Conventions Exist for Good Reason

By Ellen Behrens

Ever read a book but run into spots where you scratch your head, then flip back a few pages, thinking you missed something? Me, too. I recently picked up a nearly 500-page paperback novel set in South Dakota. I like reading books set where my husband and I have traveled, and I was looking forward to a rare Black Hills novel. Alas, I nearly gave up on page 5.

The author had me with an intriguing opening line: “Didja ever notice old folks’ homes smell exactly like funeral homes?” Hmm. Never thought of that. The narrative voice sounded sassy and honest, and I liked that.

I overlooked being introduced to the main characters by their first names only, assuming the author had a good reason to break with the convention of using full names.

obstacles

Then, on page 5, I bumped into a reference to another character, this time by last name only. I couldn’t remember reading anything about that character, so I interrupted the flow of the story to thumb through the first four pages, hunting through each paragraph in search of the reference to this character I must have missed. When I couldn’t find it, I re-read the sentence that had catapulted me out of the story: “Also very much like Martinez’s various security setups.” Yep. That was the full mention of this “Martinez.”

Wha–??

start-over

So I started over again, looking more closely for an explanation of who Martinez was and what I was supposed to know about Martinez’s “various security setups.” Nothing. At this point, I’d read the first five pages at least three times.

Frustrated, I scanned the back cover of the book to see what (other than the setting) had compelled me to buy it.  And there it was: a reference to Martinez as the main character’s love interest.

back-cover-woes

The back cover is not where I should have found the missing details. I realized the book must have been part of a series. Earlier books no doubt filled the gaps I kept falling into, but nothing on the cover said I should read earlier books to make sense of this one.

disorented

Five pages into a 500-page novel, I was disoriented. Not a promising start. I really wanted to like the book. I’ve been traditionally published, but now I’m self-publishing my own mystery series and wanted to financially support a fellow novelist. I know from my own frustrating experience how much blood, sweat, and gut-wrenching determination it takes to finish a novel (and I’ve never written a 500-pager).

Sadly, my “suspension of disbelief” was gone – I was paying more attention to how the book was written than to the story itself. But it was a valuable reminder of why certain fiction conventions are still valid, and why they’re especially important to follow in series books:

rules

1) Introduce characters by full name early on.

2) Re-introduce characters from earlier books if they reappear. Don’t assume readers know the characters or their backstories.

3) Never, ever confuse your readers. They’re more likely to abandon the book without finishing it if they get disoriented or become more aware of how a story’s written than the story itself.

4) Oh, and if you catch me doing something that fouls up your appreciation of one of my books? Let me know. Please!

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bob-and-ellen

peabody_coverYuma Baby, the second in Ellen Behrens’ Rollin RV Mystery series (following Pea Body) featuring Walt and Betty Rollin, full-time RVers who solve mysteries, is coming soon. A former fiction editor and the recipient of an Ohio Arts Council Individual Artist Fellowship, Ellen and her husband have been full-time RVers since 2009 – living and writing back and forth across North America. Learn more about her books at www.ellenbooks.com or drop her an e-mail at ellenbehr[at]aol[dot]com if you’d like. She loves mail!

 

 

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13 thoughts on “Conventions Exist for Good Reason

  1. Wonderful post, Ellen! Just goes to show how careless some writers can be, especially with a series by assuming all readers will be “up to snuff” on the characters and events of previous books in the series. Thanks for an interesting and informative post, and please know the “welcome mat” is always out for you! 🙂
    –Michael

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    1. Thank you for the invitation to post here and for your kind response! After I wrote this, I did a little checking and discovered this book was actually the fourth in a short series. I found it in a bookstore in Rapid City, SD, and for all the world it looked like a stand-alone novel. Oh, well! Served as a great “learning and teaching moment,” didn’t it? As for that welcome mat? Prepare to see it put to use 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Delightful, Ellen. as a series writer, I try to make sure each of my books can stand alone. No mystery guests allowed, One of my excellent beta readers pointed out when she read the second of the Hayden Kent series that I hadn’t bothered to introduce the main character’s name until chapter 3. Oops. I knew who she was!,

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    1. Thanks, Kait! Just two books in (and starting the third) I’m struggling to balance the “stand alone” and “series story arc” elements. Because I pick up so many mysteries as I find them, I’ve developed a bias against series with very strong series arcs because reading them out of order means I see how some conflicts end before I want to… yet I know characters must change over the course of a book (and subsequent books) so there’s something to the series arc as well.

      Would love to hear how you handle that balance!

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  3. This post is a good reminder when writing a series or even the first book, to make sure readers know the characters. There is nothing worse than having to go back and look for facts. Thanks for sharing your experience, Ellen.

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    1. Thank you! I’ve been working with my beta reader on the final polish of “Yuma Baby” and when I came across a reference to a character’s RV being a Class A I circled it in red because I was sure I’d referred to it in another spot as another type of RV. Continuity, too, can trip us up, can’t it?

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  4. Conventions can put a frame around chaos and bring clarity even if a writer is creating a story that could easily be confusing because of other rule breaking. It’s nice to have some solid ground under our feet in any situation. Very nice post, most appreciated Ellen.

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    1. I couldn’t agree more, MJ! Unfortunately, I’ve seen many beginning writers comment in forums that rules just don’t matter — the only thing that does is personal style. It’s a great sentiment but rarely leads to a readable book…. at least in my opinion 🙂 Thank you for your comment!

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  5. Thank you all for your comments! And BIG thanks to Motive Means Opportunity — Mike in particular — for inviting me to post. It’s an honor to be a guest blogger here and hope to contribute again.

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