Any of us who can still remember elementary school are familiar with the questions of description: “Who? What? When? Where? Why? (and sometimes How?)” As writers, we pretty much ask ourselves most, if not all, of these questions whenever we create a new story or setting.
And that’s all great, but there is another question that seems much more relevant, and that questions is “Who cares?”
Everything you write–every scene, every description, every word of dialogue–needs to have a purpose and needs to be there for a reason. I used to try to ask myself “Why is this here?” as I went through a first draft, but now I try to ask “Why should a reader care?” instead.
No matter who your target audience is, your goal as a writer is to entertain them and keep them interested. It’s not to impress them with your colorful descriptions or a thousand pages of world-building backstory. It’s simply to make them care. That will make them keep reading.
Start out by looking at your main character. The protagonist must be an interesting, flawed, and relatable character that the reader will care enough about to
want need to see how things turn out. But be careful. If the flaw you give your character isn’t real, it won’t draw in a reader; it’ll just seem phony. The flaw must directly affect the plot or it adds nothing to the story. Don’t make your character a violent drunk unless overcoming his violent drunkenness is the whole point of the story.
You’ve also got to look at setting. Sure, it might be fun to spend months or years coming up with an entire political/religious system and history of your world. But if pack too much of than in your novel, the story will become a footnote in your fictitious history textbook. Leave the over-detailed world backstory to your D&D campaign.
Finally, let’s take a look at subplots. How necessary are they? It depends on the purpose they serve. If they are used to further develop characters, or fill in some backstory of the setting, but stay away from using them if they don’t help the overlying story arc progress in one way or another. Also, pay special attention to your use of subplots. The last thing you want to do is pull the reader too far away from the main storyline. In other words, stay on topic. Readers don’t like being thrown around and teased.
In closing I’d like to throw out a quick note about beginnings. Nothing turns off a reader quicker than beginning a novel with ten pages of backstory. Same thing for dreams or prologues that don’t directly relate to the story at hand.
Grab your readers’ interest early and keep it throughout the story. And never stop asking yourself, “Who cares?”