Sunday, May 4, 2014

The Writer, the Reader, and the Goldilocks Dilemma

Who wants context so sparse that the scene seems to occur mid-air? Who wants to read thickly layered description that resembles a bowl of lukewarm porridge vast enough to fill a T Rex belly? Every reader, writer, and lost little girl wants a meal that’s “just right.” Goldilocks sampled everything. But your goal is having so many readers that assessing their individual needs becomes impossible. How do you offer a serving neither meager nor massive?

~ Trick yourself into reading like a reader.
“Trick” is the operative word here. You find your scene perfectly clear and your sentences, um—glorious. Uh, uh. How would this read if you didn’t already know what’s at stake? Weren’t smitten with the syntax? Take a break for days, maybe weeks. Try reading aloud, printing the pages. You can teach old writers new tricks.

~Provide context.
Who wants to guess character age or gender, or where and when this takes place? If this is urban fantasy or romance? If the tone is serious or satiric? Clarify the broad picture. Let readers infer the rest from clever clues.

~ Imply.
The human mind has a remarkable capacity to use hints for completing the picture, guessing the meaning, grasping the idea. Clues are fun. Spelling everything out? Not fun. Closer, in fact, to being stuck with a boring teacher. We’ve all been there.

~ Use the five senses.
Even a little abstraction, such as “painful,” “satisfying,” or “exquisite,” feels like that giant dish of soggy cereal. Offer concrete imagery, ideally in original combinations. The first image that leaps to mind is likely to be weak and tired. Keep hunting.

~Construct great metaphors.
Then let them speak for themselves. If they’re really that great, you needn’t explain them.

~Avoid double-dipping.
Readers rarely want to hear that Ed sneered and glowered, or that Nancy laughed with joy and amusement, or that Eloise slouched and trudged. Find the right image or explanation so you won’t be tempted to torture with two.

~ Understate.
The more intense the emotion or catastrophe, then the less you need to say about it.

Sometimes, of course, like Goldilocks, you may have to assess the scene with the detail in or out, the sentence reduced or expanded. Experiment, and you’ll get better and better at “just right.” After all, you’re lots more sophisticated than little Goldilocks.

 Tip: Readers need “facts” in order to draw conclusions about what those “facts’ mean.

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