Why Being Uncertain Ruins Your Writing (I Think)
This is the second in a series of posts drawn from recent author interviews I’ve done about the craft of writing.
Imagine you climb into a taxi and the driver says, “I don’t know. It’s over there somewhere.”
Now, imagine you climb into a second cab and the driver says, “Yeah, I know exactly where it is. We go up three streets, make a right, and it’s two miles on the left.”
You’d feel a lot better getting in the second car, right?
That’s a lot like writing.
Imagine those taxi drivers are authors. The first driver/writer will meander, appear lost, look for the next turn or destination, and you’re not sure your trip is ever going to pay off or bring you to a good destination.
But you feel like the second driver is in control. He may go a way you don’t know or expect, but you’re always confident you’ll reach your destination.
Uncertain writing has the same effect. But with the first writer, you don’t climb out of the car, you abandon the book. You stick with the second writer until the end.
Don’t let uncertain writing or storytelling ruin your book and your relationship with your readers.
How to Avoid Uncertain Writing
- An unsure character does not mean unsure writing. You can have a character who’s a nervous wreck, but the reader must believe you know where the story is going. You can do this by showing changes in that character as the story progresses. This can be done through a story arc in a scene, a chapter, or multiple chapters.
- Effective plot twists. A story appears to be going nowhere when there aren’t any plot twists. Yes, an uncertain writer may add details and go off course, but that’s not the same as an effective plot twist. Those make the reader say, “Wow, didn’t see that coming,” or lead them down the same dark alley your main character is heading. See that your plot twists take the reader somewhere rather than leaving them twisting in the wind.
- Try not to use the word “seems.” Seems should all but be banned from the English language — or at least the written word. I have actually read sentences like “The sky seemed gray” or “Her eyes seemed blue.” Either the sky is gray or it isn’t. Either her eyes are blue or they aren’t (now, it you’re writing sci-fi, fantasy, or thriller, there might be a reason for this deception, but that’s an effective plot twist that will be revealed later, not uncertainty. For almost everyone else, it’s an unnecessary distraction).
- Seems, Part II. Seems often signifies lazy writing. It makes the reader do the work. It’s like a painter handing you a blank canvas and saying, “It’s a tree. Don’t you see it?” Everyone is going to picture a different tree. Don’t write, “He seemed angry.” We have to picture how the other other character knows this, or question why they can’t figure it out. Instead, write “His mouth twitched and his eyes tensed, but only for a second. It was clear he was trying to mask his anger.” That way, you’re painting a picture, just like the artist should have done.
- Hyperbole in description is fine, but remember there’s a difference between “He was as big as a mountain” (impossible) and “He was a mountain of a man” (descriptive and comparative). Paint the right picture even when going overboard so that we don’t question a scene’s reality. Your use of certainty over the implausible is typically welcomed.
Readers will follow an uncertain narrator, a character piece, even an existential psychodrama, but only if the story is under control. Unless you have the skills of a Dostoevsky (tremendous understanding of character) or Dickens (tremendous plot twists), avoid the rambling descriptions that appear to go nowhere for pages on end. Modern storytelling doesn’t allow for it. Be certain of your story, and readers will be certain of your talents.
And who knows? Like that second taxi driver, you might even get a good tip in the form of a 5-star review or the purchase of your next book!