Writing Tips – Keep It Simple by Suzanne D. Williams

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I read an article recently that outlines a number of writing habits authors need to kick, and it set me thinking about some of those very same things I’d seen in recent books. Here are my current top three:

People dump – Introducing too many characters too soon with very little explanation of who they are and giving all of them a name.

A recent story had a cute blurb and adorable cover. It sounded like a fun read. But by the end of chapter one, I was hopelessly lost. The author tossed me into the midst of the crowd of characters … the female main character, her best friend, her best friend’s husband, the two people she worked for, a half dozen church members (all with different roles), and the male main character. Little was told me besides their names … and they ALL had one. I didn’t know who worked where for how long or who married who on what date or why these two didn’t get along, and I thought, “Why in the world do I care?”

I was choking on people.

It’s best to stick to your main characters (There should be one or two of them, depending on genre. We’ll say Rachel and Joe) and maybe two or three sub-characters. Introduce them one at a time, go slow enough to say what their relationship is, and let the reader linger there for a while to figure them out. Leave any other characters nameless (the clerk, the waitress, a woman, a businessman). This gives the reader’s brain time to adjust to the idea of more people.

I did complete that story, but frankly, had no idea who the sub-characters were when I did.

Head hopping – Jumping from one point of view to another in the same scene or within the same chapter

I can’t believe people still do this, except in another book, I found the best example of it ever. The characters weren’t dumped on me, as in the previous story, but I knew what they all thought.

The best rule of thumb to avoid head-hopping is to limit yourself to one point of view per scene, and maybe only two or three per book, max. This means Rachel and Joe (if it’s a romance), and perhaps the villain (in a suspense novel). No one else gets to speak EVER. Not the best friend, not the guy at the post office, not the sheriff’s wife, or the neighbor. (Another story I read had the main character speaking as well as the neighbor and the maid. It was odd from start to finish.)

Sub-characters are just that SUB-(Latin meaning “under”)-characters. They don’t get a voice of their own, but must obey their cues in particular scenes (and remember, some of these people will not have names). This means whoever is actually speaking is the only opinion the reader hears.

Example – Rachel thinks Joe is cute, but she hates Joe’s hair. While she’s thinking that, Joe can smirk, laugh, clap, or do a table dance, but Joe cannot tell us what he thinks of Rachel … UNTIL … you switch scenes. Then, it’s all Joe. Joe thinks she’s adorable, but she laughs like a donkey. Meanwhile, Rachel is simpering, sweating, and patting her stomach. Rachel has no idea Joe hates her laugh, nor will we find out right then.

See the difference? When Rachel is talking, you write only what she sees or thinks. Meanwhile, Joe is only doing actions. He isn’t thinking. He is, in fact, a mindless robot.

And provide clean scene breaks, whether that’s an entire chapter or some form of asterisk or tilde. Leave a space above and below it for clarity, and be sure to state the name of the speaker at the beginning so the reader knows, “Okay, we’ve switched over to Joe.”

Rabbit trails – including information that is not essential to the main storyline.

Some actions do not need to be expressed, and some parts of character’s lives do not need to be told. If Rachel is entering the house, we’ll assume she’s walking. You don’t need to necessarily state it. Nor does the reader usually need to know every time a character drives somewhere or what they’re eating.

In other words, limit actions.

I read an entire scene in one story where the author did an amazing job describing a baseball game. Problem is, I hate baseball, so it bored me to tears. I understood the point of including it. Joe was looking at Rachel, thinking how hot she was on the sidelines. But the fact of who was pitching, who was on base, and who was up to bat DID NOT NEED TO BE STATED.

Stick to the point of the scene. If Rachel is putting the children to bed, have her do so quietly and quickly (unless she’s thinking about them and it directly relates to her feelings about Joe). Don’t tell me she bathed them, dressed them in polka-dotted nightgowns, and repeat every word of their prayer. If the point is to get her out of the room to spend some alone-time with Joe, then the kids don’t really matter.

And here’s a good point – some scenes do not need to be written. I’ve done it. I loved that line. I loved that interaction. BUT it had NOTHING to do with the storyline and, therefore, had to be eliminated. It’s better to have a shorter story than to fill it with unnecessary moments. I skimmed the baseball scene to get to their dinner together and had no idea who was a good catcher or not. Which DIDN’T MATTER. Their feelings for each other afterward did.

Too much is too much, whether that’s number of characters, points of view, actions, or even moral statements. Don’t drown the reader in any of those. Keep it simple and assure your reader will follow the story from the beginning to the end.

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About the Author:

Suzanne D. Williams

Best-selling author, Suzanne D. Williams, is a native Floridian, wife, mother, and photographer. She is the author of both nonfiction and fiction books. She writes devotionals and instructional articles for various blogs. She also does graphic design for self-publishing authors. She is co-founder of THE EDGE.

To learn more about what she’s doing and check out her extensive catalog of stories, visit http://suzanne-williams-photography.blogspot.com/ or link with her on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/suzannedwilliamsauthor or on Twitter at https://twitter.com/sdwauthor.

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2 Comments

  1. Excellent advice. I hate character / scene / info overload. Makes a story plodding and confusing.

    Reply
  2. Excellent post.

    LOL, I hate people dumps where you get a ton of names. Don’t know what any of them look like, how old they are. I especially hate it when three or more couples are introduced that way and the last names are stated once, no descriptions of the characters. Then I can’t tell for the rest of the book who is married to who.

    Reply

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