Did you know that just under half the people who start reading a book will not get past the first one hundred pages?
This means that about half the people who pick up your book will just give up before they reach the midpoint. The flip side, of course, is that about half of your readers will persevere.
But how many of these will finish?
Well, in a recent survey, only 38% of readers said they would read to the end of a book, no matter what.
This is shocking.
In a world where book prices are lower than ever, where access to books, especially digitally, is almost unlimited and where readers are prepared to take a gamble on new and unknown authors, your job as an author is clear.
You must write books that excite and engage readers. If you don’t, they’ll just stop reading.
If you are going to write exciting books, you must first understand what makes a reader stop.
Some of the obvious candidates are important. Readers suggest that dislike of the main character plays a part, as does weak writing and a poor plot. Yet, these are not the key reasons readers give up. There is one reason, far beyond any other, that stops people reading.
The single biggest reason people stop reading is that they found the book boring!
This should be like a dagger through your author’s heart. After all, how can a reader find your story boring? You’ve sweated blood over the plot, thought for countless hours about characters and even written out a painstaking backstory for your world and its inhabitants.
The reader must be wrong.
Your book’s not boring …
Or is it?
Well, here’s a secret. It’s probably your fault (and the fault of those busybody teachers).
You are not doing it on purpose, and you’ve probably never been told you are doing it, but you might just be writing boring books.
Before you start typing that angry email to Dear Gary, let me explain …
It is not what you are writing but the way you are writing.
Authors often become tangled up in their book’s story (let’s call it plot) more than the way in which the book is written (we’ll call this structure).
Let’s say this again.
For many authors, the plot is more important than the structure. They’ve been told that story sells, that readers are looking for a good story, even that the story will win out, and this is true. Story is essential. But the problem is that, with 100% focus on story, there’s no time to consider structure.
So let’s re-address that balance.
A novel consists of two key elements:
- The first element is story; this is the book’s plot.
- The second element is the way in which the story is told. This is the book’s structure.
Let’s throw in one of those gems that will change the way you look at books.
Story and structure are separate. You can tell the same story in a number of different ways. It’s possible to write a novel using one structure, then take the same story and rewrite the novel using a very different structure.
But what’s this got to do with boring books?
You see, it may not be that your story is boring. It is far much more likely that the technique you are using to tell your story is intrinsically boring. I am not saying your writing is bad. I am saying that you haven’t been shown the best way to write non-boring books. This stuff isn’t obvious; you will not know it unless you’ve been shown.
Storytelling is a natural process. We are weaned on stories; our life is told in stories. Our brains are hardwired to understand, consume and think in stories.
In short, being a storyteller is natural; being an author requires a new understanding.
So what does this mean in the real world of Amazon reviews?
If you are a great storyteller but have poor writing techniques, you will produce boring novels. On the flip side, if you are a poor storyteller but have great writing techniques, you will also produce a boring novel.
Remember, our definition of boring is a book a reader fails to finish.
If you are to produce a novel that will engage and inspire a reader, you need skills in both storytelling and story writing.
Now for the good and bad news.
The bad news first. Storytellers are born, not taught. Being able to tell a good story is something in your bones. If you can’t tell a good story, then stop reading now. I am wasting your time. However, the chances are that, if you are even considering writing a novel, then you have the storytelling bug.
Here’s the good news: writing techniques can be taught.
In fact, unless you have been shown how to write in a way that will engage your reader, then you will be grasping in the dark. We all have some latent knowledge, which we have picked up by reading novels. However, without understanding the principles behind the writing techniques, you will be flying blind.
You can’t teach someone to know how to use words effectively and beautifully. You can help people who can write to write more effectively, and you can probably teach people a lot of little tips for writing a novel, but I don’t think somebody who cannot write and does not care for words can ever be made into a writer. It just is not possible. – P. D. James
Now … time for a little honesty.
There are many ways to write novels, though the basic principles remain the same. For years, editors and authors have been arguing over the best practices. Some suggest that large amounts of description are essential; others that anything other than the most basic description is unnecessary. Moreover, what has been considered the best writing technique has changed over time.
Take Moby Dick.
The book is, rightly, considered to be one of the greatest novels ever written. However, it would struggle to be published today. In places, the technique used is simply outdated. You will find not only large narrative “lectures” on a wide variety of topics, including Melville’s thoughts on the taxation of fisherman but also whole chapters on the debate over whether a whale is a fish or a mammal (spoiler alert – it’s a mammal). Yet Melville was a great storyteller.
There is little doubt that, if Moby Dick were written today, it would be a very different novel.
This all said, one strand ties all novels together, no matter when they were written.
The aim of a novel is to tap into an emotional truth and to shine a light on human nature. Novelists, as all artists, are in the business of stimulating emotions. After all, that’s the point of a good story, to highlight a universal truth.
So, when considering the best way to write a novel, you must ask yourself one simple question: what’s the best way to express emotion?
We are looking to create books that truly touch a reader and alter the way they view the world. The ability to find and express emotion, at a level beyond the words, must be the aim of all great novels. How do you make the reader feel? Authors must always be striving to discover the truth behind the words and to tap directly into the reader’s emotional honesty.
So how is this done?
In a novel format, there are three places where emotion can be expressed:
- The dialogue.
- The actions.
- The reader’s mind.
Let’s just dwell on this a moment.
It is easy to see how dialogue can express emotion. However, the emotion we elicit via words is the emotion felt by the characters. It is not the deeper, universal emotion, which great novels seek to spark in the reader.
Notice the difference? We are looking to stimulate emotion in the reader, and this is not the same as emotional characters.
For example, let’s take the novel The Color Purple. This novel stirs deep universal emotions. It seeks to stimulate the reader to consider the truths behind the human desire for freedom. This is a universal emotion. A deep truth.
So where will an author find these universal emotions?
The answer, ironically, is in the mind of the reader.
As an author you are not inventing emotions; you are just trying to stimulate them. That’s what we mean by truthful writing; that is writing which arouses a universal truth. The words and actions of a novel are the keys to unlocking these emotions.
So how is this done?
The answer, for us, starts with Ernest Hemingway.
The great American author developed a writing technique he called the Iceberg Theory. It is a theory that has been built upon and developed over the years. It is also the foundation for the writing techniques you will learn in this book.
The Iceberg Theory’s foundational concept is that universal emotions exist. These are deep, truthful emotions that are shared by all readers.
All readers will understand, at a subconscious level, emotions such as happiness, sadness and the infinite shades between.
The goal of the author is to tap into these emotions.
Since these true emotions are understood at a gut level, words attempting to describe the emotions are, at best, ineffective. Instead, a writer must use the words and actions of their character to reflect these deeper emotions, in the process unlocking them for the reader.
By showing the reader events, situations and conversations that are born from these emotions, they are, in turn, evoked in a reader.
These types of emotional cues already exist in your life. I am betting that there’s a piece of music that instantly transforms you back to a moment in time, a smell that conjures a memory or a taste that takes you back to your childhood.
We are trying to do the same with words.
This sounds all very airy-fairy, but the result is simple.
Think of it this way. Have you ever cried when reading a book or watching a film? I am thinking that, unless you have a waxy pea-size heart, the answer is yes. Well, that book/film tapped into a true emotion and stimulated it in your mind, hence the tears.
So this sounds complicated, right?
Well, the techniques you need to stimulate true emotions are, actually, simple.
You must focus your energies on developing characters who act truthfully. It is these characters’ actions and dialogue that will stimulate the emotion in your reader.
I’ll say it again since it is the key concept of this book.
You must write in a way that forces the reader to engage with your characters.
You do this by describing to the reader what your characters are doing and saying. The reason is that readers will then imagine the scenes in their mind as they unfold. Brains are weird things and often have trouble confusing thoughts with reality.
This means, as the scenes unfold, the reader will experience the emotions that these scenes stimulate. The result is that you, the author, must describe (or SHOW) as much as possible. This means, less telling the reader what to see and think, and more showing of events and words. The lack of TELL creates a space between the reader and the novel’s characters; it is in this space that the emotion grows.
The beauty of the approach (apart from the fact it works) is that you will NOT need to learn any new, complicated techniques. In fact, for this way of writing to work, you will be doing less, not more. You will discover a simple set of rules that, when applied, will bring the Iceberg Theory to life.
In the following chapters, we will take a pragmatic look at the way you should be writing. We will look at each element in turn and set out a toolbox of simple techniques you can use in your day-to-day writing.