Have you ever read a book and found yourself feeling depressed or angry, or maybe just fidgety as you read? You might blame it on the tension and growing crises that are part and parcel to a developing plot, but then why does your subconscious keep pushing you to take a break? A good book is a page-turner. You can’t put it down. So what is it about this one that has you tapping your fingers even during the chase scene?
One reason: It’s just too negative. Bear with me–I know good stories have lots of angst as characters try to grow and find themselves and the good guys claw away at saving the world. What these good stories don’t do is wrap this tension in a negative tone.
Tone in writing can be defined as attitude or emotion toward the subject and the reader. It conveys a particular message from the writer to the reader that while life is chock full of problems, there’s always hope. The story’s protagonist may fall, but s/he’ll get up. The addiction in a good story is how life’s unsolvable problems are defeated by a motivated main character whose core principles, motivations, and morality are just like yours. If the story’s tone turns negative, it quickly becomes pedantic, as though the writer is superior to the reader, lecturing because the audience is dumb. No one likes to be around that sort of person, much less choose to read a book that makes you feel that way. A positive tone, even as the world crumbles, conveys hope that this flawed, Everyman character is going to find his way out.
I hear you–you don’t believe you do that. Here’s a quick test. Search a chapter of your manuscript (use the Alt+F4 Find shortkey) for ‘not’ and all variations of that (including contractions). Every time possible, switch the negative for a positive. For example, instead of:
‘She couldn’t run any more’
‘Throat rasping, she screeched to a slow stumble’.
‘She couldn’t see out the window’
‘All she saw was the grimy dirt of a window that had gone years without a wash’.
Unless you’re in Britain, replace
‘I don’t suppose you’d be so kind as to…’
‘Please’ or ‘Get over here!’
When you’ve switched as many as you can, re-read your manuscript. Does it sound more powerful? More engaging? Now go through your entire manuscript like that. Sure, you’ll skip some–they’ll need to be negative–but as many as 70% can be switched. That will make the negative parts more striking rather than tonally depressing.
Here’s what I’d like you to do: In the comments below, share a section from your novel that has negatives in it and then tell us how you rewrote it–or ask for help. We don’t have to understand the entire plot to fix these.
More on writing:
Jacqui Murray is the author of the popular Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy. She is the author/editor of over a hundred books on integrating tech into education, adjunct professor of technology in education, webmaster for four blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, a columnist for TeachHUB, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing Teachers, monthly contributor to Today’s Author and a freelance journalist on tech ed topics. You can find her book at her publisher’s website, Structured Learning.
Thanks, Andrew. I was surprised at the difference it made in my story. I did a search for ‘not’ and ‘nt’ and tried to swap out the words. It really gave the action a punch.
Jacqui, this is an excellent idea for evaluating a WIP. I thought about a book written by a well established and often awarded author, but one I finally disliked enough to discard without completing. As I consider your post, I realize it was that the author’s tone was continually condescending and pretentious – talk about author intrusion. I gained more time to read a much better book afterward.
Exactly. I’m not a Pollyanna (well, you’d know better), but I do like to think there’s daylight not a train. I want readers to come away feeling better.
You’ve made an excellent point, Jacqui. I’ve never thought about if how I’m writing the story is going to stop the reader from going forward. I will look out for this flaw from now on.
I could see the difference immediately. A lot more energy. Think about those negative people you run into, who shake their head as you talk, and start every sentence with “No” or “But”. Drives me nuts.
I am going to give this exercise a try as soon as I can. I think it’s an excellent tip. Thanks, Jacqui!
It won’t take long–5 minutes is enough. Just search ‘not’.