Sunday, November 18, 2012

Naughty Words

No, not the body parts most people cover. And not the harsh indictments like “hatred,” either. For novelists, abstractions are naughty because they fail to tangibly link to the external world through seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, or touching.  And of course they’re naughtiest when most familiar: “Alicia yearned for true love,” “Anger entered the deepest recesses of Oscar’s soul,” or “The pain of this loss stayed with Roderigo day after day.” Ugh!

Thankfully, few novelists sink this low often, if at all. Novelists are usually aware of melodramatic, naughty descriptions from agonizing to zestful. But most novelists slip in an expression, a condensation, a vague description here and there. Some of that comes from forgetting why abstraction is naughty.

Abstraction steals the cookies from the cookie jar.  Readers turn to fiction for vicarious experience—the joy of eating brownie bars without fear of excessive calories or peanut allergies. When writers are naughty, readers are instructed to feel anxiety, relief, or misery.

Whether you call it “telling” or “abstraction,” the naughtiness comes from depriving readers of the character world that enticed them to fiction in the first place. At its best, fiction offers emotion without any personal liability. Summary and directive remind readers that they’re reading and not snacking, love-making, getting promoted, or defeating the rapacious CEO.

Sometimes the problem is writers wanting all the cookies for themselves. Instructing people how to feel resembles running the world, calling the shots, and playing at being all-powerful. That might make some writers feel triumphant. But it makes most readers feel—pretty close to nothing.

In contrast, when writers generously give their readers tangible, specific moments and details, readers can groan over the basketball trophy, nod when she gets his love letter seconds before boarding the train to Siberia, or shiver over the doctor questioning the infant’s survival. Don’t steal the cookies your readers want to enjoy.

Tip: Want to be “nice” to your readers?  Give them the fictional experience they seek.

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