doesn’t work. They don’t know the technical aspects of it, but they know.
We do ourselves a great disservice when we underestimate our readers. Most movies, TV shows, plays, and yes books are written on a three act play format. Christopher Vogler wrote of this in The Writer’s Journey, and I have seen program after program presented on the usage of this structure. Your average reader has probably never been in one of these classes. They don’t know there is supposed to be a midpoint climax in the second act that sends the story off in a new direction. Or do they?
They are more likely to say the movie, book or story ‘died in the middle.’ They have been exposed to this structure all of their reading life and they understand when something doesn’t work the way it is supposed to.
They have specialized knowledge as well. The period of time most commonly known as “the Old West” only covered about 20 years from the civil war to late in the 1800’s. Those who devour westerns and historical from this time period are very knowledgeable. They know if your hero is using a gun that was not invented at the time the story is supposedly set in. They know if the clothing is not right, or if a historical detail is not accurate. Not only that, if they can contact you, they’ll tell you exactly where you messed up.
I like to have a movie star visual as I write. I can rent a video and actually see them moving about, helps them become real to me. Oh, I never describe them to the point that it would give away the person I’m using, that would not be good. And I never, never use movies as the base of my historical detail. A great deal of detail in movies is very accurate, but much of it is there to enhance the story, accurate or not. The trick is knowing what is true and what is not.
This specialized knowledge isn’t restricted to westerns. Civil war buffs, or military buffs of all types know their stuff. People tend to read what they like, and they tend to know a lot about what they like. I had a person tell me recently that they distrusted the accuracy of a Regency novel. Why? Because it had a turtle in it, and there are no turtles in England. Wow, who knew?
Historicals by definition are being read by people who know and love history. They may very well know more about the historical content than the person writing the book. That puts an amazing burden on the research we do in order to have the details as accurate as humanly possible.
So readers instinctively know more about the way the story should flow than we give them credit for, they likely know more about the historical detail that we are using than we realize, and finally, they know good writing when they read it. They may not know why it is good writing, but they know when they are immediately pulled into a story and when they are subtly kept there, pushed along chapter by chapter until they find it hard to find a place to put it down to do something else.
As writers, the compliment we cherish most is when people tell us they couldn’t put it down. The greatest comment I ever received came from one of my wife’s clients who was waiting outside the delivery room for her first grandchild. She was passing the time by reading one of my books and couldn’t believe it when they called her and she said, “Just a minute, just a minute.” I found that amazing . . . and humbling.
So now we know our readers know more than we thought. What they love more than anything is when we realize that and use what they know against them. When we think through a story that is developing, think what the logical next step in the story may be, then take it somewhere else. Not messing with the scene structure or story flow, but subtle plot reverses that delight the discerning reader. These plot reverses are very difficult to accomplish without first determining exactly where it is the reader surely thinks things are progressing. Readers love to be fooled, provided they weren’t lied to in order to achieve it. If you’ve seen the movie “Sixth Sense,” didn’t you have to immediately go back and watch it again to see if the clues were there for you to see all along? And they were.
No, we must never underestimate our readers. We write better if we give them full credit . . . then use it to make the work even better.
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