How Your Beta Reader Is Ruining Your WIP

Resist the Urge to Explain.  RUE.

If you’ve read this blog any, you’ve seen me give this advice many times.  How, then, did I get sucked into doing it in Chapter 2 of Power of the Mages?  A beta reader.

My protagonist is keeping something from his boss, who logically should be able to help with the situation.  The protagonist’s sister confronts him over it.  His response is that he knows as much as his boss.

One of my beta readers was bothered by the situation.  If the problem could perhaps be resolved by the character telling his boss, he should just tell his boss. 

I get the response.  Is there anything worse than a contrived plot device where everything could be resolved if the characters just talked to each other (Yes to all those wiseacres out there.  The holocaust was worse.)?

In my case, however, the situation reveals two important character traits: he thinks he knows as much as anyone else, and he doesn’t like asking for help.

I needed to solve the problem by setting up the dilemma before the scene in question and by consistently showing these two traits.  Because of the particular exchange with the beta reader, I instead wrote this really horrible scene showing the protagonist agonizing over whether to tell his boss.  It turned out dreadful, and I spent a lot of time trying to fix it.

If you’re like me, you’ll add a scene on the scantest of excuses, but removing one takes an act of congress.  That’s why it took me a long time to figure out that I just needed to delete the entire thing.

Beta readers are essential to your success and your learning to be a better writer.  You are too close to your work to properly evaluate it.  However, not keeping your beta readers’ comments in perspective can ruin your work faster than not using them at all.  Here are some of the ways:

  1. Beta readers aren’t readers – A reader is willing to let you lead them on a journey.  A beta reader is actively searching for flaws in your work and is going to discover them whether they exist or not.  Their thinking is that, if they don’t make any comments, they’re not doing their job.  Their unmerited comments can then lead you to over explain.
  2. Beta readers have preconceived notions – Whereas a reader will let you reveal the plot and characters by the events that unfold, a beta reader is much more likely to decide in advance how a feature of your society works or how a character should behave.  These notions then can cause you to change something that negatively impacts your vision.
  3. Beta readers have pet peeves – Everyone has issues that bother them much more than it bothers anyone else.  Beta readers, especially those who aren’t self aware enough to understand their own pet peeves, will vehemently argue against you doing something that remotely approaches these issues.  This vehemence can lead you to make changes impacting plot lines and story arcs for no good reason.

Your best bet is to get to know your beta reader.  Analyze the comments to detect their hot button issues.  Use your judgment.  Don’t take a single person’s advice if it seems wrong to you.

I’ll follow up this post next week with advice on how to become a better beta reader.


5 thoughts on “How Your Beta Reader Is Ruining Your WIP

  1. I must admit, I’ve never seen it as a contrivance to have problems arise from characters not talking. *Especially*, as in your case, when it is established that these characters don’t ask for help, or communicate all that well. In fact, I personally would go along with such a plot element even without that established premise. Shows just what you’re talking about in this post don’t you think?

  2. It can be annoying. I have read works where it got to be ridiculous. If A and B, who know each other and talk all the time, were to just speak honestly with each other, the entire plot problem would disappear.

    I don’t think that my usage was quite so bad.

    • And then there wouldn’t be a plot. You’re right, it does get to a point where you just want to go “yeah but this is book. I need a plot to happen else it’ll be a ‘nothing’.”

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