I have a soft spot for foreign films, drawn to the nuances and peculiarities of their narratives and aesthetics. One evening we settled in to watch a French comedy about a postal worker who is demoted and sent to a small village in the country. After the first twenty minutes my partner shrugged his shoulders and went to bed. It took me an entire hour to work out why the film was not just flat but very unfunny (despite all the actors behaving like it was rollicking good time).
The comedy was based on regional discrepancies of language, mispronunciations and other verbal tics, all of which didn’t translate into subtitles. It was simply a movie that was never going to work outside of a French-speaking audience. It was a perfect example of what happens when you assume everything makes it across in a translation.
Image source: Flickr/Alfonso
Writer As Translator
Writers are rampant translators, taking stories from their head and making them live on the page for the reader. But after weeks, months or years up close and personal with the text writers lose not just objectivity, but the ability to assess the elements of their story and the context in which they appear with any degree of reliability. This is where a second pair of eyes and a third opinion comes in handy.
But the end isn’t the only place a writer may ask for help.
Sometimes, early on, a writer might need confirmation their idea has legs. Or perhaps they’re unsure of the direction of their story and would like additional ideas or assistance to expand the existing idea. My crit partner once sent me a story that had a beginning, an end, and in the middle he’d typed [something goes here. If you have any idea what it is, I’d be keen to know].
What a Beta Reader Does
The term beta reading riffs off the software industry’s ‘beta testing’ and is informed by the same structural (big picture) philosophy that forms the basis for critiquing and workshopping writing. As such, beta reading is part test audience, part think tank or as I like to think of it, a story test drive offered by an author.
Unlike test-driving a car, the beta reader’s job is to give direct and impartial feedback on their impressions of the story, its weakness and strengths, and to suggest how the story may be improved. It is the litmus test of how effectively the writer has translated the story from their head and made it available for the reader.
An experienced beta reader will be able to lift the lid on a story and articulate objectively and clearly what makes the story tick: Everything from the underlying tensions in the story and the true motivations of the characters to thematic contemplations the writer may not have realised were present in their work.
Beta readers evaluate how complete the story on the page is. They will point out the narrative kinks and holes, missing plot points, bits only partially explained or not explained at all, incongruencies, jumps of logic, and bits that just don’t make sense, no matter which way you look at them.
A beta reader is a hunter of inconsistencies. At the broadest level they are looking at the context of the story and how the story fits (or doesn’t) within those parameters.
This falls into three categories where:
- the writer is exploring the story and is uncertain of what is in their head
- the writer is certain of the story but works too hard to get the context across or is too close to the story to give meaningful context to events and motivations, or
- the writer has a clear picture in their head but the story demands additional details or insights originally considered inconsequential to the main story.
1. I’m Just Writing My Way In, See You On the Other Side
It’s not uncommon for writers to write themselves into the story. In this case a beta reader can help an uncertain writer create a comprehensive map of their story by pointing out inconsistency and gaps in the information they are providing.
I recently beta read a story that provided no opening context for the story. The story kicked off with a little girl calling out to a woman (who was presumably standing at the gate of a house). A conversation ensued with the little girl trying to get the woman to help her, and the woman maintaining she wasn’t a general. Not only was the reader without a physical environment in which to ground the story, the dialogue gave little hint at the internal or external drives of either of the characters. It read as words bouncing off other words.
As I read on I discovered the woman was new to the small village. She had moved in with her lover at the end of the war and her lover had been called away urgently. She was left alone to settle in. Not only that, but the woman was a war mage and had been part of the final crushing battle in which her home was destroyed.
This was all information I felt critical in orientating the reader at the start of the story, grounding the world in which the story took place and creating empathy with the characters.
A beta comment highlighting these issues is not about encouraging an author to info dump at the beginning. It instead asks the author to consider the physical environment the characters inhabit and how emotions shape their reactions to the events around them.
In contrast, I got this comment recently:
“I worry that this section is a bunch of actions without any clear purpose at this stage… There's no context or motivation for the actions yet.”
This referred to quite a long paragraph I’d written detailing how my character prepares his consulting rooms. At the time of writing, I had no idea how Sarazen was actually going to remove a womb without surgery, so I was feeling my way through it. The problem? I gave the reader an entire paragraph of pointless detail.
A beta comment highlighting this issue asks the writer to consider what the point of the paragraph/plot point/detail is, and suggests the narrative stripped to the most important elements to keep the reader engaged and the story moving.
Image source: Flickr / Gabriel Toro
2. I Know What I Mean, So Everyone Else Does Too
Because writers hold the story’s entire profile in their heads—character motivation and relationships, history, nuances of world building, all the narrative nuts and bolts and so forth—it becomes nigh impossible to assess the context (small and large) in which the story unfolds because writers bridge the gaps of connection with knowledge only they are privy to.
This works against the writer in two possible ways:
- they fail to provide enough context, or
- they provide too much context.
A recent piece of feedback I received simply stated:
“In this section I'm a bit confused as to what Sarazen is actually DOING. The musings about Hilde make sense but the dried womb and the musings about chance and wombs lighting up is a bit unclear.”
To set the scene, Sarazen is sitting at his alchemy bench working: drying, grinding, infusing. He’s musing over what is going to happen when Hilde’s sister arrives in the morning to claim the womb because she can’t have the womb.
I know what Sarazen is doing, how the shop works and I’ve fallen foul of ‘show don’t tell’. In failing to tell the reader Sarazen is preparing Hilde’s womb for storage, I’ve provided no meaningful context for his activities or the underlying workings of his shop. I’ve also failed to explain, in a logical manner, how the shops functions.
A story I beta read recently had several instances of the reader being told directly how strange the little girl in the story was. The writer, with all the knowledge of the little girl in their head, did not trust they were giving enough context to her character.
Beta comments such as these highlight obvious places where the story on the page is a flawed map because of the proximity of the writer. Where the writer, in knowing the way, has lost their reader.
3. But It’s Really Not That Important
Sometimes beta readers will pick up small things that aren’t necessarily problematic to the overall story, but which tidy loose ends and add depth.
From a recent beta read of my story “The Poms and Their Bombs”,
“This is a good line but as the final word on what Mallory did to Jack I found it unsatisfying. I really don’t feel like I’ve been given quite enough information to figure out what happened.”
I didn’t consider the details of Mallory’s betrayal important to the core story (a story about her daughter) so I didn’t dig deeper in the early drafts to know what she did.
But the comment bugged me (along with another comment that the reactions to Mallory’s unstated crime were over the top). Working through different scenarios I landed in the 1950’s religious landscape of Australia and finally had the audacity of Mallory’s crime in context. With this background I was able to gently tweak a second minor plot point: the women at loggerheads with each other both became victims of religious intolerance, but in different ways. It wasn’t something I intended to write about, but it now forms one of the many thematic layers of the story.
A beta comment such as this prompts the writer to think deeper about the story, and can have the benefit of tightening loose ends, building additional context and depth, or even expanding or adding to the thematic structure of the story.
Effective beta reading provides the writer with an evaluation of how successfully they’ve translated the story from their head and made it available for the reader. Improvements can be proposed as suggestions or questions, specific or general in nature, or simply by highlighting the gaps and inconsistencies in the story. They provide a road map for the writer to follow.
In reading the beta comments the writer is given the privilege of viewing their story through new eyes. The act of assessing and integrating the comments provides a new frame of reference—a powerful tool for refocusing and re-evaluating a story at all levels. With several trusted beta readers at your side, you can avoid the problem of the comedic tragedy of a postal worker marooned in provincial France whose plight is literally lost in translation.
Author’s Note: Writing this article has been an exercise in meta-contusion. I’d like to thank Lois Spangler and Dave Versace who both beta read this article. To Lois, who deciphered my brain vomit and articulated back to me (far more eloquently) the points I was trying to make, especially in the second half of the article, and Dave who picked up the stutters in the final article.
In a few weeks, we'll be sharing a checklist that Jodi has created to help ensure both you as a beta reader, and the other writers whose work you're reading, get the most out of the process. For now, Jodi's advice will come in handy in our workshop.
Sam van Zweden was Writers Bloc’s Online Editor from 2013 - 2015. A Melbourne-based writer and blogger, her work has appeared in The Big Issue, Voiceworks, Tincture Journal, Page seventeen, and others. She’s passionate about creative nonfiction and cross stitch. She tweets @samvanzweden.