I was teaching a group of writing students recently and, as I was talking, I realised how much of the content I cover comes not just from my experience of writing books, but also from my experience of reading books. Since I’ve been writing, I can never mindlessly enjoy a book; I’m always looking at how it works and why it works. I might not always do this at the time of reading, I might reflect on it later, but it’s definitely a big part of my reading process.
With that in mind, I thought I’d share with you 7 insights into how reading helps you become a better writer, along with the name of the novel that prompted the insight in me. I hope this is useful; if you’re having an issue in your own writing with any of the 7 points, hopefully you can pick up the related novel, have a read, and see how a writer has put that technique to use.
1. Start in the Middle of the Action
Everyone remembers Pride and Prejudice’s opening scene because of the classic line it begins with: “It is a truth universally acknowledged ...” But have you ever taken the time as a writer to look closely at the opening scene? It is brilliant.
Austen gives us her inciting incident on the first page – the arrival in town of Mr Bingley and Mr Darcy. By the second page, she establishes her dramatic question: how will the Bennetts marry off FIVE daughters when they have no money? And she does all this through a scene in which Mr and Mrs Bennett sit in the parlour having a conversation about Mrs Bennett’s wish for her husband to visit Mr Bingley. Mr Bennett of course, refuses, thus giving us our first complication or obstacle.
That first chapter is all action and dialogue, with just the smallest amount of narration. There is no thought, no long sojourns inside characters’ heads, no wasted words, no background information, no info-dumping at all. Austen trusts that the reader is smart enough to work out what’s going on, and because she writes such great dialogue, we quickly understand the key relationships within the family and their situation.
It’s a classic example of starting your book right in the middle of the action, presenting some key dramatic hooks straight away, and thus capturing the attention of readers from the outset.
2. Heartbreak Makes a Book Stay With You As Much, or More So, Than Requited Love
I think we live a little in an era of happy ever after where readers seem to prefer books that have happy endings. But anyone who has read Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin knows that it’s the heartbreak in that book that lends the story its power.
It’s simply devastating. And that the heartbreak has to be kept secret makes it even more so. To live for so long holding onto a private loss that could never be shared, which is what Iris has to do, is the thing that binds the reader emotionally to the book.
3. Always Do the Unexpected
If every twist and turn and pivot of your narrative leads us on to what the reader expects will happen, then your book will disappoint. Try to think about the unexpected and do that instead. Surprise the reader. Make the reader think, Wow, I never thought that would happen. That’s how you keep readers reading. That’s how you create narrative tension.
I’ve recently been re-reading a series of books that I loved in my twenties, 6 historical fiction novels by Dorothy Dunnett. They’re about one of the most complicated characters I’ve ever come across in fiction, and because the character is so complicated, you never know what he will do and how he will react. But everything he does is completely believable as well as unexpected.
Dunnett’s narratives are a sea of surprises and the tension you feel as a reader is immense because her main character is continually getting into situations that you don’t think he will be able to extricate himself from. But he does – and always because of his wits and planning and intelligence, never because of coincidence.
4. Heroines Don’t Have to be Beautiful
If there is one thing Jane Eyre taught me it’s this – heroines must be courageous and that is more ravishing than a perfect face. Try to imagine heroines who don’t conform to ideals.
5. Not Everyone Will Like Your Main Character
I loved Little Women as a girl but I did not love Jo March. To me, Amy was the heroine of that story and I continually wanted to move Jo off the page and bring in more Amy. Of course many people love Jo March but I didn’t. However, I was intrigued by Jo.
Don’t always feel as if all of your characters need to be liked by everyone. If you try to do that, they’ll likely lack the complexity they need. Interest your readers in your characters, rather than set out to make them like your characters.
6. There Should Always be Drama
Confession time. In my late teens, I loved and read everything by Danielle Steele and Barbara Taylor Bradford and I devoured Gone With the Wind. I often wonder what it would be like to go back and read any of these books now. Regardless, one of the things these books taught me is the importance of drama, of something happening.
Sure, many of those books probably tip over into melodrama, too much happening and too many emotions being wrung out onto the page, but those books never stood still and waited for a character to contemplate the deeper meaning of life. Instead they promised that transformation was possible.
7. There Has to be Tragedy in Order for There to be Triumph
Sometimes we can be too kind to our characters and never let bad things happen to them. We don’t want to make the reader sad. But then we lose the chance to show the reader what our characters are really made of.
A Summer to Die by Lois Lowry was a book I borrowed from my local library about a hundred times when I was around 10 years old. It’s the story of two sisters and one has leukaemia. The sister with leukaemia eventually dies and it’s pretty harrowing, especially for a 10 year old who knew the word death existed but didn’t really think it applied to her life.
But I continued to borrow that book, even though the worst possible thing happens to the characters in it. I borrowed it because I could cry but I could also smile a little at the end when it seemed as if the sister left behind might just be okay, even after something so terrible had happened.
So, over to you. What have you learned about writing from reading? And do any of my learnings resonate with you?