Simplicity is the key to good reading

When writers start out, they frequently try to write in ways that will show off their skill with words. They employ a number of techniques such as unexplained twists at the end, or introduce new features that don’t really add anything to the story. This often leads to complicated story lines and characters who are portrayed in one way but behave in the opposite way.

For example, a writer may describe a character as reserved and then several pages on have him or her jumping about at a party showing off his or her karaoke skills. Reserved? Hmmm, not really.

This is definitely not what the reader would expect and the fact he or she does this comes as a disturbing surprise. This is an exaggerated example. However, readers will have formed an impression of the character based on one description. Suddenly they have to shift perceptions and this is not done easily. It creates a jarring reading experience and may even stop the reader from continuing on the journey that you have set them on.

It can be a very unsettling experience for the reader but, worse, it devalues the character and leaves the reader questioning just who the person really is. Unless there is reason in the story line for this sudden shift, the reader will question the writer’s ability to tell a story well. Often poorly formed one-dimensional characters also accompany this fault and the reader will simply give up reading what you have laboured over long and hard.

The easiest way to avoid this is to write a profile of your character naming the character’s political and social opinions, job, recreational activities, status, and values. You might add many more characteristics. These will be a reference point against which you shape your character and influence the kinds of environments in which you place your character.

Once you are clear about your character or characters, they will act consistently and according to the values he or she holds.

The storyteller’s role is to take the reader on a journey. To do this, the writer gives the reader clear and easy to follow cues. They cannot be ponderous but they must make sense. If a character is walking through a muddy forest in pursuit of a bandit, it is decidedly confusing if in the last sentence or two the writer announces that the bandit is in fact a sheriff. The writer might think that is a clever twist, and it is,but stark announcements such as these unsettle a reader and need a context. The key is to prepare the reader for this surprise discovery by giving insights into the circumstances and the character, which also makes the bandit turned good person entirely feasible. Or in this case by turning a good sheriff into a bandit is also feasible.

Not only is it important to keep the storyline easy to follow, it is also important to use techniques that keep the reading experience pleasurable and without distracting gimmicks such as using a complex word when a simple word will do.

In his blog 11 Smart Tips for Writing Brilliantly, Dean Rieck also makes this point along with several others that make reading your writing enjoyable. When a writer uses a word like efficacious instead of effective or useful, it smacks of the writer saying, ‘look at how clever I am’. Usually, writing that features less well-known long words makes the writer look and sound pretentious.

What appear to be simple sentences are often those that the writer has recrafted and redrafted many times. The sentence or paragraph tends to be short, concise and clear. Often, a rambling sentence is the result of a writer being unclear about what he or she really wants to say. Short sentences that speak volumes take time to craft. Yet, when done well, can appear deceptively simple. Consider this line from Ernest Hemmingway’s Hills are like White Elephants:  “There were labels on them [suitcases] from all the hotels where they had spent nights.” This one sentence gives us back-story and tells us all we need to know about the couple he is describing.

So the simpler a sentence is, the more receptive the reader will be to what you are trying to say.