Did you know that just under half the people who start reading a book will not get past the first 100 pages?
This means that about half the people who pick up your book will just give up before they reach the mid-point. 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 were book prices are lower than ever, access to books, especially digitally, is almost unlimited and readers are prepared to take a gamble on new and unknown writers, your job as a writer is clear.
You must write books that excite and engage readers. If you don’t they’ll just stop reading.
What Makes a Book Boring?
If you are going to write exciting books, you must first understand what makes a reader stop?
Well, some of the obvious candidates play a part. 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 writer’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 painstaking back-story 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 busy body 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 out that angry email – ‘Dear Gary’ – Let me explain…
Plot and Structure are separate
It is not what you are writing but the way you are writing.
Writers often become tangled up their book’s story (lets call it plot) more than the way in which the book is written (we’ll call this structure, though it is also technique).
Let’s say this again, for many writers 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 a 100% focus on story, there’s no time to consider structure.
So let’s readdress 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.
Simple so far, so 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.
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 you are a bad writer. 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, so no one is blaming you!
Storytelling is a natural process. We are weaned on stories, our life is told in stories. Are brains are hardwired to understand, consume and think in stories.
In short, being a storyteller is natural, being a writer requires a new understanding.
So what does this means in the real world of Amazon reviews?
If you are a great storyteller, but a poor technical writer, you will produce boring novels. On the flip side, if you are a poor storyteller, but a great technical writer 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 story telling 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.
Now, here’s the good news… writing technique 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 principals remain the same. For years, editors and writers 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. What’s more, what has been considered the ‘best’ writing technique has changed over time.
Take MOBY DICK, for example. The book is, rightly, considered to be one of the greatest novels ever written. However, it would struggled 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 of the taxation of fisherman, but also whole chapters on the debate over whether a whale is a fish or a mammal (it’s a mammal, for those that care). 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, there is once strand that ties all novels together, no matter when they were written. The aim of a novel is to tap into an emotional truth and shine a light on human nature. Novel writers, as all artists, are in the business of stimulating emotion. 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 our 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? Writers must always be striving to discover the truth behind the words and tap directly into the reader’s emotional honesty.
So how is this done?
In a novel format, there are three places 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 of 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 a writer find these universal emotions? The answer, ironically is in the mind of the reader. As a writer you are not inventing emotions, you are just try to stimulates them. That’s what we mean by ‘truthful writing’, that is writing that stimulates a universal truth. The words and actions of a novel are the key to unlocking these emotions.
So how is this done?
The answer, for us, starts with Ernest Hemingway.
The great American writer 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 writer 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 conservations that are born from these emotions, they are, in turn, stimulated in a reader.
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-sized heart the answer is yes. Well, that book/film tapped into a true emotion and stimulated in your mind, hence the tears.
So this sounds complicated, right?
Well, the techniques you need are, actually, simple.
You must focus your energies on developing characters that act in a ‘truthful’ manner. It is these characters action and dialogue that will stimulate the emotion 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 writer to engage with your characters.
You do this by describing to the reader what your characters and doing and saying. The reason is that readers will then imagine the scenes in their own mind as they unfold. Brains are weird things and even have trouble confusing thoughts with reality.
This means as the scenes unfold, you will experience the emotions that these scenes stimulate.The result is that you 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.