Thursday, March 04, 2021

Tips on Writing "The Boring Stuff" Readers Tend to Skip

By Jenna Harte

Part of The How They Do It Series

JH: Readers skim when they read, especially if nothing is really going on in the story. Jenna Harte shares tips on keeping readers engaged in your novel.

Jenna Harte is a die-hard romantic writing about characters who are passionate about and committed to each other, and frequently getting into trouble. She is the author of the Valentine Mysteries, the first of which, Deadly Valentine, reached the quarter-finals in Amazon’s Breakthrough Novel Award in 2013. She has a contemporary romance series, Southern Heat, and a cozy mystery series, Sophie Parker Coupon Mystery Series

Romance authors can join her free writing community for support, accountability and more at WritewithHarte. Jenna loves talking to anyone and everyone about romance fiction. You can join her free romance fiction reader community, SwoonworthyHEA to talk romance with other readers.

Take it away Jenna...

Jenna Harte

Elmore Leonard is credited with a list of ten rules for writing, with number 10 being, “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”

As a writer, you probably think every word you write is crucial to the story, but you might be surprised at what your readers skip. Consider your own reading; are there passages you pass over? What are they? If you’re like me, they’re usually sections of description, back story, and long reflective narratives.

Of course, you can’t cut these parts as they’re important, often crucial, elements of the story. The challenge is how to incorporate these elements in your writing without it becoming something your readers skim over.

Tips on Writing Setting and Description that Doesn’t Get Skipped

Settings and descriptions provide an important cue to orient your reader to location, seasons, time of day, weather, mood, era, social and cultural influences. If readers didn’t know that Pride & Prejudice took place in the early 1800s, when women couldn’t inherit property, Mrs. Bennet and the girls would look like gold-diggers.

The first step to writing setting is determining what the important elements are. What do readers need to know and experience in the setting for the story to make sense? How does the setting impact the character or plot?

Describing a setting can be helpful in creating an image for the reader, but it also has the potential of taking them out of the story. If you have your readers on a wonderful ride through your book, they don’t want to be interrupted to be told about the trees. And yet, maybe those trees play an important part in the story.

Here are tips to writing setting and description without being boring:

Experience everything through your POV character. 

Many authors use telling and an omniscient or distant POV narrator to provide information on the setting. For example:
Suzy stood at the end of the long drive. The hot humid air hung heavy.

This isn’t bad and your reader won’t necessarily skip it, but contrast it with the next example:
Suzy stood at the end of the long drive. She pulled her shirt away from her damp skin as a trickle of sweat dripped down the center of her back. Even this early in the morning, the heat and humidity felt like a sauna.

In the example above, we learn it’s hot and humid, not from being told by the author, but from Suzy’s experience with it.

Use the senses. It’s not enough for Suzy to think or say, “Boy, it’s hot and humid.” Instead, the passage uses Suzy’s senses to have the reader vicariously experience it. What does it feel like when it’s hot and humid?

(Here's more with Is Your Description Helping Your Story or Holding it Back?)  

Overlay your POV characters personality and attitude. 

Believe it or not, some people don’t mind heat and humidity, others hate it. Having setting and description filtered through the POV character not only orients the reader to the setting, but also provides information about the character.

Here is the full sample in which we learn of the weather, the location, and some of Suzy’s thoughts about the situation.
Suzy stood at the end of the long drive. She pulled her shirt away from her damp skin as a trickle of sweat dripped down the center of her back. Even this early in the morning, the heat and humidity felt like a sauna. She blew out a breath, willing herself on the last part of her journey, and started up the drive, hoping she wouldn’t twist an ankle in her 3-inch Jimmy Choos on the white crushed shell gravel. She estimated a half-mile walk to the main house and was grateful for the mature oak trees lining the road that offered shade from the oppressive heat. As she neared the pre-revolutionary home, standing like a jewel in the green rolling piedmont, its pristine columns shining as if they’d just been painted, she felt like she was walking back in time, and half expected footman to greet her.

Having setting revealed through your character is less likely to get skipped because it’s also telling us something about the story or character that the reader won’t want to miss.

Tips on Writing Backstory that Doesn’t Get Skipped

Backstory is crucial to helping readers understand a character’s goals, motivation, and personality. However, readers don’t want to get bogged down with long narratives or soliloquies about a character’s past.

First you need to determine what is important in the character’s history that needs revealing in the story. Then you need to decide how the history impacts the character (goals, motivation, personality, etc) and in turn, how that impacts what’s going on in the current story?

Here are tips to writing backstory:

Weave in backstory as needed through the POV character. 

This can be done with a single reflective thought or through a behavior or belief that exists because of the past. Here is an example from the romantic mystery, Deadly Valentine, that includes two old friends (male and female) meeting again, but as you’ll discover, the reunion isn’t the same for both of them.
He grinned. “I was beginning to think you forgot who I was.”

That was laughable. No one ever forgot Jack Valentine. Particularly women. Even a woman like Tess who'd given up on men. There was a time she would have liked to indulge her attraction to him. That time was long gone.

“What are you doing here?” she asked.

His brows drew together. Clearly, he expected a different reaction. He probably thought she'd throw herself at him like she did the last time they were together. She wouldn't make that mistake again.

In that little exchange, we sense that Jack is happy to see Tess again, but Tess (POV) isn’t happy at all. We have a hint of something happening in the past between them, but it’s infused with the current situation instead of taking a sidebar to explain their past.

Note that the details of what happened aren’t revealed here. All we know is that she’s unsettled by seeing him because of something that happened. Leaving it like this, gives the reader something to ponder. The question layers over the story making readers wonder about Jack and Tess’ relationship in the past.

While most novels have an element of characters hiding their true selves, they do have to communicate and engage with others, so dialogue can be a good way to reveal backstory. I’m not recommending tossing in a discussion simply as an info dump of backstory. Instead, find ways to reveal the past in current discussions. Along with that, you can weave in a character’s attitude toward the past.

In this example, from Wed to You, a marriage of convenience has just been hatched, and Chelsea feels she needs to know more about Jagger to pull off the ruse to her friends, especially to Mitch who is like a brother to her.
“What about your family?” Chelsea asked.

“What about them?” There was a marked change in his tone, from light to dark.

“Well, what are they like? What was your childhood like?”

“People aren’t going to ask you twenty questions. Besides, I think I’ve already told you all you need to know.” He walked several steps away.

“My friends might test me as a way to make sure I know what I’m getting into.” She stood where she was, knowing Mitch, in particular, would push to find out how it was possible she was marrying Jagger when it seemed they hardly knew each other. Especially when just days before she’d denied anything was going on between then.

He turned his blazing blue eyes on her. “You’ll let them?”

“What’s the big deal, Jagger?”

“You want my family history?” He glanced back at Kaden then closed the steps between him and Chelsea again. He leaned closer and talked in a low voice filled with bitterness. “I come from a long line of playboys. Tanya was the last in a series of Mrs. G.W. Talbots. My father is working his way through several more Mrs. Talbots. Right now, he’s on his fourth. I was an unplanned baby, which is why my father married my mother, at the threat of disinheritance by my grandfather, who wouldn’t have any bastard children in his family.”

We’re in Chelsea’s POV, but we see through her that Jagger has issues about his past in his initial reluctance to talk about it. Then, in annoyance, he gives her a brief overview of his grandfather and father. In six sentences, Jagger tells us all we need to know about his family and his bitterness towards them.

(Here's more with An Easy Tip to Avoid Infodumps in Your Dialogue)  

Tips on Writing Reflective Narrative that Doesn’t Get Skipped

The narrative parts of a story include setting and backstory already outlined above. Narrative is also where action takes place, and along with dialogue is generally the most dynamic parts of a story. So, what’s left?

The final element of story that some readers skip is long passages of inner-reflection. These are sections of the story in which the character is thinking about what’s going on in the story. In a mystery, the sleuth may be rehashing clues and conversations. In a romance, the love interest may be conflicted about the relationship and trying to decide what to do.

Reflective narrative can be helpful to remind readers of important elements of the story or to organize the information for the reader. However, long narrative reflection also stops the forward motion of the story, and if too long or too repetitive, readers will skip it.

First you need to decide if all the reflection necessary. It’s true that reflection narrative can be helpful in revealing character thoughts and motivations, but sometimes it can be too much. Look at ways to shorten the amount of reflective narrative. In writing, less is more.

Second, is it redundant? Has all the information the character is considering been considered before? While sometimes readers need to be reminded of various aspects of the story, you don’t want them saying, “Yeah, yeah, you told me that already.”

Here are tips to dealing with reflective narrative:

Incorporate reflective narrative with action. 

Have your character doing something related to the story while thinking about their predicament. This breaks up the long narrative with action, and gives the reader a sense that they’re still moving forward in the story.

In this scene, Jack is in Tess’s home after he’s taken her home and helped her to bed because she’s ill. He’s now reflecting on seeing her again and the years they’d been apart. Since he’s essentially alone, there’s no one to talk to, so it’s all narrative thought woven with or broken up by action.
Jack shut the door to Tess' room, holding the knob to quiet the latch as it clicked shut. He listened through the door for movement. It would be just like to her to get up and try to make him leave after all. If she did, she'd be disappointed. He wasn't going anywhere. Not now. Not ever, if he could help it. Still, he hoped she would get up and check just to give him an excuse to sit with her.

He'd always planned to see her again, although he'd been surprised to find her standing in Asa Worthington's foyer. It was a strange stroke of luck that had him running into her tonight. He'd had enough of Asa and was heading out the door when he saw her primping in the mirror. In some ways it was surprising they hadn't run into each other sooner, since he'd bought a home and spent more time in Jefferson Tavern. But he was glad he hadn't. For too long, timing had been an issue for them. But now he was ready. His life was back on track after three years of misery and self-destructive behavior. And there didn't seem to be anyone in her life. At least not anyone she considered to be in her life.

Guided by the streetlight shining through the large panel window in the living room, Jack made his way up the hall. He took time to look at the home she made for herself. It was a lot like her: neat, tidy, and classic. And yet something was missing.

In the middle paragraph, we get Jack’s thoughts about seeing her again, and we have some backstory that suggests some personal issues over the years they were apart. The chapter continues with him doing something (action), while reflecting on the change he’d seen in her as well as tidbits of his backstory. Further, each of the actions relate to something he’s thinking about. For example, he finds a few mystery books on her bookshelf which are by the same author his mother read, and he has a memory of reading them to her during her illness. He’s also thinking about having a second chance to get things right with her. The point is, the action is now (Jack is snooping around Tess’ house), but the reflection is revealing backstory and his current goals and motivation.

Incorporate reflective narrative with dialogue. 

The example from Deadly Valentine on backstory shows Tess reflecting on Jack while they’re having a conversation. Similar to incorporating reflection with action, including it with dialogue keeps the story moving forward. In this example, from Drawn to Her, Drake is trying to convince his ailing grandfather, Oliver, to help in the business he’d abandoned. The grandfather has told him that Drake will have to clear it with his nurse, Lexie.
“You have to convince Lexie I’m up to it. She won’t want me having undue stress.”

Drake bit the inside of his lip. Was Lexie’s role more than a nurse and gatekeeper? Had she charmed his grandfather into developing a deeper relationship? “As an employee, she shouldn’t have any say about what you do.”

Oliver smirked. “I hired her to make my life easy. She’s good at it, too.”

Drake nodded, even though he still had concerns about Lexie’s intentions. “Fine. I’ll talk to her.”

In this brief dialogue, we learn of Drake’s concerns about Lexie’s intentions with his very rich grandfather. Instead of pausing to have a long think on Nurse Lexie, we get a few hints of it in the discussion.

The best way to make sure your readers consume every word you write, is to keep your story moving. Pausing to provide setting, description, backstory or reflective narrative stops the flow and are often passages readers skip. You can keep them reading by using your characters to convey elements of setting, description, backstory and reflective narrative.

About Drawn to Her: Book One of the Southern Heat Series

He doesn't trust her, but he's powerless to resist her. He's...Drawn to Her. Feisty and outspoken, Lexie McKenna will do anything to protect her cantankerous and ailing patient--even if it means going up against his cold and calculating, but sexy and irresistible, grandson. After all, as a nurse, her number one priority is her patient. Drake Carmichael doesn't trust the nurse who's taking care of his grandfather--despite how adorable and compassionate she seems. He refuses to let her get her grips into their hard-earned money.

But as the two square off and begin to battle about what is best for the dying man, Lexie and Drake realize that first impressions are deceiving. Lexie discovers a warm, vulnerable man beneath cold, calculating armor, and Drake finds he's helpless against Lexie's gentle heart and beguiling smile. Once they finally give in to their desires, the battle has only just begin.

As the clash between family and fortune ignites, the love they both crave could burn to ash.

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  1. Thus will help my telling in dialogue!

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. I'm glad you find value in the information here!