How to Write a Book Part 4: Keeping the Reader Engaged
How to Write a Book Part 4: Keeping the Reader Engaged
I have written thousands of pages of material intended to be a part of my memoir. Most of it was pretty terrible.
My friend Ashley Abercrombie would take a bullet for me. That is the kind of friend she is. That is also the reason that she is the only person on the planet who has read pretty much EVERYTHING I HAVE EVER WRITTEN. It was a sacrifice of love. God bless her. Seriously, she is a good friend.
There are two things I have learned about writing that were GAME CHANGERS for my writing. Applying these two principles transformed my memoir writing into something that people (besides Ashley) would actually want to read. I can honestly say, that without these principles, my memoir would never have been published.
Both concepts are pretty simple, but when applied consistently throughout the body of a work, I have found that they will be a deciding factor in whether or not the writing will engage readers.
1. Show, Don’t Tell
This is a writing composition principle where rather than telling the reader about something (an event, a scene, a person) you show them through a more sensory version of the story.
It’s basically the difference between telling me a character “got mad” and showing me through what you write about that character. What did her face looked like? How did she breathe? What was her body posture like when she interacted with you?
When you tell the reader something about someone, you also give them an opportunity to question the truth of your statement and thus your integrity as a writer. For example, if you simply say, “My boyfriend was a complete jerk”, the reader may think, “He doesn’t seem that bad” and begin to wonder if what you are saying is true. The worst thing about this is that it takes the person out of the story.
But if you instead show the reader an incident in which your boyfriend was treating you in such a way that would cause you to believe he is a jerk, then you establish your point. You invite the reader in a moment of your story and you allow the reader to draw their own conclusions about your boyfriend, further engaging them in the story.
For more on this principle, check out what Wikipedia has to say: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Show,_don’t_tell
2. Ground the reader in a scene
A scene is set in a specific place and time, and it has a beginning, middle and end. This sounds so elementary but my writing teacher had to say it about 20 times before it sunk in for me. I kept writing snippets of scenes with reflections about the moments, but the overall feel of my writing was fragmented because the reader was never anchored in a place and time.
Once I finally got it this principle, I began writing each of my chapters in the form of a scene. I started with a specific memory or scenario I wanted to highlight and grounded everything in that scene with a clear understanding of when and where the scene was talking place.
The temptation here would be to start of in a scene and trail off into other thoughts and memories without ever returning to the scene and giving the reader a beginning, middle and end.
When you write in scenes, you can continue to share reflections and related memories, but always keep them anchored in a specific scene. It makes it feel less fragmented to the reader.
For example, in my memoir, one of the things I wanted to write about was the night I quit stripping. I could have simply told the reader about that night by listing out some of the events and stating some thoughts or I could place the reader in that place and time in my life and show them what happened.
It is the difference between, “One night I went to work and I just couldn’t take it anymore. I knew I had to quit. That night I left and I never went back. Finances where tight and I could barely pay my bills. I tried getting a job as a waitress after that but nobody would hire me.”
In the paragraph above, I listed out two different potential scenes (1. My last night at the club 2. Applying for a job as a waitress) without ever grounding the reader in a specific moment in time. The above is more of an autobiographical style and there is a time and place for this sort of writing. When it comes to writing a memoir, you probably won’t keep the reader engaged for more than a few pages this way. That is my personal opinion.
Alternately, below is an exerpt from my memoir, “Scars and Stilettos” in which I take the reader into the actual scene from the night I quit dancing…
“The man in front of me was transfixed by the woman on the stage and didn’t notice me, standing there behind him. He would never know that I was prepared to lead him into the little red booth, where I would strip down and take off all my clothes in exchange for a few crumpled-up bills. The song enveloped me like a lavender ribbon, wrapping itself around my entire body. I became caught up: by the song; by the moment.
I am in this moment. Here. Now. And in that moment, I became aware: aware of my ivory bones, and the muscles and tendons wrapped around them; of the blood coursing through my veins; of my heart, beating hard in my chest.
Standing on thin, worn carpet, I wobbled slightly on my stilettos. I had paced and strutted across that floor on hundreds of nights before. I began to realize that I had participated in the wearing of the carpet. I had participated in so much more wearing than my mind could comprehend. Slowly, I placed one foot behind the other, until I stood at the back of the club. The room seemed to expand and contract all at once. Prince was still singing about purple rain. He was empathizing with me.
‘Honey, I know, I know, I know times are changing. It’s time we all reach out for something new. That means you too,’ he snarled. There was a slide show in my mind: Derrick – me – Gina – the baby – the money – me – God – me – the money – Derrick – that car! – the bills – me – Derrick – God.
And there is God. And He is here. Suddenly, I saw. I saw Nicole in the table-dance booth, swinging her leg over a customer’s head and propping it up on the rail to give him a better view. Her eyes danced around the room. She is disengaged. She is naked.
The girl on stage was bent over on all fours and glancing over her shoulder sheepishly at a man in a suit. She is naked. We are all naked here.
‘I can’t quit now!’ I pleaded silently with God, and myself, and anyone who would listen.
That is when I heard. A small and still voice whispered to the core of my heart and being.
‘I am here. I am with you. I will never leave you.’
Exhale. He is here. He is with me. He will never leave me. I will never be alone. This is truth. And somehow my ivory bones and my tendons and blood were in harmony, as truth resonated throughout my body. Yes, I am caught up; in truth; in Him.
I began to rise. I was already standing, but I began to rise. I lifted my head and eyes as I walked directly over to my manager, Gabe, with his kind, freckled face.
‘I’m leaving.’ The words formed awkwardly in my mouth. It was almost a question.
‘For the night?’ he asked.
‘For ever,’ I replied.”
The scene goes on from there but hopefully you get the idea.
So just to recap:
- Show, don’t tell
- Anchor your writing in scenes set in a specific place and time, with a clear beginning, middle and end.
Love, Harmony Dust
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