How to Engage Your Readers By Editing for Who, What, Where, When Why, & How

Written by A Guest Author

By Wendy S. Delmater

As a writer you want your readers fully immersed in your world, as seen through the eyes of a character that they fully identify with. The last, the very last thing you want to do is break the suspension of disbelief.  In this final entry in a series of articles, I’ve used the old newspaperman’s checklist — “Who, what, where, when, why, and how” —  to describe things to avoid, and have outlined the cure for each error.

In previous articles in the series, we discussed how to not confuse readers about “who, what or why” and “what and when.

In this final article we will discuss writing errors that can throw readers out of a story when they are confused about “How.”

Everyone who writes a plot asks themselves this: how is my character going to accomplish their deeds?

 “How” means you need to watch out for is whether or not your story factually accurate. Watch for the following areas of concern.

How do things work scientifically?

If your story involves an area of science you’re not familiar with, I’ve heard writer CJ Cherryh suggest you read a children’s book on the subject to get an overview, and then move on to more complex treatments of your chosen topic.

Next, check with scientific experts. I spoke to a leading expert in bird languages and intelligence before writing a story that involved those topics. Anne McCaffrey obviously spoke to people familiar with piloting a spacecraft when she wrote the scenes involving the POV character piloting an earth-to-moon shuttle in her Pegasus in Space:

Peter knew from his long hours in the simulators that the motions of the two spacecraft in close orbit were not at all intuitive. In fact, in order to slip behind Padrugoi, Limo-34 would have to speed up—and it would take a wild ride around the front of Padrugoi before the shuttle got behind the space station. But first the Limo would have to crawl to a safe distance from the station before it could fire its thrusters.  Moving at a meter a second, it would take over three minutes—Peter checked the countdown clock—before the shuttle could begin the de-rendezvous maneuver that would put Padrugoi safely out of harm’s way.

How did she get this information? Well, she no doubt asked someone who was an expert on spaceflight.  You’d be amazed how many people in technical fields would love to talk to you about getting the science in your story right. What’s the worst thing they could say, no? Go ahead and politely ask them. Many technical experts are readers and will get a kick out of being mentioned in the acknowledgements of a book or pointing others to a short story they were consulted on.

Just recently, I was writing a story involving mining, underground rock samples, and the geology that might cause a mine shaft collapse. By putting out an inquiry via my friends on social media I was able to consult with a geological engineer and she was happy to check that I got the science right. And by contacting a professional association I was able to get a free consultation from one of their retired members on mining questions. If you don’t know how something works, and research isn’t enough to get the details right, you can ask a technical expert. If you want to write that something happens and it’s even remotely possible in real life, odds  are you’ll find a specialist willing to help you make your story accurate.

How do details in that society work?

This does not just apply to science. If you’re basing your fantasy world on a different or ancient culture, it’s important to get those details right, too, even for a short story. (There’s a great book on that topic called Writing The Other. [i]) Do your research. When I wanted to write about the founding of an artists’ colony, I went to a museum in a smallish town that was the site of a famous artist’s colony. They let me in the back and gave me access to founding documents and old manuscripts. With historical experts, just like technical expert, all I had to do was ask.

You can ask people, but there is also a wealth of material to read.  My writer friend J. Kathleen Cheney’s fantasy series set in 1800s Portugal took a great deal of research. She says: 

One of the things about researching for a short story is that it’s easy to overdo it. When I’m writing a short piece, I often write before I do much researching (a novel is a different proposal, though). I make notes as I go along: @type of building material, @common breakfast items for era, @look up street names on map. Doing it this way allows me to pinpoint the exact details I want for the story and saves me from researching a bunch of unnecessary stuff.

If the writer is anything like me, occasionally the first draft will go in directions they hadn’t originally planned. When I wrote “Of Ambergris, Blood, and Brandy,” I intended for the setting to be Venice. It wasn’t until I started writing that I decided to change the venue to Portugal. So if I’d done a great deal of research on 1900 Venice before I wrote it, that would have all been wasted. So for short fiction, I strongly recommend writing first, and researching between the first and second drafts.

So, what Cheney is saying is that she does not stop to research things while she is writing. She marks that research is needed, keeps writing, and comes back to fill in the items needing research later. I’m guessing its one of the reasons she is such a prolific writer.

She adds,

If you’ve ever run across an author who gives tons of details about things that don’t seem to have anything to do with the plot, it’s likely they researched first, then tried to fit all their research in.

Don’t be that person who clutters their prose with unnecessary detail that distracts and bores the reader. Any extra research serves a purpose, but bulking up your story or book is not what it’s for. It provides a subconscious sense of depth and weight to your story.  Like an iceberg, the reader only sees what’s above the waterline, details which are necessary to further the story, but you as the writer know so much more. And, trust me, the reader can sense an assurance that a writer knows what they are talking about. It gives it weight.

(Note: This is also why derivative works fall flat: the copycat writer is only copying that which is, as it were, above the waterline. It comes across as Styrofoam.)

More wise advice from Cheney about historical research. Choose concise sources. Avoid rabbit holes.

Once you get to the researching part, though, you still want to use your time wisely. I’ve taught sessions on Historical Research for Authors, and one of the first point I make is that we’re writers, not historians. Don’t get bogged down in the research rabbit holes.

Go back through your manuscript and pick out the things you need to know most. One place to pick out details from your historical period is to read novels or journals written by people who wrote in that time period and location. For my money, the local period novel (or journal) gives the most bang for the buck.

Another trick to avoiding research rabbit trails is to set a timer.  Many of us write about what we’re fascinated with and will unwittingly spend time we should have been writing avidly pursuing learning about things that interest us, and POOF! A whole morning or afternoon is gone. So what I do when researching is set a timer app on my cell phone and hold myself to only researching for a fixed period of time. When the alarm clock goes off, I’ve used up all my research time for the day.

Any research can be approached that way. Limit yourself to the items you absolutely need to know, and make a list of the cool stuff you just want to look – and then look at those items during leisure time. Email yourself a stack of URLs and book names and then close those tabs in your browser! Again, set a timer and focus on what you absolutely need to know to write the story. Then write it! Just make sure that everything works how it’s supposed to work for that time period or for that scientific discipline.

Another How is how did things work back then?

Historical pieces such as period romances, alternative histories, or even scifi that has a sort of period “holodeck” absolutely require you get the details right. This is why we have an internet and libraries, so that we will not throw readers out of our stories with inaccuracies.

A fine example of using history to build a story to study might be Charles Coleman Finlay’s Traitor to the Crown fantasy series. In A Spell For the Revolution[ii], Finlay—a trained historian—gives  supernatural reasons for anomalies in the history of the American Revolution, and gives us a fictional “secret history” view of well-known events. It has not only historical accuracy, it also has a coherent magical system. 

How does the magic work?

If your writing contains a magic system, it is absolutely required that it be coherent. It must have laws, and limitations. Magic or super powers without limitations are boring and create no tension. Every Superman needs his kryptonite.

Here are some examples of well-done, coherent magical systems.

Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden series has as a base a type of magic that is a rare, natural talent. Individuals have this type of power and it’s stronger in some areas of expertise than others for each person. For example Dresden is good at brute force magic, but his apprentice is better at things requiring precise, delicate magical abilities. The Harry Dresden universe contains magic that can be enhanced by training and practice but is limited by natural talent. Dresden himself also interacts with other supernatural magical abilities: Hellfire, where his magic is enhanced by the literal fires of hell, and Soulfire, where his magic is enhanced by the divine powers of Creation. The limitation on Hellfire is that he is being tempted to sell his soul and the magic is given to him by a temptress who knows that each time he uses it he is drawn closer to her. On the other hand, when Dresden gets Soulfire, it is literally powered by his soul, and if he uses all he has he will die.

The Kate Daniels series by Ilona Andrews has another coherent magic system. Basic to this world is Magic as Weather: when the magic rolls in like a cold front, any tech will not work. You need swords, not guns, when the magic is up. When the magic rolls out and the tech is back up mechanical things will work, but in the long term tech is affected badly by the magic waves: skyscrapers slowly crumble under the effects of magic, and modernity is becoming a thing of the past. Complicating this are shape shifters of various kinds: not only werewolves, but were-hyenas, were-bears, were-lions, etc.  This is supposedly the work of a virus and those who are affected need to live in strong hierarchies to act like human beings.  Another magical system within the Kate Daniels series are piloted vampires: soulless vamps who are driven like magical remote control cars by “pilots” for a living. The interactions between these systems make for some great plots.

How do the economics work?

You don’t want economics to throw a person out of your story. As a writer you need to think through how commerce will operate in your imagined, written world. It’s another one of those things that adds depth to your stories: readers may only see your character bartering for clothes or stealing clothes, or selling things they’ve found. But they can tell if you have a solid economic underpinning for it all. Even if it‘s just a modified feudal system, or an economic system based on social credits or favors, make sure you know how commerce works in your imagined world.

How do things work in the military?

Believable weapons and chain-of-command are essential in military stories. There’s a reason most people who write military fiction have been in the military. They understand the lingo, the culture, the weapons, and the hierarchy. These folks are also the primary audience for such stories. Tick them off with the wrong details at your peril.

This works for ancient, modern, or futuristic warfare, scifi or fantasy. To use our earlier examples, Jim Butcher is a martial artist, and it shows in the fight scenes he’s written for Harry Dresden. Ilona Andrews owns a Russian sword that she inherited from her grandfather, and she knows how to use it. It shows when she writes fight scenes for her character.

To sum up: know how things work. Avoid a lack of research showing your work to be inaccurate in any way to experts who might be reading your story. You can infuse a little of that magical element “hand-wavium” (accept this improbable thing, it just is) but too much of that will throw your reader out of the story and out into the cold, hard world that they were reading your piece to escape from in the first place. Make the “how” of your story or book consistent, logical, and scientific/factually correct. Once you’ve broken the fourth wall through ineptitude, readers can be unforgiving.

I offer the book-shaped dent in my wall as proof.

***

Wendy S. Delmater is the editor of Abyss & Apex Magazine of Speculative Fiction. The above is adapted from her forthcoming book, Writing the Entertaining Story.


[i] Ward, Cynthia and Shawl, Nisi, Writing the Other, Aqueduct Press, 2005.

[ii] Finlay, Charles Coleman, A Spell for the Revolution, Del Rey, 2009.

 

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