Monday, 13 June 2011

Three ways readers will judge your work

There's no guarantee that readers will like your work – in fact it's a rule of thumb that 20% of people will hate it even if it's genius. So how can you be certain that those 20% aren't right? How can you have any confidence you're not serving up a load of tripe?

You can't – all you can do is get your ideas and story across and let the readers judge your work for themselves – and here's how they're going to do it.

Is it believable?

So the mild-mannered janitor suddenly kicks some kung-fu ass two thirds of the way through the novel? Give over. Darcy reveals at a tea-party that he can break-dance? Please. A lone cowboy is about to take down a whole town of banditos when the swat team arrives? Right.

Some extreme examples to make the point but it's still a point. Essentially there are three areas where your story will need to be plausible – character ability, character action, and plot. If your character is a hairdresser who can also drive an HGV and is a crack shot with a Lee Enfield you'll need to set that up before you exploit it. It will also need to be convincing how he knows that stuff.

Character action also has to be believable – how many times have you watched or read something and said to yourself 'why the hell doesn't she just call the police/lock the door/cry for help?' Robert McKee points out that a character will always take the path of least resistance to get what they want. Observe that rule and your characters will always behave plausibly and convincingly.

Is it coherent?

'I'm not sure if I liked that or not because I didn't understand a bloody word of it,' is not something you want your reader to be saying after finishing your work. You can't really expect them to have an opinion if you haven't expressed yourself with clarity, if there isn't an end to your beginning, an answer to your question, or a method to your madness.

Coherence relates to structure and plot, the framework of your story, the spine of your narrative. If your scenes progress consequentially i.e. each one is a natural consequence of the preceding events – then there will be coherence.

Coherence also relates to expression and voice – is your story being expressed clearly, your choice of language specific and revealing; does your voice have authority.

I'm using a lot of words where only one is needed – craft. Go get some.

Is it conventional?

Nobody likes to think of themselves as conventional. Nobody likes to think of themselves as conforming; everybody likes to think they come to a movie or book without preconception – but it's all nonsense. People come with a whole heap of baggage to a cultural event. They will have genre expectations even if they don't know it. I see a murder in scene 1 and a detective in scene 2 I'm going to expect that copper to solve that murder. If I see 'Day of the Dead' on Monday, and 'Shaun of the Dead' on Tuesday – I'm going to make comparison. I read Stephen King I expect to be scared, I see an action movie I expect some dudes to get shot.

Convention isn't a bad smell, it's your friend, and the yardstick by which you will be judged. If you don't like it try mastering it so you can transcend it or break it. Either way you can't ignore it.

5 comments:

  1. Excellent rules to live by. Great post James!

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  2. Great points :)

    Quote: "a character will always take the path of least resistance to get what they want." - I don't fully agree with that. It depends on the character and his/her personality and psychology. If you have a hard-ass warrior character, he/she will react first with head-on resistance.
    That happens with most people, they tend to take the path of least resistance. The thing is that readers need more than that. They need characters who will do what most people will not. But, it needs to be set properly to be believable and have evidence for that.

    I've seen many books who lack coherence and border on the range from annoying to unreadable. I place a great deal on coherence when I'm reading a book. :)

    Well, conventional has to do with taking into consideration general psychology of the human being.

    Quote: "People come with a whole heap of baggage to a cultural event." - I loved this, well said.

    Quote: "They will have genre expectations even if they don't know it." - I fully agree. Target audience, that's the notion which every author has to bear in mind. You can't have, for example, a vampire who doesn't feed with blood, except if you have a pretty good and plausible excuse for it.

    Thank you for the very interesting post :D

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  3. First time visiting but I'm such a twitter lurker that with all the retweets and fun links I couldn't help but read this one. It really grabbed me (Sad thing is two seconds earlier I was reading abou the lunar eclipse - my mind wanders).

    Great point and great post! LOVED IT. You made amazing points!

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  4. Great post and solid advice. It unbelievable how often authors can skip these components. Believability alone can be so often overlooked especially when naming their characters... Rogue Powers is NOT a believable name.

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  5. @Gene - thanks Gene!

    @Irene - thanks for your great observations, Irene - you have a point about certain characters not taking the path of least resistance - the choices characters make are very much driven by who they are aswell as their own goals and motivations - it's a complex process but it has to be convincing.

    @Jen - glad I was able to de-lurk you - thanks for your comment and your support and welcome to the blog.

    @PW - thanks for your comment, PW - I'm glad you appreciated the post. You're so right, naming has to be convincing too.

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