Sunday, July 28, 2013

What’s in That Bag?

I picture my friend’s kids eyeing their holiday presents on the coffee table. “Whaddy’d I get? Whaddy’d I get?” I think of another friend bringing a surprise dessert secreted in a fancy bag, and although I’m supposedly more sophisticated, my question’s exactly the same. What enticing surprise awaits me?

Novels, of course, operate on the same principle. An opening that gorgeously packages the promise of surprise presents a present. You can’t be sure what wonder hides under the foil and ribbons, but, man it’s gonna be good.

Tip: Don’t ruin the surprise!

Of course not, you protest. I want my readers entranced, suspicious, empathetic—all the great stuff that comes from a set up that stays secret until that exquisite paper is slashed, revealing contents even more exciting than what veils them. Then why give away too much? And, alas, it’s so easy to do.

Here’s how to ruin the surprise:

·         Set up so carefully that there’s no possibility of wondering or guessing.
·         Set up so obscurely that there’s no possibility of wondering or guessing.
·         Divulge the right clues, just at the wrong moments.
·         Divulge useless clues, though at exactly the right moments.
·         Explain everything.
·         Explain nothing.
So how do you wrap with as much wham as the secrets it masks?

ü  Set up adroitly. Careful packaging foreshadows fun, and that’s what the packaging’s for. Tease us about the joy of eventual disclosure.
ü  Play with disguise. What if it looks as if you could expose the contents one way, and yet—maybe there’s a more original solution? Maybe no one ever used before? There’s more than one way to wrap a gift.
ü  Disperse clues cleverly. Who wants to guess how to remove the paper or ribbon. We want to shred that covering ourselves! We don’t want to break fingernails, though,—or minds, or hearts, wrestling until quitting suddenly seems more attractive.
ü  Remember what you’re wrapping—and for whom. If you put holiday paper on a birthday present, someone will complain (as well they should). If the tape shows or the edges bulge, it kind of says, “I don’t love wrapping (writing) or you,” or, at best, “I don’t know what I’m doing.” Don’t ruin the mystery. Don’t ruin the gift!

That’s what a novel is. But its true value arrives with its climax. Until then, hide shrewdly, so the reveal feels as thrilling as receiving a present from someone who wants the lucky recipient to enjoy every moment—from snazzy bag to even better surprise within.

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