Friday, February 10, 2012

Thinking Like a Reader

by Elizabeth S. Craig, @elizabethscraig

Woman reading in bed- by Gabriel Ferrier--1847 - 1914Sometimes I like to drive to uptown Charlotte to have lunch with my sister, who works up there. We usually go to the same few restaurants, so I was excited to see an article in the entertainment section of the newspaper that was all about lunch options in the city.

I was less excited when I saw that there was no mention of what the parking was like at these restaurants. Even when I pulled up the restaurants’ websites, I frequently couldn’t find mention of what the parking was like.

This is an area where parking can either be expensive or nonexistent. Some restaurants have their own lots. Some pay their diners’ parking fee. But you want to know what you’re getting into before you go over there. The restaurants and the newspaper weren’t thinking like diners.

It’s just as important for us to think like our readers. What questions could they have when they read our book?

Who are these people again? If you’ve got characters who have been offstage for a while, consider giving them an unobtrusive tag.

Who are these people again, part 2. If you’ve got characters with similar names (that either start with the same letter or sound alike—Sally and Molly for instance), consider changing them up for the sake of clarity.

What’s happening here? Can readers follow your plot? Are there so many twists and turns that a reader might have to keep going back in your book to reread sections? If so, consider writing in some short explanation or reminders as to what’s going on.

Why is this character suddenly acting like this? If you’ve got a character who previously seemed shy/easygoing/friendly/reserved and they suddenly start acting completely different to help the plot along, there needs to be a good explanation for the change (introduction of some backstory or a scene that shows the change).

This wouldn’t happen in real life. We usually count on readers to suspend their disbelief sometimes. But repeatedly asking them to suspend it, or asking them to suspend it on something really big isn’t going to work.

Why is this character being so stupid? It’s frustrating when a character we like and respect does something dumb just to further the plot. Either think up sound reasons why the character would behave this way (they’ve been tricked, they think they’re safe doing what they’re doing, they believe they’re meeting their friend in the creepy alleyway), or else figure out another way to get the plot where you want it to go.

Everything was so complicated—and it wrapped up a little too neatly. Either brainstorm alternate endings for your book…coming up with a list of as many as you can imagine (from the clever to the absurd) or consider leaving room for a sequel to the book.

What ended up happening to that subplot storyline? Did it fall through the cracks? Double-check for loose ends. Did you introduce anything that needs to be wrapped up?

I know what’s going to happen next. This might be a good time to consider a plot twist…something unexpected to make the plot more complex or to add depth to a character.

This book is too intense/too goofy/too…. If the book seems too intense, can you write in some lighter moments? If the book is too campy, can you write in something that’s more serious or thoughtful or sweet?

Nothing is happening in this book. I’m getting bored. Do you have too much exposition? Too many scenes without conflict of some kind? (Conflict can even be represented by two characters who rub each other the wrong way…it doesn’t have to be something huge.) Too much description of setting? Did you lose your way in the middle of the book? Were you trying to bump up your word count and added too much flab (consider taking it out and writing in a solid subplot that can tie into the main plot.)

As a reader, what bugs you most? As a writer, do you try to read your manuscript as one of your readers would?