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The Seven Things To Leave Out Of Your Book, by Jack Heath

The cardinal rule of writing for young adults is this: never, ever be boring.

Boredom is a thing of the past. I only dimly remember it. Most teenagers have never experienced it at all. Sure, they might have seen a bad movie or attended a dull class at school, but the days of doing literally nothing for eight hours while strapped into a car seat are long, long gone.

For this reason, when writing a book for teenagers, what you leave out is often more important than what you put in. It’s crucial to ensure that there are no boring bits.

I try to leave the following things out of my books (because they bore the snot out of me as a reader). I’m sure I’m not the only one who hates this stuff, so you may want to consider removing it from your own books.

What the characters are wearing. There are some circumstances under which an outfit says something about a person (a lab coat, a crown, stinking rags) but they are rare. If you think there’s a fundamental difference between a character who wears jeans and one who wears cargo pants, then you have been brainwashed by the fashion industry.

Eye colour. Stupidly, many authors seem to think eye colour is significant. Even more stupidly, they almost always choose blue.

Romantic sub-plots. If your story revolves around a love affair, that’s fine. But if you just shoehorned in a romantic sub-plot as “something for the ladies”, then please shoehorn it right back out again. (Screenwriters are especially guilty of this.)

Trivial anger. If the main character is angry because the villain cut off both her feet, then that’s great. If she’s angry because you needed to create conflict and nothing else interesting is happening, then maybe you should just skip ahead to when something is happening.

Religious subtext. Put it in if you need to, I guess – it’s hard to tell a story that has no personal significance – but be aware that you’ll alienate the two-thirds of the world who don’t share your beliefs.

Transport. I don’t really care how the characters get from one place to another. A single word covers it. Train. Car. Horse. In fact, here’s a new, improved opening line to The Lord of the Rings: ‘Wow, it sure took us a long time to walk here,’ said Frodo, as he looked up at the gates to Mordor.

Genealogy. When Tristram Shandy wasted his whole autobiography trying to get around to his birth, it was a joke. By the time Salman Rushdie did it with Midnight’s Children, it wasn’t funny any more. You know whose parents were never spoken of? John McClane. Anne of Green Gables. Atticus Finch. James Bond. In short, every good character ever.

Next time you read a book, take note of the boring bits. Next time you write a book, leave them out.


Jack Heath bio page

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3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ooh, I disagree about Anne of Green Gables never speaking about her parents. Leaving aside the fact that Marilla and Matthew became surrogate parents and were a major part of the book/s, Anne did daydream about her real parents and make up stories about them.

    Otherwise, love this post! Although it doesn’t seem to apply to high fantasy writers… 🙂

    July 29, 2012
  2. I think it’s a rare occasion when I don’t specify eye color, and I usually choose dark brown, black, or green instead of blue. (I never saw the appeal of blue eyes.) I’ve also used gray and hazel, and have a few characters with heterochromia.

    I never force religion or religious things in my writing, but I have a number of religious characters. (I also write 20th century historical, so perhaps it’s a bit different for me.) One of my Atlantic City characters, Laura, is a religious but liberal Catholic, which causes her some problems with her priest and church as she grows up in the pre-Vatican II era. I also have many Jewish characters (in both my Shoah books, obviously, and my other historicals), and no matter what denomination they are, they’re all observant in their own way. Part of that is because I’m so turned off by how so often in the movies and on tv, Jewish characters are depicted as either secular lox and bagelers who don’t do jack with their so-called religion and intermarry at a 99% rate, or are rigid fanatics who need to be taught a lesson. I wanted to show the diversity and beauty of Yiddishkeit across the whole spectrum.

    July 30, 2012
  3. When you are writing historical fiction, there are some background details you need to include in order to have the reader understand how life was, why events happen and why some decisions are made and certain reactions occur. The context is important.
    However, you also need to move the story along, so these inclusions should come in subtly and not with paragraphs of description.

    August 16, 2012

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