Monday, April 13, 2015

Drawing the Reader In

Think of a book you really loved. I mean really loved. Was it because of its perfect plot? A twist ending so surprising it astounded you? Because every word was exactly the right word?

I will go out on a limb and suggest that while those elements may have been present, you loved the book because you became deeply invested in at least one character. You cared about what happened to that individual, in how they would fare in the world they inhabited, which may be very different from any world you will experience.

Writers are beaten about the head and shoulders with the mantra to “show, not tell.” As I write this blog, I am participating in a weeklong Donald Maass workshop. We spent a good portion of day three discussing how to tell, not show.

What?

Yep!

Here is a diamond of understanding I picked up. Writers, you might try it out and see whether it deepens a story you are working on. Readers, see if you can catch a favorite author sucking you into their make-believe world with this technique.

Have your character tell (yes, tell) about an emotion they are feeling. Incorporate the following elements in the description. [My parenthetical example happens to use first person, but it works as well in third.] Include this in an action scene (not as a reflection or reaction scene) to make it immediate. Make it short so it does not feel to the reader as though the action has stopped.

Step 1. Use an analogy to describe the emotion. This objectifies the emotion and makes it safe for the reader. [My anger glowed as hot and fragile as a freshly blown glass figurine. One false move and everything would shatter.]

Step 2. Have the character make a moral judgement about their emotion. [No matter how much justified, surely God despised this much anger.]

Step 3. Include inner conflict regarding what the character is feeling. [And yet, within that fire, that blinding white rage, I felt a corner of my mind evaluating my posture, the tightness around my eyes, noting sagely that I was showing none of what I felt. The fury, should I let it slip its leash, would come as a complete surprise to the other wedding guests.]

Step 4. Add a touch of self-reflection. [There, I said it: should I let it slip its leash. It would be conscious if I did, and even if others called me insane, I would know it for a conscious effort. It was my beast to wrestle, to control.]

Had you read this on the first or second page would you be interested in reading more about this character? If you read it later in the story, would it deepen your understanding of this character? If this telling occurred while the individual stood as best man, watching the bride-to-be walking down the aisle on her father’s arm, would it have stopped the action, or indeed would it have been part of the action, even though it was all exposition?

Remember, I just learned this and so am practicing, but I do think it works. What about you?

~ Jim

This blog first appeared on Writers Who Kill 4/12/15

3 comments:

  1. Awesome post. I am going to try this next time I am as frustrated as a squirrel with a piece of plastic fruit* because popular wisdom says I can't name the emotion a character is feeling.

    * Clearly, you have had more practice than I, but it's a start!

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    1. Mary Jean, those absolutes are quite a hindrance to a writer trying to find their way through all the writing tips and advice. The same with never use "was." The best way to handle the feelings is to name them, then describe how the feeling affects the person, as Jim pointed out so well in the blog post. To just say "Mary felt angry" is not enough. "Mary's anger burned like a hot flame in her belly" is closer to what Jim is saying here.

      And I would venture to say that "Mary felt angry" is telling and
      Mary's anger burned like a hot flame in her belly" is showing.

      Good post, Jim.

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    2. Thanks for your comments, Maryann. This is something I continue to work on.

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