This month’s top tip

OCTOBER 2019 – from The Travel Writer’s Way

How to please – or disappoint – your reader

The playwright Anton Chekhov famously observed, ‘If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one, it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.’

When we write for someone else to read, we’re placing things into their view: the props and settings of our stories, the characters who come on stage, the action that transpires. And we can choose just what we bring to sight.

We don’t have to show them everything, in fact that wouldn’t be possible. What we can display are the particular things we want our audience to notice: the view of the bay, the smell of seaweed, the sound of king prawns sizzling on the grill. Put the prawns in and your reader will notice them. Maybe even want to eat them.

And what we leave out is what they don’t need to bother with – the oil drums stacked behind the beach bar, the taxi ride that got us there from town. Such things are necessary but uninteresting, and they distract from the clear view you want to create of the things that really matter – the purple flowers drifting across the bamboo table where your plate of seafood, still spitting from the grill, is filling the air with fragrances of mace and smoke – and then the view beyond, where white sails spin across turquoise waters and seagulls flap against the sun.

But whatever we place in their view needs to be resolved. If I describe the scent of garlic and fish and frizzling pepper and frying olive oil, my reader will expect that I will taste them soon – and metaphorically they will too. If I talk too much about sailing boats, I’ll prompt them to want me to go on one and sail the bay myself.

For what we do, as central figures in our dramas, triggers a response in our readers. They will echo us. And expectations we set up – for piri-piri seafood or homicide by pistol – are powerful for them.

You can play with this by laying a trail to what you’re going to say. Or leave things out and ambush them. Or bring things back that were trailed much earlier, as I did just then. Either way, take care that by Act 2, so to speak, you’ve tied everything up. You’ve sampled the prawns, understood what the waiter meant, talked to the sun-kissed boy who smiled at you across the bar… If you put something like that into your story, you need to take it somewhere. And in the world of non-fiction, that means you need to walk across the room and start to talk to him. If only for your story…

One of the ways we play with our readers is to tease them with what we know and they don’t, or with what might happen next. So you wander across the beach bar and ask the boy for a drink, because that’s what you’ve set up. And then, again, you need to deal with what comes next – in reality and in writing. I leave the rest to you.

Extract from The Travel Writer’s Way, copyright Jonathan Lorie 2019.