How NOT to Keep your Audience Reading

Your whole goal when writing, be you a poet or a short story scrivener or a novelist, is to keep your audience’s attention to the very last word. To have them so absorbed in what you ha e written that they absolutely need to finish that next page, and then the page after that, and then the page after that even though they should really be getting to bed because they have an early meeting tomorrow. There are many drafts to go through to reach this point, and every person is different so your writing won’t be for everyone.

Here are some things that have made me just give up on a book.

Endless Description– This is sometimes more of a skip offence for me. Details are great. They paint a picture, help immerse the reader’s senses, provide places to hide exposition and foreshadowing. But if I have read two pages describing the drop on dew on a blade of grass in the courtyard, I’m going to get bored very fast. I may not put your writing down if the story and characters interest me enough, but I will skip things over. I’ll put the writing down if I start to lose the plot trying to wade through metaphors and purple prose.

Boring Characters– If I’m supposed to follow these people around for the entirety of your story, as a writer, you need to give me something to invest in. If your characters are bland at best and loathsome at worst, I won’t want to read about them. Nothing is worse than your audience feeling apathy for your characters, and having despicable ones will not keep attention much longer.

The only greater sin is giving me really good minor characters, but forcing me to read about the terrible ones.

Confusing Plot/Boring Plot– It’s important to keep your plot organized, but also have it be exciting. If I have no idea what’s going on and can’t keep up with all the subplots infesting your primary plot, I will get tired of trying and give up. If I’m spending the entire time waiting for something exciting to happen, I’ll just get tired. The dreams I have while taking a nap will probably be way more entertaining.

Excessive Profanity– A good curse in dialogue is fine. A well-placed curse can even put emphasis on a crisis or make your audience laugh. However, dialogue is usually where curses should be limited. You don’t need to curse excessively in your narration, even if you’ve gone first person. A little emphasis is fine, but when every few sentences contains a curse, I don’t feel like I’m reading a professionally written piece. I feel like I’m reading the minutes of a fourteen year old boy’s Xbox session.

Cliches Galore– If I can guess everything that’s likely to happen in your story based solely on a summary and come out with a 90% accuracy rating, you’ve got a problem. Readers like to be surprised and to see new things.¬†Predictability can leave your readers bored. We’re along to watch the struggle, not roll our eyes at obvious solutions or static characters and settings.

Preaching – There’s a difference between delivering a lesson and using a character as a mouthpiece to voice your opinions loudly and as if they are correct. Proper lessons are taught through character development and subplots (and even the actual plot, depending on your story). If I feel like I’m listening to an aggressive sermon, telling me about how this is bad and if you do it you are bad, I will stop listening.

General Discomfort– I once stopped reading a book with an interest plot, good form, and pretty good characters. My reason? Several scenes involving minor characters came off as exceedingly racist. Was this intentional on the author’s part? I have no idea, but writers, make sure you really look what you’re writing. You don’t want to alienate your audience with unintentional prejudice.

And if your prejudice is intentional? Then you deserve to lose readership.

Too many combinations of these will also result in a loss of interest, but for some people only certain combinations will do it. You could be fine with bland characters as long as the story is good. You might enjoy a cliche storm that you need not think too much about.

But as a general note, trying to avoid these issues will be the first step in keeping your readers engaged.

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Categories: musings, On Writing | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

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