Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Fiction Writing: You are Getting Very, Very Sleepy

"I like to read because it puts me to sleep."

When a reader says this, she means that she likes to read because it relaxes her. It calms her. So when she's read a few chapters and wound down enough for her eyes to start drooping, she puts down the book and goes to sleep.

As a writer, you have an obligation to combat this book-as-sleeping-pill kind of attitude. It's your job to keep your reader so very close to the edge of her seat that, far from putting her to sleep, you put her at risk of falling out of bed. It's your earnest duty to keep your reader up at night until she's bleary-eyed and useless the next morning.

Yet everywhere you look, writers are failing on the job. True, readers get hypnotized often enough. But it's not the I-can't-put-it-down kind of hypnosis. It's the I-am-getting-very-very-sleepy kind of hypnosis. Do you really want to be writing books that serve your reader only slightly better than One sheep-two sheep-three sheep...?

Think about your own reading experiences. You snatch a book, any old book, for that long commute where there's nothing else to read but your seat-mate's newspaper. But ask yourself: how many times while driving have you stopped traffic because you couldn't put the book down long enough to notice the light change to green?

Not many, I'll wager!

Why this atrocity?

Well, um...how do I put this delicately? Too many books out there are boring. Boring, boring, boring.

I'm easily bored. Most of us are. We've got television, radio, movies, the Internet, crowds, and cities blasting at us on all sides and numbing our senses. We're tough cookies to entertain.

So, the question is, how? How do you keep your reader hooked? How do you compel your reader to ignore that nagging voice urging her to put the book down and turn out the light?

One trick of many is to vary your sentence structure.

Yes. Sometimes flat writing is due solely to something as simple as that. Overly simplistic sentence structure can bore readers to sleep.

Compare these two passages:

I looked out the window one clear, spring day. There was a dog in the garden. He was eating the grass. He'd chew it up and spit it out. Then he'd start all over again.

I ran outside. "Stop!" I cried. He went on chewing.

I saw his tail wagging. My heart melted. I took him inside with me.

I was staring out the window, enjoying the clear spring day, when I saw him. A dog! In my garden! Eating my grass! And he was spitting out every bite, too, the rascal.

I tore down the stairs, dashed out the back door--and stopped short. That dog was standing there, chewing away and gazing at me.

Gazing at me. Wagging its tail. My heart melted. Right then and there, I brought that dog inside, and Scrungy's been with me ever since.

The first passage is, in its own way, easy to read. Short sentences, simple syntax. But who would read it, given the choice?

There's nothing wrong with using "deceptively simple" sentence structure, but "deceptively" is the key term. Do the work of making your prose lively and readable. Don't make your reader force herself to read on.

Because, you know what? Your reader won't bother to force herself to read on. Why should she? If given a choice between trudging through passage after passage of flat monotone or planning the next day's laundry sort piles in her head, your reader will be thinking towels--whites--cold colors as she lies in bed at night.

And if your reader wouldn't finish your book, an editor wouldn't finish the first paragraph. An even more compelling reason not to write boring stuff...

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1 comment:

susie said...

What a clever title. Dare I say, brilliant. Grabs us, gets us involved on a personal basis, that is, emotionally. We immediately think we caught the writer (you) but soon realize, it's you who have caught the reader (me/us). Loved it. Am learning such delights are typical of your style (one can expect the unexpected from you). I want to write like you when I evolve/improve as a writer. Good job.