The Author’s Obligation to the Reader

I texted a friend once asking her if she had ever read a book where there was a good scene but it could have been written so much better. Within a minute she texted back, “Chariot scene in Ben Hur.” I was surprised by her response on two levels: 1) she responded so quickly and didn’t need time to think, and 2) she had a scene in mind and didn’t require any clarification. No hesitation. No uncertainty. She had been looking forward to that scene since she began reading the book, and she had high hopes for its potential, but it disappointed her. 

I realized writers have an unwritten contract with the readers. As soon as the first word is put on the page you are promising two things: to complete the story and to use all the elements you bring into the story to make the tale memorable.

Having the story completed is always a given. If it’s published and in your hands, it has to be finished, but how many unfinished documents do you have in your computer? I know in my computer I have two main files—Finished and Unfinished, and the Unfinished is a lot larger than the Finished file. You may come up with a new story idea and write it until you get stick. As long as no one else sees it, that’s all right. You have no obligation to the reader. Your obligation to the characters and the story itself depends on your belief in them.

Now the second point was my surprise that my friend had a scene in mind and knew exactly what I was talking about. Imagine you’re baking in the kitchen. You have the following ingredients:

flour (a solid character)

eggs (the plot)

butter (great scenes)

sugar (witty, good-humored dialogue)

cocoa (dark twist)

baking soda (climax builder)

salt (truths come out)

water (everything’s resolved)

and as well as your mixing bowls and spoons. Separately they stand alone and have different purposes, but to make a chocolate cake, you have to measure each one specifically and stir the mixture. You can’t just say, “Let’s do a cup of salt!” and you also can’t just throw all the right measured ingredients into the bowl without stirring it and say it’s a cake.

When you write the first word on the page, you’re promising the reader, “I swear to deliver this story as clearly and accurately as humanly possible. Every element I include will be mastered. The climax will not disappoint. The results will be satisfactory, and the story will be memorable.”

Writing without studying and practicing different kinds of scenes and mastering different elements is like signing up for a marathon when you’ve never trained a single day in your life. You might survive, but it won’t be pretty, and you’ll probably never do that again.

So, when you sit down to write a story but especially a novel, be ready to deliver. “What if the scene I’m writing is boring or difficult? Can I skip it?” Some people do, but I don’t recommend it. There’s a reason why it’s boring or difficult. As the author of the story, it is your duty to look at the chapter and determine why it’s dull and unexciting. If you’re bored by it, your readers will be bored by it as well, and when they’re unamused, they put down the book and never finish it. You don’t want that to happen.

Why is the scene boring? How can you make it more interesting? It might be a scene where two characters are discussing a detrimental consequence of an action, and there’s nothing you can do to make the scene more exciting—except maybe add a flare of personality in the characters, or add a third character who doesn’t get along with one or both of those other two and has a wicked sense of humor or doesn’t understand the seriousness of the talk. Little things like that can make a boring scene pass quicker and be more entertaining.

Now, if a chapter is difficult to write, it could be because it is emotionally trying, or it could be because you’re not quite sure what you’re doing. You know what needs to happen, but you’re not sure how it’s supposed to happen, or you might lack confidence in writing that specific type of scene. If it’s emotionally trying, that is good. All that emotion you’re struggling with is rich, so channel it into your writing. Don’t be afraid of feeling, don’t be afraid of your struggle. People relate to emotions, and when they sense the emotions are authentic, it will touch them, and you want that. Take it one step at a time though. Don’t push yourself, but simply allow yourself to feel, and write it.

However, if you’re struggling because you have no idea what you’re doing (with a fight scene, for instance), then you need to pause and reconsider what exactly you are doing and how it’s important to the story. With the first draft, you may wing it for the sake of writing it and moving on with the story, but don’t be satisfied with this when you come back to it during the revision process. Take time to study your problem. Come to understand where exactly the problem lies. If it’s a fight scene, it could be because you don’t know how fights really work. If it’s a battle scene, you might be overwhelmed by the sheer vastness of the chaos that you don’t know how to cover it. Come to acknowledge the root of the problem. There is no shame in that. Next step, do research, ask fellow writers for help, read books with similar scenes and study how those authors handled the scenes.

Remember, you have an obligation to deliver the story to the fullness of your ability. Don’t think, “Oh, they won’t care,” or “They won’t notice,” because you will be wrong, and your story will be a disappointment. Writing is a craft. You must master it if you truly wish for your story to be memorable or an epic escape.

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