When we read, we tend to try to anticipate what will happen in a story, or project backwards (for example, in a murder mystery novel). We use details such as objects, time and setting to create a picture of where, when, and what is happening. When an author spends time describing something in a manuscript, it’s a clue to the reader to pay attention. These details also help to immerse us in the story. A problem in some manuscripts is when the focus is on the wrong things or details that don’t matter. The reader doesn’t know what’s important and can feel bored or cheated.
One reason for this skewed focus is the author writing their way into the story. I’ve read plenty of scenes describing a character waking up, making tea or coffee, or commuting to work. I tend to think of these scenes as mental stretches before tackling a heavy writing session and they probably reflect more on the daily life of an author than what’s important to a story. That’s not to say that you should cut all description of a character’s day-to-day doings from the manuscript. These can be a great way to provide characterisation and may be part of the plot. Just be aware of repetition, spending too much time on these scenes, or reverting to cliché in how you describe them.
If a writer is passionate about a topic, this can also skew the focus of description. This isn’t always a bad thing. I love learning something new when I read. One of the great joys of fiction is slipping into another person’s shoes and exploring their world. Now imagine that person is a keen lepidopterist and just when you get to a critical point in their story, they stop to show you their collection of pinned butterflies. The main story is shooting past but you have to stop and listen to them talk about their favourite moth. It’s frustrating and slows the pace unnecessarily. If the topic is crucial to the plot, that’s a different thing entirely; if it isn’t, think about cutting back.
A third reason that a story’s focus can be imbalanced is that the manuscript is in its early development. The first draft is often the writer telling themselves the story, getting the images and ideas in their head down on to the page. It’s in the subsequent revisions that the author can then go back over the manuscript and expand scenes and flesh things out. The first couple of chapters are usually the most heavily revised. Authors know that first chapters are crucial for hooking a reader or a publisher and will spend time polishing the start of a manuscript until it’s shiny and bright.
In the rest of the story, particularly heading into the climax where the pace is breakneck, things can tend to get summarised. While short, sharp sentences and chapters are great for reflecting the rising tension, what you don’t want to do is leave the reader feeling short changed. They’ve followed you for the past two hundred pages. Make sure the climax you’ve promised is satisfying by giving it enough attention and space on the page.
The final reason for a skewed focus is not trusting the reader to do their job. A common problem with many manuscripts is overwriting. The author can feel the urge to explain what is happening because they don’t trust that the reader will ‘get it’. This can lead to repetition, telling and too much description.
To make sure you’re getting the balance of focus right in your manuscript, read great fiction. Examine how the author has guided the reader’s attention. Look at the balance of description and action. Read bad fiction. Take note of when you drop out of a story or feel frustrated with the narrative. What made you stop reading? Were you bored? Did you feel cheated?
Enlist the aid of a couple of trusted beta readers and ask them to make note of if and when they drop out of your story. Check that focus is right and you’ll elevate your writing.
“In many cases when a reader puts a story aside because it ‘got boring,’ the boredom arose because the writer grew enchanted with his powers of description and lost sight of his priority, which is to keep the ball rolling.”
― Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft