Monday, October 22, 2012

Don’t Be Boring

by Elizabeth S. Craig, @elizabethscraig
Yawning--Flickr--Daniel JamesWhen I read writing rules posts, they usually remind me of the old grammar rules.  You know, like: i before e, except after c…but there are exceptions.  

There are exceptions.  If we know the writing rules and just choose to ignore them, then we might well be doing something innovative.  Of course, if we don’t know the rules and break them, then we might well be in trouble.

But this post by James Scott Bell, entitled “The Three Rules for Writing a Novel,” was different.  In fact, he could really just have written a post called “The One Rule for Writing a Novel” and it would have been just as good because of the “rule” he listed first:

Don’t bore the reader. 

Here’s an excerpt from the post:
Can anyone disagree with that? Doesn’t it make sense that this should be emblazoned across the writer’s creative consciousness as the most foundational of all rules?
If you bore the reader, you don’t sell the book. Or, at least, if the reader does manage to make it to the end, you don’t sell your next book.
It’s a rule. In fact, it’s a law, just like gravity.
I’d hate it if readers skimmed through large portions of my book because it was boring.  I’d hate it even more if they didn’t finish the book or if they skipped buying my next book.

What makes a boring book?  Some of that answer is going to be subjective.  Or related to genre.  Or related to personal preference.  I think most of us would agree that a big backstory dump full of set-up information is going to be boring.  On the more subjective level, for me, I can be bored by really elegantly worded, descriptive passages.  I can be impressed by them—but ultimately disinterested. 
What’s boring? I think this is another one of those instances where it’s helpful to be very familiar with the genre we’re reading—what’s the pace of these books?  What’s normal for the genre?

In most stories…something has to happen.  That may sound really obvious, but there are plenty of books out there (and I’ve started reading a ton of them), where either nothing much happens, or nothing much happens in the first half of the book.

I’m currently writing a book that I’m very consciously working at not making boring.  It’s a country house murder—you know the set-up…remote location, cut off by weather, limited suspects, limited setting. 

It’s the kind of plot that could get boring if it’s not approached well. I brainstormed a list of ideas for keeping a fast pace and increasing the tension in the country house.  There are different ways to hook your reader or keep your reader hooked.  For me, my list ranged from minor irritants like losing electricity during the ice storm, to dead bodies.  :)  It’s basically just making the reader curious about what happens next.

Ingredients that can help spice up a story:

Conflict (internal and external)
Characters that pop on the page
Characters that are dynamic and change during the course of the story
Complex antagonists
Romance/sex (depending on the story/genre)
Increased stakes and challenges for our characters
Protagonists that don’t take a backseat role in their own adventure
Setting  (If it’s really done right and when it’s almost serving as a character in the book.)

What can you add to the list?  What makes books interesting to you?  What are your favorite elements to add to your own books?