Author as Dinner-Party Host   
Victoria Grossack

It’s December, and we’re in the holiday season, the time for parties, entertainment, inviting friends and families to visit. And so, to match the spirit of the season, I’d like to apply a metaphor to this column: Imagine that you, as an author, are hosting a dinner-party for your readers.

This is a good analogy because your readers – especially if they are reading fiction – expect and hope to be entertained. And, when you review the rules which apply to most conversations and entertainment, you may be able to come up with some rules for your writing.

(1) Do you let them know what kind of party you’re giving?

Visitors, when coming to your home, need to be warned what sort of entertainment to expect, so that they can be prepared. They need to have the right sort of clothing; it’s rude to ask someone to a barbeque while everyone else shows up for a formal sit-down dinner.

The similarity I see here to writing is that you must set up the genre properly. If you have told them to expect romance, your readers may come ill-equipped for historical fiction. Each genre has its own rules.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t keep some surprises. Still, when I go to a friend’s house for dinner I want to know if I should wear high heels or sneakers.

(2) Do you make introductions that stick?

When a guest enters your home, good manners require you to introduce him to the other people already present. He has a much better chance of remembering your introductions if you make them one at a time rather than naming all twenty people in the room and expecting your friend to remember everyone.

The same is true for your fiction. You should pace the introduction of your characters, so that your readers don’t get confused. In other words, don’t introduce too many people at once. Furthermore, when you make an introduction, add something – a tag, a characteristic or even a small or large scene – so that your reader has something to make the remembering easier. This can be as simple as a title – “Lord Marshall” – or a description of their looks or their importance to your protagonist – or a quirk which fixes them in the reader’s mind. Charles Dickens was brilliant at giving characters quirks; think of simple Mr. Dick or the determined dwarf, Miss Mowcher.

Let me add a few more words on introductions. Don’t expect your readers to remember all the characters easily. When a character has not appeared for a few chapters, include a few words to remind your reader who the character is. This is a good idea for many parties, too. Even when you know you’ve introduced two people at your house, don’t assume that they always remember each other’s names. It’s a kindness on your part to prompt them. You can even behave as if the memory at fault is your own, with a friendly, “Did I introduce the two of you already?”

(3) Do you invite compatible people?

If you really think that a couple of people will not like each other – even worse, that they will dislike each other actively – then you may want to reconsider inviting them to the same event.

Fiction is similar. Readers often prefer to read about characters that they like. If your characters are not people that your readers would like, or at least delivered through a sympathetic narrator, then your readers may be alienated by the story.

(4) Do you talk about yourself?

We have all encountered the person who speaks about herself, without asking herself if the information will interest her listeners. Sometimes the information is entertaining; occasionally it is not.

The same characteristic is true with respect authors and their readers. There are many examples of thinly-disguised autobiography – true of many writers – and sometimes done extremely well, as in Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield or Louisa Alcott’s Little Women. On the other hand, it is often done poorly and the author should consider whether these aspects of her tale will really interest her readers or if she is writing to please herself.

How do you tell whether or not your story – which has probably, in some respects, grown out of your personal experience – is too much about yourself? How do you tell if is making good fiction? Well, this is the question to which we would all like to know THE answer – but despite the question’s being difficult to answer, does not mean it should not be asked. Review your writing and see if the details which stem from your personal experience will give your readers insight into their own lives.

(5) Are you boring?

Another type we know is the person who drones on and on about something which interests her, never getting to the point, even though there was a point somewhere.

Information extraneous to the actual story but something the author has decided to include either because (a) the information really interests him or (b) he can’t think of anything to write, should be reviewed and considered for deletion.

(6) Do you provide your guests a balanced meal?

At a dinner-party, it is customary to supply some or all of the items that follow: appetizers, drinks, salads, main course, vegetable, bread, dessert and coffee. Even if you are very good at making salads, you still have to make and serve other dishes as well.

Readers likewise expect a balance of elements in what they read: dialogue, description, plot, introspection and action. You may be great at writing dialogue but you are obliged to supply the other parts as well. How much you serve of each item depends on your genre and your intended audience, and, of course, your particular writing style.

Thanks for joining me at this party; if you have comments, you can e-mail me directly at Grossackva at Yahoo dot com. May you have a safe and happy holiday season – more next year!

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About the Writer:

Victoria Grossack is the author of Iokaste: The Novel of the Mother-Wife of Oedipus. She is working on her own series of novels, set in Bronze Age Greece. There’s exciting news about Iokaste: even the Greeks want to read it! Learn more about Iokaste and other books in the series at Tapestry of Bronze.

Victoria was a moderator of a critique group for Coffeehouse for Writers and teaches the Writing Historical Fiction workshop for Coffeehouse for Writers.