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Keeping the Reader in the Story–Advice from Susan Elizabeth Phillips at RWA 2011

By on Thursday, Jul 14, 2011 in Craft | 0 comments

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[Today I thought I’d share with you an article I wrote for the July issue of my local chapter newsletter.]  [Wasn’t Nationals fun?!]

Susan Elizabeth Phillips, bestselling author of contemporary romance, gave a talk to a packed room at RWA Nationals on “Writing the Bestseller:  Six Magic Words.”  She was highly entertaining and hilarious and packed a wealth of knowledge into this talk.  
What makes a great read so compelling the reader can’t put it down?  Either the plot is so riveting, or you care about the characters so much you can’t stop reading, or the author is showing you something you’ve never seen before. 
Susan cautioned that writing a compelling book is not the same as writing the perfect book, which she defined as a book where you follow all the rules.
You’ve got to KEEP THE READER IN THE STORY (those are the six magic words).  Anything that pulls the reader out—DON’T DO.  So here are FOUR tips to keep the reader in the story:
1.  Work to master good craft.
Lack of mastery of grammar, use of repetitive words, awkward sentence structure, and clunky use of research will lose your reader.  She is not a purist about POV shifts but if the reader notices, shame on you.  Master your craft before you break the rules.
She gives herself permission to “put garbage on the screen,” knowing at some point she’s going to have to go back and correct a lot of things.  If you’re a perfectionist, leave your perfectionism behind!
2.  Keep the reader in the story by creating dazzling characters, ones we cannot bear to be parted from.  You want to get an emotional reaction from your reader.  This means that your characters are sympathetic BUT NOT PERFECT.  You can give your characters lots of flaws if you keep their heart pure.  Characters in popular fiction should be realistic but still LARGER THAN LIFE.  (Susan got a huge laugh when she joked that this is unlike literary fiction, which mimics life—“which is why it’s so damn boring.”)
Characters must have well-motivated actions.  Don’t sacrifice character just to move your plot forward.  Rather, keep your plot moving forward by giving your characters strengths and weaknesses.  Let your characters grow throughout the story so that by the end, they are able to do something that they couldn’t at the beginning.
Give them strong individual voices.  Nail each scene emotionally.  When you’re done, go back and read only the scenes with the heroine in them all the way to the end—then go back and do this for the hero.  Then you will be able to chart their relationship and their relationship with all the other characters in every scene.
3. Create a fast-moving plot.  It’s easy—just LEAVE OUT THE BORING PARTS.  You can write them, just cut them out before the end.  This means backstory, research, any character staring out the window, too much internal dialogue, etc.  Weave in backstory as seamlessly as possible and in bits and pieces.
End chapters on a cliffhanger.  If the scene has a resolution that would make the reader stop and go to bed, bury it in the middle of the chapter.
Subplots should begin after the main story and end before it.  If the main plot runs out of steam, she switches to the subplot to mix it up.
Raise stakes as high as possible.  She takes out a yellow pad and writes AND THEN THINGS GET WORSE and then brainstorms all the possibilities, writing down anything and everything that comes to mind.
4.  Keep the reader in the story by writing to your strengths, not just the market.  Feedback from readers can help identify your strengths.  Use critique groups carefully.  She has found that being critiqued while she is in process doesn’t work for her—so she waits until she has a finished product to share.  She said you do what you have to do to produce and you have to get tough about protecting your work.  So you have to find the method that works best for you.  
This was a great talk—the best I heard at Nationals.  If you get a chance to listen to it when the disc comes out, I highly recommend it.  Oh, and if you haven’t already, you can find Susan Elizabeth Phillips at susanephillips.com.