Sunday, December 15, 2013

Goldilocks and the Novelist’s Perspective

Figuring out what your reader needs can resemble being lost in a deep, dangerous forest, where every possibility seems overwhelmingly excessive or inadequate. No, you’re not hunting a bowl of porridge. But if you need to describe one, how can you know what’s neither too much nor too little but just right?

One of the wisest and most appealing dads from all literature had an answer. Atticus Finch from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird advised going outside yourself: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view... Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”

That’s no easier to accomplish writing fiction than outside it. Still, objective diagnosis might just help you “climb inside.”

Novelists tend to focus on plot and language. While both are crucial, neither gets you “inside” anyone. These elements might.

~ External and internal detail.
Most writers lean on one or the other, but readers need both. To fulfill that need, consciously evaluate whether every scene offers inner and outer worlds.

~ Immediacy from the character and guidance from the narrator.
Context—in the right amount and at the right moments—lets readers experience the greatest possible appreciation of the conflict.

~ Distance and proximity.
Readers love close-ups of characters, but those close-ups become most meaningful when readers see both character dilemma and the impact that the outside world exerts on it.

Although these tools help you diagnose, you’ll still wonder if there’s a surfeit of psychoanalysis or setting—whether this detail makes the scene vivid or clutters it.  You’ll still need readers to help you, probably more than one of them and definitely ones with no agenda. Beware input from those who love you or your genre to pieces or envy you enough to contemplate tearing you to pieces.

Start, though, with imagining the world from under the reader’s “skin.” Then you’ll have your eye on a balance of those complex ingredients that make every novel more than the sum of its parts.

After all, Goldilocks is a kind of magic, an improbable tale of anthropomorphic bears who still resonate after all this time. The dream of balance both underlies that magic and helps create it. Balance the frequently ignored elements of fiction and you, too, can make magic by creating a world so real and welcoming that no one ever wants to leave. Because it’s “just right.”

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