Writing Within Limitations
A writer can’t do anything he or she wants. Every human being – you too – is bound by limitations. Our readers are limited because they are human. A skillful writer learns to work with these limitations.
- Don’t overload the emotions of your readers. Escalating the emotional level of your story makes it interesting, you may say, so why not do it unceasingly? If one or two spies add tension to a novel, why not include forty-eight or forty-nine spies? Because the human mind can only handle so much stress (and so many characters). That’s why writers use “comic relief.” While reading about tragic events, it’s restful to read a little comedy. Skilled writers give their readers time to breathe before taking away their breath again.
- Don’t stretch the credibility of your readers. When I was a young student, my teacher taught us a big word: verisimilitude, meaning “lifelikeness.” That is, readers don’t mind if a story didn’t really happen, but they do mind if it couldn’t have really happened. That is, readers demand that characters display the sense and emotions of real people (even if the characters are three-eyed aliens). For example, with a well-written magical fantasy, somehow it becomes easy to believe that people can fly through the air, but hard to believe the hero wouldn’t fly through the air to rescue his beloved. It’s physically impossible to fly without wings, but it’s psychologically impossible to love someone without caring about them. I don’t think this preference is a choice, but rather an unavoidable part of human psychology, similar to our expectation that pushing an object will move it away from us – we couldn’t stand a world where the opposite happens. To explain why modern people can accept supernatural stories, Samuel Taylor Coleridge coined the phrase “willing suspension of disbelief.”
- Don’t overload the patience of your readers. Wise teachers say, “The mind can only absorb what the seat can endure.” If a lecture goes on so long that a student becomes physically uncomfortable, he or she will have trouble learning from it. In the same way, you want readers to say about your book, “I couldn’t put it down,” but you should still include chapter breaks – stopping places where they can eat and sleep.
The cliff-hanger technique of carrying suspense across chapter divisions can get to be too much, especially if the suspense isn’t warranted.
Then came a knock at the door. Her heart pounded. Could this be her long lost true love?
She opened the door. It was the postman, who handed her a cable TV bill.
Length is obviously a factor in how patient your readers can be, but that doesn’t apply only to your book as a whole. Your reader will become restless with any passage that seems too long to them, such as your description of the setting. He or she will skip ahead, looking for quotation marks and white space. Of course, some of the best-selling books of all time have been long books. They have also been interesting books. I still say, if they can’t lift it, they won’t read it.
- Don’t forget to research commonly known facts. Some writers keep researching when they should just start writing. But if a fact can easily be checked, make sure it’s accurate. A recent novel by one of my favorite authors seemed to depend on the premise that Irish people have supernatural powers. Because I live in a country (the United States) where there are more Irish people than in Ireland, I can easily test that premise, so I was disappointed by the book. If she had written about Cornish or Manx people instead, I wouldn’t know if she were right or wrong, because I don’t know any Cornish or Manx people. When your readers catch you in an obvious error, they can say “I personally know that setting or event, but you apparently don’t,” and they may decide not to read your book. Facts tied to emotions are particularly sensitive. Don’t flippantly change the facts behind the founding of my nation or my faith, or I will be annoyed.
- Don’t try to display a superlative. Writers with big ideas can fall into this trap. It’s one thing to say that your character is the wisest or funniest person in the history of the world, or the most brilliant or the most intelligent. It’s another thing to show your readers an example of exactly what you think that means, which you will as soon as your character opens his mouth. Because at that point, they can instantly decide if they believe you. For example, once your character tells a joke, they will decide for themselves if he is really the funniest person in the world.
Here’s my example of displaying a superlative:
She looked out over the formally-dressed audience, glancing at the head of the Swedish Academy which was now awarding her the Nobel Prize for literature. As everyone in the hall held his or her breath, she unfolded the manuscript of her most famous poem and began to read.
If you’re writing this, you should draw a veil over the scene right here. Don’t actually quote the poem, unless you think you already deserve a Nobel Prize for literature. Can you get away with passing off your own work as an example of a Nobel Prize-winning poem?
Ayn Rand, the author of Atlas Shrugged, The Fountainhead and The Virtue of Selfishness, was not afraid of displaying a superlative. In her novel Atlas Shrugged, important people suddenly disappear when they hear John Galt’s message. We wonder, what could that message be? Well, Rand spends 70 pages telling us, leaving nothing to the imagination.
Writers are well advised to “show, don’t tell.” But by this point in Rand’s life, telling had become more important than showing. So she lost any readers mystified by the question of “What is making these important people suddenly disappear?” but disappointed by the answer. That is, she lost the readers who couldn’t believe what she was now displaying.
Good writers know their limits. Once you say something, your readers will use their own judgment to decide whether it’s believable. They don’t need to use their imaginations anymore. And you don’t want your readers to stop using their imaginations.
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