Literary Corner Cafe

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Writing Tips - Finding Focus In Your Fiction


Many manuscripts that are submitted to literary agents and editors are rejected because they lack focus and depth. A lack of focus and depth will cause an editor (and any reader) to be unable to identify with your characters and unable to be emotionally engaged by your story. This often occurs when a writer is overly concerned with non-stop action in a book and leaves little room for deepening character and reflection, though a lack of focus can happen in any type of work.

Yes, I know. Dan Brown gets away with seemingly non-stop car chases, a large cast of characters, and plenty of unexpected twists and turns. But he wasn’t always so successful, and if you’re a new author, trying to become established, it’s better to “follow the rules” and give your characters some breathing room and your reader more time to get to know them. Readers don’t like to have to “flip back” in a book to see what they might have missed along the way. They like to get to know your characters like they get to know their friends – slowly, little-by-little. They don’t like someone to sit down and tell them their life story all in one sitting.

In order to fully engage any reader, profession or non-professional, in your story, you much limit the number of characters with whom you wish them to identify and care about. In many books, the action revolves around a single character. This is fine, but two or three characters are fine as well. More than that and you run the risk of diluting your story and causing the reader to scratch his head in confusion rather than gluing him to the page, needing to know “what happens next.”

Ask yourself why you read fiction? Isn’t one of the reasons because you enjoy getting involved with a character, likable or not, and his or her situation and finding out how that situation is eventually resolved? This, of course, constitutes your novel’s narrative arc, and the reader wants to follow it from the initial hook, through its development, to its resolution and denouement. He or she also wants to follow your character arc, i.e., the way your character grows and changes during the course of the novel as he or she faces and solves, or doesn’t solve, his or her problems. Too many characters don’t allow the writer to develop a strong narrative or character arc. Yes, some writers could handle a large cast of characters well, e.g., Leo Tolstoy, but in general, books like War and Peace and Anna Karenina are not en vogue today. Today’s most prized novels are more intimate and focus on a more limited number of characters.

Though you might balk at the advice above, and you might very well be able to handle a large cast of characters, it really is best to give the publishing world what it craves when your name is still unknown. If you want it to be known, don’t start off by shooting yourself in the foot. It’s not fun. I should know. I started by writing comedic crime capers, and my name isn’t Elmore Leonard. I ignored advice that there was no market for comedic crime capers unless one was already an established author. I learned the hard way, but I did learn. The book I’m working on right now is about as far away from a comedic crime caper as one can get, though I’ll admit, I do still find this “dead” genre fascinating. I loved Get Shorty.

Too many manuscripts today focus on non-stop action. A “Stephanie Plum type” character (Janet Evanovich does not have a problem with pacing, however) finds one dead body, then another, then another, and another. Meanwhile, we haven’t even gotten to know the main character. The writer needs to take a break from the action and give us some reflection from his or her protagonist. Scott Turow did this very well in his debut novel, Presumed Innocent.

Take a break from all the dead bodies, the car chases, the one-mishap-after-another and let us know what your protagonist looks like, where he/she comes from, why he’s doing what he’s doing, what she thinks about everything that’s happening. Believe me, if you’ve done your character studies, this will be just as engrossing to your readers as the action set pieces will be. In fact, one of the best ways to bond your protagonist to your readers is to let your protagonist tell the reader things he or she would never tell another soul. Things he or she has trouble admitting even to himself/herself.

Back story is important. So are the little details. Don’t forget to encompass the five senses in your narrative. Tell us how something looked, smelled, felt, tasted, what it sounded like. Tell us through your characters’ eyes. Different characters perceive the same thing in very different ways, and that different perception can be very revealing.

“Different characters” brings me to the subject of narrative voices. Some beginning writers dilute their story by letting too many people tell the tale. True, if you use first person and only one first person, you’re going to have to have that one narrator in every single scene in your book. But you can use first person for one character, then switch to another first person for another character in another chapter or part of your book, just as you do with third person. Just don’t switch viewpoint in the middle of a scene. Yes, it’s been done, and it’s been done successfully, but I don’t recommend it to a beginning writer. Many seasoned writers have trouble doing it gracefully, and most readers really don’t like it very well.

Other manuscripts may limit their narrative voices, but still suffer from too many story threads requiring too many endings. A good novel can, and often does, contain several story threads, but a good novel has one goal and one ending, in which all these disparate story threads converge. Too many endings will leave your reader confused, unsatisfied, or “at loose ends.”

I’ve also edited manuscripts in which the author, though well-intentioned, tried to develop far too many themes. We know a good author is interested in many subjects. Choose one to explore and develop for your current “in progress” novel and save the rest for future novels. Too many themes will dilute your story. You need to choose one (or at the most two) and then give your readers all the details to make your exploration – and your book – deep and meaningful as well as enjoyable.

Of course, different writers will write at different pace. You might write faster-paced books that I write or the guy down the street writes. That’s okay as long as you don’t sacrifice focus and depth to breakneck pacing. If you’re a beginning writer, make sure you strike a good balance better action, dialogue, and narrative. Give your characters – and your readers – some much-wanted “breathing space.”

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