In my early 20′s I discovered historical romances and fell in love with them. I quickly found some favorite authors and devoured everything they wrote. As time went by, I drifted away from them and only recently found some new books by those favorite authors. This time around, my reading experience with them has been different.
I still enjoy the stories, but now that I’ve been writing myself for a number of years, I notice a lot more about the writing technique used in the books I read.
A Lump of Backstory
I discovered that one of my most favorite authors is quite fond of backstory, delivered in a huge lump at the beginning of the book. One book had 40 pages… yes, you read that right. 40 pages of backstory to begin the book. I quickly found myself skimming and flipping page after page to get to the actual story with the hero and heroine.
Instead of dumping a lot of past information at the very beginning of the book, she could have included it throughout the story as the characters interacted. As the reader, I would have questioned some of the behaviors of the characters without the backstory, but posing story questions (Why did she react like that? What is the secret he doesn’t want to talk about?) and not answering them right away would keep me reading through the book to find the answers.
Realization #1: A glob of backstory is not a good start to your book. Backstory should be used like salt… a sprinkle here and there throughout the story as seasoning. Too much salt and the resulting story is inedible (or unreadable).
Another author was fond of leaving out details of the story action. For example, “Hero turned away from the stairs, deciding he’d wait to talk to Heroine after supper. He turned back at the noise and started up the stairs.” What noise? Where’s the explanation of what he heard? In this case, we later find out the noise was Heroine having a huge cat fight with her sister. Why couldn’t the author just say that Hero suddenly heard screaming and loud crashes from upstairs?
Realization #2: It’s not clever to leave out details of the action as if they are implied by the character’s reaction to something. It’s just confusing and confusing your reader too much will cause them to stop reading your book.
Important Scenes Happening Off Camera
This technique seemed like a cop-out and an incredible missed opportunity. The author skipped over scenes that could have provided heightened suspense or revealed the inner qualities of the characters.
For example, Heroine is kidnapped by train robbers because she has seen their faces and can paint likenesses for the local sheriff to put on Wanted Posters. Hero rides after Heroine, worrying about her. After riding a full day and spending a fretful night beside a campfire, Hero finds Heroine hidden in a haystack in a barn. She falls into his arms, trembling from the kidnapping ordeal.
Wait… where’s the scene of the Heroine bravely standing up to the train robbers? Even a scene of her cowering and afraid of them as they threaten to kill her? It took an entire day for the Hero to get to her location. What was happening to her during that time? Where’s the scene that explains why she’s hiding in a haystack with the train robbers mysteriously vanished?
These were prime opportunities to show us more of Heroine’s inner strength in the face of danger, her intelligence in trying to find ways to escape. Even an opportunity to paint the train robbers as a real threat so that Hero’s eventual rescue of Heroine is truly heroic. But instead, the author chose to skip over the scenes and instead have the Heroine tell the Hero that the train robbers had stashed her in the haystack for the night so the wife of one of them wouldn’t realize they had kidnapped anyone. (Okay, this was a HUH? moment in itself.) The Hero doesn’t even get a showdown with the train robbers. Instead, he takes Heroine back to her family and the sheriff rounds up the train robbers, again off camera, so the threat is suddenly, and easily, eliminated.
Realization #3 – Don’t leave out the best scenes. Use the action scenes to give the reader better insight into your characters. Use them to raise the tension in the story and increase the danger to the characters. Leaving out scenes like this only robs the reader of the chance to really fall in love with your characters and to be enthralled with your story.
What I’ve Learned
Though the books had flaws, I still enjoyed them. I’ll continue to read these authors, though I’m not as awestruck by their talent as I once was. Instead, I realize now how difficult it can be to write a great story.
The craft of writing a great story is a lot harder than most people realize. When you get all the pieces right, it’s magic. When you don’t… well, you’re providing a learning opportunity for us other writers out there. And I’m going to keep reading and keep learning from every book I read.