Want to write better fiction? Here’s the simplest way — kill your Too Much Information (TMI) habit. Keep your readers mystified as much as possible. Of course, there’s a real art to this. You want your readers to be in suspense, rather than confused and annoyed.
Write better fiction: allow your readers to use their imagination
When authors break their habits of over-describing and over-explaining in their fiction, their writing improves for one simple reason — a reader’s curiosity ensures that he’ll keep reading.
Readers’ curiosity is gold to novelists and short fiction writers. Readers read fiction to experience by using their imagination, so give readers every opportunity to do that.
Let’s look at three ways to write better fiction.
1. Use your secret weapon: open loops
One of the easiest ways to arouse curiosity and keep readers reading is with open loops:
Open loops have setups, and payoffs, just as jokes do. Some “big” open loops, the story question of a novel, don’t pay off until the novel’s climax. Will the police catch the serial killer in a thriller, for example. Or in a romance, will the hero and heroine get together despite all their problems?
Here’s an example of an open loop.
He looked out the window at the car. He clenched his fist.
Simple, right? Two sentences.
You can drop little open loops anywhere in a scene: the beginning, in the middle, or at the end of the scene, if you want a cliffhanger.
Here’s the thing — even though your open loop is only two sentences, readers remember it. Their curiosity is aroused, and they’ll keep reading. You can have dozens of open loops in a novel, and you should; just remember to close them all by the time the novel’s done.
3. Stop labeling — and put down that thesaurus — so that you can involve your readers
Consider this sentence: “He was a handsome man.”
“Handsome” is a label.
Every time you spot a label in your novel, use it as a nudge to improve your writing. Please — NOT by trying to find a synonym for an adjective/ label like “handsome.” Throw away your thesaurus. You can do better.
Here’s “handsome” used cleverly, from Crystal King’s Feast of Sorrow: A Novel of Ancient Rome:
Drusus was a man Passia had once described as “too handsome for his own good,” with dark sandy curls cropped close and sparkling green eyes. The crowd roared, cheering at a volume far greater than they’d given to Caesar.
King helps readers to use their imagination — she’s given her description of Drusus movement, with the words “cropped” and “sparkling”. In addition to the sense of sight, she invokes readers’ hearing too, with “the crowd cheered.”
3. To write better descriptions: ask yourself “why?”
What do you describe, and when? New authors tend to describe everything; they’re “writing”, totally focused on the words, rather than any effect. As they become more experienced, they either scrimp descriptions, or they over-write.
Skimpy descriptions can be a good thing, depending on the genre. Elmore Leonard’s crime fiction gets its effect from minuscule description; he focuses on strong dialogue. Daphne du Maurier, on the other hand, wrote gothic novels, such as Rebecca, which benefit from lush evocative descriptions.
You can kill your TMI habit and write better descriptions when you ask yourself: “why am I describing this?”
Let’s say you’re writing a mystery. Your sleuth walks into a restaurant. Describe it, or not?
Describe the setting only if it’s important — the restaurant is owned by the prime suspect, for example. You could describe the hooker leaning against the bar, and the tattooed bartender if you want to suggest the atmosphere, and have readers infer something about the prime suspect.
On the other hand, if the sleuth is there to meet his wife and discuss their custody battle, it’s a generic restaurant, so there’s no need for any description. You might mention the expensive drink the wife orders, if it’s relevant to characterization: the sleuth becomes annoyed because she has a drinking habit, or because she’s a wine snob.
Write better fiction: avoid TMI
Trust your readers. Avoid TMI, and your fiction will improve, instantly.
Have fun. 🙂
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