Has this ever happened to you? You sneak away to your favourite reading nook or coffee shop to finally start reading that new book. Finally, a few hours to yourself!
You get through a few chapters, but you’re not feeling it. You start to get bored and barely feel involved in the story. You decide to give it a chance… but by the fifth chapter you really start to lose interest, and so you close the book and head back home, annoyed because you’d been looking forward to this.
Now it’s back to real life…
Guess what? You’re probably not going to pick that book up again. Even if the plot does ignite on p. 75, you didn’t get there. You set it down and moved on.
As an author, you’re trying to avoid the dreaded DNF (did not finish). Yes, it’s inevitable that your book won’t appeal to everyone, and that’s okay. But I’m talking about those avid readers who devour books in your genre. In my case, science fiction stories about cyborgs and AI and dystopian futures ??.
It’s those ideal readers that you want to make sure keep reading. Here are four tips on how to avoid common pitfalls that keep readers on the surface of your story instead of immersed in it.
1. Start scenes in the middle of the action
Instead of telling the whole backstory before you can get to what’s happening now, just start now. Plop your reader in the middle of something, and let the flow of storytelling slowly reveal details and aspects of the world. Do this through the scene, where characters are doing things and interacting. This is a feature of solid world-building. Too much exposition and getting readers up to speed can make the story lag. I’m not saying don’t use exposition, but know when to use it, and when it can help with pacing.
By starting in the middle of the action, you naturally avoid initial info dumps. You need to trust your readers to glean from the details what they need to know about your world and characters. No need to tell all the details upfront all at once—the world is built slowly. Eliminating too much exposition and info dumping will help you tell a more engaging story and help readers not feel overwhelmed by too much being revealed all at once. Trust your reader! Work at not revealing too much but also not keeping too much secret (stuff that’s obvious the characters know).
2. Avoid overusing filter words
Another way to keep readers immersed is by reducing filter words. These are words that filter the action through the character’s viewpoint. They add narrative distance between the reader and the action, which means readers don’t feel like they’re in the story but being told what the viewpoint character is experiencing. This isn’t usually necessary because we’re already in the story. No need to keep telling the reader who’s experiencing it.
Here are a few examples:
“A flock of crows flew across the night sky, their wings beating as one. Something ominous was on its way…”
But if you were to heavily filter it through the main character, it would become “She noticed as the flock of crows flew across the night sky. She could hear their wings beating and watched as they moved across the sky, realizing something ominous was on its way.” A few well-positioned filter words is fine, but too many and the writing becomes clunky. As Louise Harnby says, the writing is of “doing being done.”
Here’s a published example I added filter words to (from Robert Silverberg’s Kingdoms of the Wall):
I realized that of all my four years as a candidate, nothing was worse than First Winnowing. I trembled like a leaf in the wind as I noticed the Masters of the House of the Wall start to move silently among us. I stared helplessly as they paused here and there in the rows to tap candidates on the shoulder and it suddenly occurred to me that it meant that they were dismissing us from the competition.
Here’s the original passage from that book:
Of all my four years as a candidate, nothing was worse than First Winnowing. I trembled like a leaf in the wind as the Masters of the House of the Wall moved silently among us, pausing here and there in the rows to tap candidates on the shoulder and thus to tell them that they were dismissed from the competition.
Look through your manuscript for the following filter words and see where you can eliminate them (or keep if they’re very intentional). They often crop up as verbs after “I.”
Your writing will feel more immediate and immersive when the scene is not constantly filtered through the viewpoint character. By closing that distance, readers will feel more in the flow of the story. If you’re writing in limited third person, we’re already in their head, so it’s not necessary to keep telling the reader that it’s the viewpoint character who is seeing, hearing, and thinking.
3. Write snappy dialogue without all the filler
In one of my creative writing classes in college the instructor asked us to listen to actual dialogue. She basically assigned us the task of eavesdropping on a conversation (in a public place) and taking notes on how people talk to each other. The thing to note is that characters in stories don’t actually talk like people having real conversations. It’s an imitation. The back-and-forth banter—unless it makes sense for the scene and has a definite purpose—can mostly be left out. The key is to be really intentional with your dialogue.
Dialogue should reveal emotion or information or even be part of world-building. Every piece of dialogue has to have a purpose. So go ahead and cut out all that filler that doesn’t add much to your scene. This will help readers stay immersed in your story, with your characters, and not get bored by too much small talk that doesn’t need to be there.
4. Make sure your sentences don’t all sound the same
This is something you don’t notice… until you do. When sentences start feeling the same, readers will get bored. This happens mainly when sentences are the same length and have the same sentence structure.
By changing up the length and structure of your sentences, you’ll keep readers deeply immersed in the story. You don’t want anything that reminds people that they’re reading or that draws too much attention to itself. By playing with shorter sentences you can create emphasis and highlight a particular point or idea. Even one-sentence paragraphs or strategically placed sentence fragments can help emphasize tone or pace. Longer sentences can do this too, but in a different way: by building up to a climax or revealing a key piece of information.
If you’re not careful, you will subconsciously repeat words, phrases, and sentence structure.
Don’t worry though. This is the sort of thing you look for much later in your self-editing (and a line editor will definitely be watching for). I like to think of editors as conductors; we are trained to hear the cadence and flow of words.
Readers DNF books for lots of reasons, and it’s not always because of the writing itself. I know for me it’s sometimes my mood, how much bandwidth I have, how much time I can dedicate to reading that particular day—all sorts of reasons that have nothing really to do with how the book is written. It’s on me.
But if you implement these tips, you’ll be well on your way to writing a tighter and more engaging story, I promise. And that can never hurt your chances of becoming someone’s new favourite author. That engaged reader will devour your series in record time and leave great reviews and promote your books all over the internet. That’s the hope!
Which one of these will you tackle first? Let me know in the comments.
Hi, I'm Erika! Welcome to the blog. I write about topics related to writing, editing, and publishing books.
Learn more about me here.
Join my monthly newsletter!
Follow me on socials