Sunday, March 18, 2018

Your Voice, Please

The issue most novelists face isn’t a career like tinker, tailor, sailor, or spy, but, more likely, the residual from being or having been doctor, lawyer, or teacher. What might those last three share in common? A style slanted toward instruction coupled with “the curse of knowledge.”

First about that style. At least somewhat academic and professorial, there’s a plethora of multi-syllabic verbiage, as opposed to “lots of big words.”  The lofty tone is often characterized by passive voice, rather than “passive voice occurs frequently.” Contractions, unfortunately, are usually avoided. Sentences are long and complex but not necessarily rhythmic.

Determined to foster the meticulous understanding that previous professions demanded, novelists sometimes “tell” and then “show,” or “show” and then “tell”—just to make sure. Finally, educators and professionals often applaud this structure: Here’s what I’ll say, now I’ll speak my piece in detail, and, oh, since you perhaps missed it (possibly because you spaced out due to the endless repetition), I’ll just go over it one last time. 

First of all, novels need storytelling, suspense, and secrets. Edifying isn’t part of the recipe. In fact, what E.B. White said about poetry applies equally well to the novel: 

A poet dares be just so clear and no clearer... He unzips the veil from beauty, but does not remove it. A poet utterly clear is a trifle glaring.

And yet, ironically, the novelist obsessed with being clear at any cost might misstep anyway. Sadly, “the curse of knowledge” often interferes. As Steven Pinker explains,

I think the curse of knowledge is the chief contributor to opaque writing…It simply doesn’t occur to the writer that readers haven’t learned their jargon, don’t seem to know the intermediate steps that seem to them to be too obvious to mention, and can’t visualize a scene currently in the writer’s mind’s eye. And so the writer doesn’t bother to explain the jargon, or spell out the logic, or supply the concrete details—even when writing for professional peers.

Although Pinker’s emphasis here is nonfiction, the task of guiding readers through a fictional world can present an even greater challenge. After all, to compose a scene, novelists must know tons about setting, background, arc, motive, stage business, and conflict. No scene will be successful unless writers collect far more than will ever make it into the book. 

But here’s the problem. The prepping that helps a novelist create a better page increases the difficulty of assessing what readers don’t know or can’t follow.

So what’s the solution? You can’t undo the fact that you used to win cases or still consult or occasionally volunteer to teach here and there. You can remember that a novel isn’t a brief, a lecture, a lesson plan, or a diagnosis. So.

~ Walk in your reader’s shoes as often as you can.

~ Informalize your voice. 

~ Build bridges.

~ Provide grounding.

Tip: Great storytellers neither teach nor preach.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

The Arithmetic of Fiction

Few novelists ponder the addition and subtraction of storytelling. But writers can gain a lot from doing so.

Tip: A novelist’s single best editing tool is a metaphorical scissors.

As Louise Brooks puts it, "Writing is 1 percent inspiration, and 99 percent elimination."

Anton Chekhov agrees: "Brevity is the sister of talent."

Dozens of writers have commented on economy, so this blog could offer endless examples. Since that seems painfully ironic, on to the next topic.

Tip: A novelist’s second best editing tool is adding metaphorical bridges when needed.

Those bridges are called transitions.

Transitions are words or phrases that carry the reader from one idea to the next. They help a reader see the connection or relationship between ideas and, just as important, transitions also prevent sudden, jarring mental leaps between sentences and paragraphs.  — Leah McClellan, “Why transitions are important in writing”
Novelists want readers to savor the story without the unpleasant reminder that they’re reading one. So not just any transition will do.
transitions move the story forward cleanly and seamlessly. Done skillfully, your reader will hardly notice the breaks. — “All Write Fiction Advice”
Few of us build those bridges instinctively. How to accomplish that? First, identify the connection that never got onto the paper. Second, integrate that transition into the narrative.

Tip: Excess disguises what matters, not only for the reader, but also for the novelist.

In an odd psychological quirk, novelists often assume that the fictional journey needs whatever they wrote. Why else would they record it? This takes a lot for granted. Details might repeat, wander off topic, waste words, or explain the obvious. In a cluttered passage, how would you know? Inefficiency masks significance.

If clutter buries, you won’t notice the leap you require readers to take between one scene or moment or paragraph or sentence and the next. Cut superfluous dialogue or description, and the landscape of your fictional world becomes visible. Now you’re ready to build bridges.

Subtract enough, and it all adds up.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Pattern and Surprise in Fiction

The relationship between convention and deviation, expectation and revelation drives fiction. That’s exhibited in the pattern of story that’s remained stable for centuries: conflict…development…resolution. Obviously, though, tweak the specifics and that pattern feels different every time. 

Dozens of other patterns also underlie fiction: the structure of the paragraph, the alternation between scene and narrative, the major character arcs, and the moods, moments, or memories that echo each other. 

All those components of fiction involve reader expectations, whether fulfilling them or adding tension and suspense by credibly failing to fulfill them. 

Lisa Cron’s superb blog—“A Reader’s Manifesto: 12 Hardwired Expectations Every Reader Has” (October 9, 2014)—identifies the most crucial reader expectations. What could be more important than how writers handle focus, empathy, pace, and plot? 

Yet, in every instance, the presentation of setting or symbol affects reader response to those critical aspects of fiction that Cron lists.

Tip: Revisit without merely repeating. This satisfies the desire for recurrence plus change.

So if you return readers to a completely parallel or symmetrical exchange, issue, or location, you’ll defeat reader expectations every time. If Taffy again confers with her mom about her husband’s unemployment, something must differ. Maybe Mom thinks it’s time to leave him, or hire him in dad’s factory, or have Taffy work there herself. 

Otherwise, the story feels static. And Jessica Page Morrell is exactly right that every scene captures a progression toward fulfillment of arc. How can that happen if the characters simply repeat what they said before with the same objects in the same place?

Nor can even a conversation with higher stakes occur in an unaltered location. Maybe Ernesto proposes to Tamilla--his gorgeous, ambivalent girlfriend—in a rowboat drifting on moonlit Lake Emerald. However magnificent Lake Emerald, readers will balk at returning there if everything looks identical. Instead, maybe thick storm clouds now hide the moon. Is this boat too old and creaky to be safe? Disgusted with Tamilla’s affairs, perhaps Ernesto’s ready to drown her? Or maybe she’s the one who wants to send a body somewhere the police won’t easily find it.

The need for modification also applies to symbolism. If Gram gave Ernestine an exquisite hand-woven shawl, don’t simply over and over mention the shawl—or the chandelier or the tennis racket. Instead, use symbolic objects to represent how the plot thickens. Does the wood stove scorch the shawl? Must the impoverished family sell their chandelier? Despite the racket that belonged to Albert's renown uncle, does the boy still lose the state championship? 

Things don’t stay the same, though in life, it might feel as if they do. Fiction readers seek the credibility and pleasure of experiencing both the pressure of time and the possibility of growth and catharsis. Meeting those apparently conflicting expectations of familiarity and evolution may not be as difficult as it seems. As Susan Dennard reminds, 

You’re a reader too, so when you go back and read your story from start to finish, you’ll be able to sense if you’re meeting expectations or not.

And variation is a terrific tool for accomplishing that.