Tuesday, September 13

Novel Navigation

If a reader has to stop and ask for directions, something is wrong. It means that they're uncertain or lost. You never want a reader to be confused as to what's happening or where.

Have you been in that situation? When you were reading something and all of a sudden you went, "Huh?" You were so sure that you hadn't been skim reading but you double back just in case...

If a reader doesn't know what they're reading - even for a moment - it's hard to stay absorbed. It breaks the tension.

How do you keep this from happening?

Something writers can forget is that not everything in their head, that they understand so well, translates straight onto paper and gives the reader the same comprehension.

Thinking of erasing dialogue tags? Well, I have no idea who's speaking.

Going to call your character "Jim" in one sentence and "Mr Barrow" in the next? Now you're just screwing around.

Slipping in a little back story? I have no comprehension of the time line. Now, then, now, not now - I can't keep it straight!

Keep things clear. That doesn't mean that you have to simplify every little thing but don't make things more complicated than necessary.

Ambiguity does not equal mystery. It does not compel readers, it confuses them.

While you want to avoid losing your readers with fuzzy details and dancing tenses, one thing you must never do is assume that the reader is stupid.

"Jim went to the grocery to buy food because he was hungry and they were out of milk. When he was done, he packed everything into the trunk, got into the driver's seat of the car and drove home."

No, no, no!

No, please, no.

I would like to say this example is an exaggeration but it isn't. I read things like this in books and beyond being confused, above loss of dramatic tension, I hate having my intelligence undermined by the writer. Clarity is one thing but over explaining things in such a dumbed-down way is insulting.

There is one more thing I see in books that makes me shrink away before I even begin reading - maps.

I do not like when books have maps in them. You know the ones I'm talking about. Where you open up the book and BAM! There is a map of the setting in which the story takes place.

I'm reading a book. If I have to stop and consult a map, then the description in the novel is not very clear. Also, if I can tear myself away from the narration to do so, I can't be all that engrossed.

Do I read books with maps at the start? Yes, I do. On the rare occasion. Good ones, even. However, I am put off by the presence of a map in a novel and I do not consult it while I'm reading. If I did, I would have to be very confused or bored. In either case, I might as well just close the book.

What are some of the things that you find confusing, distracting and irksome when you're reading?

1 comment:

scribblingface said...

Yes to all that! I'm trying hard to find a balance in my own writing between being clear and not writing as if my readers are stupid. I find it really helps to get a couple of friends to read something and tell me whether they found it confusing or whether I included enough of the right details. Slowly but surely I'm getting better at finding that line!
As for maps, I find them kind of charming, personally, but at the beginning of the book they're irrelevant (the place names hold no meaning yet!) and once I'm reading I almost never go back to look at them. I think of them more as a picture on the inside flap, really XD. I did read one novel, though, where I actually liked the maps! It's called The Heroes, by Joe Abercrombie. It had a lot of military groups moving around, and seeing a map at the start of each of the three parts the book was divided into, complete with the positions of all the many military forces, was kind of nice. I always felt that I knew where everyone was positioned already, which is great, but I still think it was actually a relevant way to include maps, and I'm sure it helped for any readers who have trouble visualizing large areas and where different things are positioned on them :P