Nothing better than a good book. Nothing worse than a boring one.
How do you write those exciting books that readers love? There’s a whole lot more to it than fits in a blog post, but three important tips will help you follow Elmore Leonard’s advise and “leave out the parts that people skip.”
1 – Cut or Condense the Boring Stuff
Sounds simple, right? Readers don’t want pages on end detailing how the main character’s mother chopped salad and served pasta—not unless it’s a cookbook.
If a scene is boring, you’ve either got to chop it or shorten it. My two favorite methods of shortening the boring bits are narrative summary and impression description.
Writers tend to give play-by-play interaction between characters—which works great during a battle scene. Less great during an uneventful stroll through the forest. Instead of listing every tree, stream, and sparrow your quest party passes by, sum it up in a sentence or two.
J.K. Rowling is queen of the narrative summary. Next time you read Harry Potter, pay attention to how she summarizes the day-to-day Hogwarts life that happen between exciting scenes.
You could write out ten paragraphs describing every turret, tower, banner, solider, brick, and flower on of the castle as your hero gallops into view. But readers will skip it. Yes, sometimes detailed descriptions are needed. However, a quick description of a prominent feature is much more memorable. You can slip in more details as the story moves along.
Impressionist painters, such as Claude Monet, captured the dominant impression of a scene and then left the rest to the viewer’s imagination. Writers can do the same.
Again, look to Harry Potter. We remember The Boy Who Lived as the one with glasses and a lightning-bolt scar. And Rowling’s first description of Hogwarts? “Perched atop a high mountain on the other side, its windows sparkling in the starry sky, was a vast castle with many turrets and towers.” Short and sweet.
Keep it bite-size, just big enough for a tweet.
2 – Give Your Protagonist a Clear Goal
What does your protagonist want more than anything else? Why? What’s at stake?
Now write it down and let your hero chase it.
Whether it’s traveling to Mount Doom to destroy the One Ring, or dodging through an asteroid field, goals—big and small—drive your story. A character without a goal might as well nap beneath a willow the rest of his life. And no one wants to read “The Tales of John’s Willow Tree Naps.”
Once your hero has a goal, the villain must have a goal in direct opposition. Your protagonist’s stubborn struggling towards her goal and the enemy’s relentless attacks to stop her generate your story’s excitement.
3 – Keep Trouble Coming
Mystery, intrigue, suspense—all things that catch reader’s attention, and all things that require conflict.
If a movie or book ever bores you, it’s most likely lacking conflict. Conflict comes in all flavors–inner turmoil, love triangles, snappy dialogue, or sword-to-claw combat.
The Count of Monte Cristo, an older book translated from French to hard-to-read English, contained a scene that had me literally pace the floor. Why? Because just as the Count plans to reward the kind Morrel for his friendship, Morrel is planning to commit suicide! That suspenseful scene is a major reason why I rank The Count of Monte Cristo as one of my favorite books.
Again, that uneventful stroll through the forest—no one wants to read it. If a scene lacks conflict, add some trouble or drop the scene all together. (PS – Lack of conflict is the number one symptom of your hero having no clear goal.)
These tips won’t do you any good unless you practice. Here’s some simple challenges to get your brain rolling:
Tweet a narrative summary of your favorite movie scene. How exciting can you make it in under 140 characters? (Make that 115 characters, because you’re going to tag me in it, right?)
Now tweet a short, powerful description of your favorite scenic location or knickknack. If you have a picture, I’d love to see that too.
Grab a sticky note or open a word doc and then answer the following about your most recent writing project:
- Who’s the protagonist?
- What’s his/her goal?
- Who’s the antagonist?
- What’s his/her goal?
- Do you see anything you want to change?
Read a short story. What kind of conflict was there? Write it down. See how my types of conflict you can list from the story. (And if it’s an exciting story, send me a link! I want to read it too.)
So, that’s that. Let’s get writing!
(Note: Featured picture comes from an original photograph by Christopher. Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0).)