Getting the story across: Building bridges to your readers

Not this,

but this.

You write, carefully recording the stories your characters tell you about their lives. You polish and revise and then send your words out into the world, like a mother sending her children off to kindergarten for the first time, hoping that they’ll a) make you proud and b) not embarrass you too much.

Writers can have a bit of a blind spot about their own progeny, as any parent often does about their kids. As writers we know the backstory and the history of the characters whose lives we’re putting on display for the world to see; but the world doesn’t. When a reader picks up a book, they want to become immersed in the world within those pages, to lose themselves in the story. At least I do.

When I read, I want to be able to see the seagulls, smell the breeze coming off the ocean, hear the waves crashing against the breakwater rocks, the taste and crunch of the slightly sandy fried chicken from the picnic basket, as long as the scene is set at the beach, anyway. My point, and I do have one (aside from the one on top of my head), is that we have to make sure that we let the reader know what’s going on.

Wait, isn’t that what we’re doing? I mean, we write, we’re telling stories, aren’t we showing (not telling!) the reader what’s happening?

Yes and no.

You see, I am so guilty of rattling along, getting all the words out, enjoying a clever turn of phrase that I created (William Faulkner knew what he was talking about when he said “Kill all your darlings.”), that I forget that the words on the page don’t necessarily mean that my readers are psychically linked to me and automatically know who this person is when I introduce a character, but forget to name him right away so that he gets mixed up with the next character when I introduce him. Or I don’t describe the scenery, or a change in scenery when someone opens a door into the next room, or goes outside, or gets into an elevator. We, as writers need to use our characters’ senses to show the reader the surroundings and the setting. And we can do so much with that scenery; convey a mood by making an angry character have to shout over the noise of a crowd, or a depressed character listening to the rain coming down. We have that power.

Writing is an amazing thing. This is not my original idea, but it made so much sense when I read it. Someone said that writing was the only way that one person can take an idea out of their own head, put it on a piece of paper (or a computer screen) and give it to someone else to read, and put that idea in their head. How cool is that?

With great power comes great responsibility. That’s not to say that we need to describe every hair on the cat sitting in their lap, or read every road sign along the highway that they’re driving on. The details have to mean something, they should move the plot along by grounding it in the reality you’ve created in your story. Otherwise you’re creating a beautiful, vivid, confusing mishmash of details that don’t mean anything to the character or their story. Who cares what brand of tire is installed on the getaway car of a bank robbery? Unless of course there has been a recall on those tires for steel belt separation at high rates of speed that the criminals don’t know about.

That could be relevant to the story.

Maybe.

 Something to think about.

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Aristotle, who knew?

At class last night, Jill Ciment, our instructor, mentioned this idea from Aristotle (you know, that Greek philosopher guy). My philosophy classes never presented the material to me like this. NOW it makes much more sense.

We were critiquing a set of stories from my fellow students (mine’s due next week, I should get cracking!). This story was a good one, but it had some details that, if interpreted one way, would make the story a cliché. If the story went down a different path, it would be much more intriguing and powerful.

Jill told us Aristotle said (and I’m looking for the actual quote as I write this) that in a story, when we get to the end we should be surprised by the ending, and also surprised that we didn’t see it coming.

Wow.

That’s quite the balancing act. I realize we aren’t all writing mysteries with a whodunit plot, but in a way we are. We want our stories to have that certain something that makes readers want to read it, finish it, and long for the next part of the story, right? That means that it can’t be a formulaic series of events, interesting and unique events need to happen. Sure, you may want a happy ending, who doesn’t? (no snickering from the gutter-minded crowd) But you have to create a tension, conflict. Characters have to want something and want it bad, even if it’s just to live to see the sunrise.

But we can’t just jam a twist at the end without alluding to it. Don’t use deus ex machina to solve your plot woes. Otherwise the surprise is nothing more than some Greater Power (that would be us, the author) pulling the shades back from the story with one finger and declaring “THIS IS HOW IT WILL END. SO IT IS WRITTEN, SO SHALL IT BE DONE.”

Boooorrriinnngggg.

 The real art in writing (which an alarming amount of people who *don’t* do this, either by design or ignorance, still get published) is to walk that tightrope. Put your characters in awkward situations, see what they do. If you have an ending in mind, by all means, work toward that end, but don’t tell us that’s what’s going to happen. Hints, subtle and hidden within the plot, can offer hope, but don’t beat your readers over the head with it. Don’t be that puppet master with all the strings in one hand. It’s the difference between using a fishing fly or dynamite to land the big one. Sure, dynamite is effective, but it’s not necessary and tends to piss off the neighbors.
Sometimes our characters surprise us by deciding that there’s no way in hell they’re going to sit in that car and await rescue in the middle of a thunderstorm. They’re getting out and walking home, even if it is crashing with thunder and lightning, pouring rain and ten miles to the nearest sign of civilization. If your characters are like mine, they frequently thumb their nose at me and refuse to do what I tell them. Must be similar to having children.

And this Aristotle guy is full of excellent advice that applies directly to writing. Things to keep in mind:

  • Just in case you’re stuck for ideas… “All human actions have one or more of these seven causes: chance, nature, compulsions, habit, reason, passion, desire.”
  • “Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”

 Advice I should follow myself. Sort of like that old joke about the guy asking for directions on a New York street. “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” “Practice, practice, practice!”

  • And, ain’t this the truth? “There was never a genius without a tincture of madness.”

Who knew Aristotle could be so relevant to my madness?

I’d have said the right thing, but it must have been the wrong line

rewiting, as imagined by M. C. Escher

…(thanks Dr. John!)

I love having a workshop to look forward to. Be it in our little forum online, or through my classes at the Institution of Higher Learning by which I am employed and provided with the opportunity to attend classes, I’m always learning something and improving my writing.

Earlier this week, we had our first few stories presented in class and it felt so good to read some talented interpretations of the anecdote we were given to work with. I don’t remember the name of the piece Jill, our instructor, drew it from, but it was good and had me stumped for a little while. The scenario was as follows: A poor grandmother, her granddaughter her only family, receives a letter from her ex-husband after ages of no contact. In this letter, he asks that the granddaughter be sent to live with him, as he can provide a more comfortable life, opportunities that she would not have if she remains with her grandmother, etc. If Grandma lets her granddaughter go, she will never see her again. What does she do?

Stories come from little situations like this. A snippet of a news story, and overheard conversation in a grocery store (Wal-Mart is an awesome place to overhear some doozies of redneck drama, let me tell you!), a minor character in a movie that grabs your attention, all of these and infinitely more can be the spark that starts a creative wildfire. All you have to do is write that puppy down when it catches your attention and let it mull. Just don’t be lazy and think ‘I’ll remember that when I wake up.’ Truly, if a really cool/frightening/vivid dream wakes you up, it’s a sign. Write that bitch down.

Driving back and forth to work used to be my time to let ideas roll around inside my skull, mixing and mingling (to a jingling—sorry;-) and generating images and dialogue. Since the Spousal Unit and I usually carpool these days, I don’t get to do as much of that any more. But for me, I need quiet, alone time to write without distractions, to be able to hear the voices in my head. These days I tend to do what I’m doing right now; wake up semi-early, or at least well before the Spousal Unit arises, and sit in the living room with my laptop and the front door open to the world of birdsong. Seriously, it sounds like an Alfred Hitchcock movie right now, with all the starlings, cardinals and crows I can hear. Any sounds beyond the soundtrack of nature (such as the dog whining when a loud truck/stray cat/low-flying cloud passes by) drag me out of my creative reverie. Music, while a good damper for the distractions and one of my great loves and inspirations, becomes a distraction unto itself. I catch myself humming along and remembering the words to the song, not the words that need to appear on the page.

But back to the actual craft of writing. It’s not just putting words on paper that magically tell a story. Maybe it’s that effortless for some people, but not me. There is a time to reveal details a little at a time but withholding information that will increase dramatic tension is a mistake that we all make in the first draft. Jill has this great example of how perceptions of the reader change when more or less information is given in a story. It goes something like this:

“Oh my God, I’m pregnant, what am I going to do? Do I have an abortion, do I keep the baby, do I put it up for adoption? What will my family think? Oh, by the way, I was inseminated by a chimpanzee.”

That last line changes things a bit, doesn’t it? At first we’re just thinking that maybe it’s some teenager, like countless ones before that find themselves “in trouble”. Or a mother of a large family that just can’t face another round of dirty diapers, the added expense, a more crowded house? But if we give the chimpanzee information earlier, we heighten that dramatic tension by letting the audience start out with the wild and crazy flights of imagination that confession will bring:

“Oh my God, I’m pregnant by a chimpanzee, what am I going to do? Do I have an abortion, do I keep the baby, do I put it up for adoption? What will my family think?”

What will my family think indeed? Not only are you a slut, but you’re into really hairy little guys? You’re a prisoner and victim of some bizarre torture? A participant in some weird scientific experiment that has gone horribly wrong?

She has a point, and as I enter the rewrite of my rough draft with these thoughts in mind, I hope to create more dramatic tension by revealing what the reader needs to know at the right time while still maintaining the balance of the story.

Wish me luck, I’m going in!