The Good Book that Could Have Been Great
Not too long ago I read a good book that could have been a great one. The story was compelling; the plot mirrored some troubling current events, the author kept me guessing until the end. Sadly, the author made some writing errors that detracted from my enjoyment of her book. What I saw wrong in that book can be a good guide for editing another.
Show, Don’t Tell
This tried-and-true advice is worth following. Too many times I read, “Mary was angry with John.” That’s telling. “Mary slammed her books on the counter and glared at John” is showing. If you’ve done a good job showing the emotion of the characters, you won’t need to tell the reader. They’ll get it without any explanations from you. Even better, they will feel it.
When the author tried to show, her favorite phrase was “her eyes filled with tears.” That’s not a bad way to show sadness, but not every three or four pages. A hanging head, drooping mouth, slumped posture are other ways to show sadness.
Along the same lines, using the same word too often gets boring. If a character is running, mix it up a little with sprinted, sped, hurried and other words that show motion at a fast pace.
Many times the author expressed action in the passive voice, as in “the news was broken to Mary.” A better way to convey this information to the reader is “John broke the news to Mary.” Any time you find yourself using the passive forms, try to change it to the active. Your writing will be livelier and will keep the reader’s interest.
Keep them in Suspense
In spite of the basic writing errors in the book, I kept reading to the end, because the author had done two things very well: she had constructed a good story, and she knew how to create suspense.
Dropping little hints along the way is one to do this. “He had no idea how much worse his situation would become,” or “he knew it would hurt terribly, but he was going to have to make a choice,” leave the reader wondering “how much worse? Why? What makes it worse?” or “what choice will he make?” If the reader is engaged with the characters, he will want to know what happens, and will keep turning the pages.
Another way to create suspense is to let your reader know of some impending conflict. One good example is “As she got into her car and drove off, she didn’t see the man watching her from behind a tree.” Why is the man watching? Surely he’s up to no good, and now I’m hooked: I want to know what he’s going to do.
These are just some simple ways to bring your writing to life and keep your readers wanting more.