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I have been participating in a writer’s forum which I have avoided for years. I guess, I never felt like I had anything to contribute and I thought I would just end up being target practice. Instead of an apple on my head, I’d have one of my stories. I had no idea that writers all tend to be plagued by insecurity. Is there a writer out there who was born brimming with confidence!?
The forum a question came up: Do you think everything should be in a neat little package [with nothing mentioned] beyond the scope of the story, or do you think it’s okay [to expand because] the story is a small part of a much broader world…?
That’s a very good question. I thought about it. I’d like to discuss what I call “the spotlight effect”.
The Spotlight Effect
I have learned a lot this past year from writing flash fiction and microstories and letting others read them. When you write for yourself, you don’t care about how things come across because you have that knowledge base in your head. You know how your planet works, you know the origin of the magical hair bows, and the paisley vortex breadbox makes sense.
It’s a different ballgame when you are trying to put images into someone else’s head.
1. Readers notice everything. They look for that character connection, a setting, a conflict, and a resolution — and if any of those is missing or out of balance it pulls the reader’s attention right to it. I’ve learned that if your character makes a decision or chooses an action, it needs to fit and contribute to the story or else it blinks like a zit on the end of someone’s nose. Readers will question why an action doesn’t fit the character’s personality (especially if the character’s personality is vague).
2. Readers like balance. It does depend on the story length and genre. If astory has a detailed beginning, detailed middle, and an ending of a few sentences, the story seems unfinished or rushed. The reader begins to wonder why the ending is so short. If the beginning is super detailed, and the middle sparse, and the ending detailed…questions arise: “Is that middle really needed? Does the beginning need to be that long?”
3. If you edit be sure the resulting order flows. My beta readers noticed right away when I moved ONE sentence and pointed out to me that something was “strange”. Because I moved it, it was separated from it’s reference/grounding sentence and it lit up like a short circuit when they read it. A lot of times, our word choices are related to the words we’ve chosen previously. I didn’t realize this before.
4. Setting is crucial. If the setting is in a place a person is familiar with like a dive bar or Starbucks, you can get away with very few words about it and only have to remind about the setting now and then (depending on the length of the story). If it’s in a fantasy world, in the distant past, future, or historic area — you have to dedicate more time to it and be sure it is sprinkled throughout the story more often. Even a fairy tale needs a groundwork if it is totally out of the range of known stories. If it’s a world like Cinderella or Snow White that’s one thing, if it is new and the world occurs on a Gas Giant Moon…well… how do things work there? Inquiring minds want to know.
5. Coincidences don’t fly. Readers will call you out on a coincidence. Tinsel just doesn’t appear in July out of no where even though it is baffling how it escaped the two thousand passes of the vacuum. That bit of silver came from somewhere, its shape allows it to fit into crevices, its thin length means it can get caught around splinters and bits of carpet. Tinsel doesn’t just manifest out of thin air. If your character A meets character B in a completely random place, at a random time, yet it all fits perfectly into a perfectly executed Plan, readers will cry Plot Hole!
6. If you mention it, it better be important. Readers don’t like loose ends or dangling modifiers. If you bring up the ornate jewelry box that summons a garden gnome at the beetle bloom on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, then you best be sure you mention it again somewhere as a part of something: mode of transportation, memory trigger, handy weapon, or currency. Anything. If you don’t, a spotlight shines on it. The reader will scratch their head and say, “Hey, what about that gnome box thing? Whatever happened with that!?”