In commercial fiction, a clear timeline is essential. Readers should feel rooted in the moment. They should not feel confused about where they are in the narrative in terms of how much time has passed or even where the characters are physically.
Any lack of coherence makes a story feel loose.
Closely related to the timeline issue, skimming over a book’s events can also result in a wobbly narrative. Writing an emotionally resonant and effective commercial novel is not a one-way experience, with the author merely pontificating. Career authors should consider the reader experience. It’s crucial their readers feel grounded.
“Show, don’t tell”—a classic for a reason
Explanations about your story’s events may string together various scenes, but explanations should not be telling the story in the main. A novel’s events should not be glossed over, summarized or related too quickly. The narrative should not feel rushed or lacking immediacy and intimacy.
Your book’s characters may develop and change over the course of many years, and a certain amount of summation may be necessary to keep the plot flowing and the page count under a thousand. However, even with an elongated timeline, a story’s pace mustn’t flag. Readers must be kept fully engaged and turning pages.
You do not want too many (if any) important scenes recounted in retrospect.
Now and then a novelist’s observations of a repeated activity may morph into a specific scene without notification, puzzling readers.
A general—skimming—recollection (“Over many years, Jane and I would climb that mountain path and visit the hawks… She would always say…”) might abruptly switch into a specific scene (“Look what I found!”). To prevent unnecessary ambiguity, a career author should provide indicators to guide readers into specific scenes. Nail down the timing for your readers.
Moving from general observations to a more fully described incident is a fine narrative strategy, but don’t skim through an indistinct timeline. Fully realized scenes are more affecting.
Sometimes a fiction writer will unintentionally use disembodied voices to explain what’s going on. Two characters might suddenly be presenting relevant facts, but the story’s reader has no idea when or where this conversation happened. Rather than enlightening their readers, the novelist is confusing them. As above, ground readers with fully realized scenes.
Alternating POVs need to connect coherently
Storytelling challenges deepen with multiple POVs. Readers should not get lost in the world you create.
If a novel features the perspectives of numerous characters and spans a good length of time, alternating points of view should sync. Dissonance between them results in confusion.
When switching from one viewpoint to another, readers should not have to play too much explanatory catch-up.
Think of one character’s narrative as a stepping stone to the next.
To see this risky maneuver accomplished with flair, check out Angie Kim’s remarkable novel Miracle Creek. In an impressive feat of literary derring-do, Kim uses seven distinct POVs while writing a complex, edge-of-your-seat story.
How to ground your reader
Avoid skimming by writing a series of clear, emotional, heartfelt scenes—less explanations, more actual interactions. Readers should be immersed in the lives of your characters. Readers should see the world through their eyes.
As a storyteller, don’t describe or explain. Carpe diem. Live the scene fully inside your characters’ head. Put yourselves in their shoes.
What is your character seeing and physically experiencing this moment?
Perhaps there is a rock in their shoe. Or the sun is blinding. The breeze smells of lavender. Expand the reader experience with fleshed-out scenes.
Skimming over events robs a lively plot of vitality and relevance. Readers are pushed outside of the story. They are observing events rather than experiencing them alongside the characters.
Tighten your plot. Don’t summarize events or emotions. Let readers experience and feel them. That’s why they will buy your books.
How do you keep your plotting lean and mean? Spill your secrets on Facebook.