Long, food-laden tables aren’t just popular because of all that food. The variety attracts. So does the freedom. Once you pass the meat and seafood and advance to the salad items, you can always return for one more shrimp. You can circle the table to sample a mini-brownie before you dig into that crab cake. It’s all available at whatever order and pace you choose.
Readers can’t control fiction that way. However obvious it seems, it’s significant that nearly every reader proceeds in a linear fashion. Of course one can skim, backtrack, or peek at the ending. What readers can’t do is position the setting beside the dialogue or help themselves to more of this and less of that. The buffet that fiction ought to provide is the writer’s gift and responsibility.
Why wouldn’t every writer host a buffet every time?
- It’s easier for writers to focus on one thing at a time, such as dialogue.
- It’s easier not to shift gears, because then you don’t need as many transitions.
- If you adore setting, for example, you might overdo it at the expense of action.
- If you see the complete picture already, you might not notice its absence from the page.
How can you break this habit of offering only desserts or appetizers instead of a full buffet?
~ Improve your skill with transitions.
Make friends with transitions. Once you bridge acting with thinking, tension with backstory, and so on, you’ll shift more willingly, knowing your readers can follow. Build transitions from the underlying similarity between what’s going on and where, between gesture and symbol, and between rumination and behavior. What better way to engage reader emotions than to create a whole world instead of one part?
~ Read like a reader.
As Harper Lee put it in To Kill a Mockingbird, imagine someone else’s consciousness by willingness to “climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” This isn’t easy. It is doable.
~ Imitate reality.
When we converse, we still notice surroundings. If we terminate a job, investment, friendship, or marriage, we experience a range of emotions, all of which impact all our perceptions. For credibility, fiction must re-create a world where more than one thing goes on at a time. That’s reality. Fiction must follow.
~ Accentuate with contrast.
Description matters in novels only when it supports the characters. Tension enhances dialogue, which enhances action. “Light can only be understood with the wisdom of darkness,” said Ka Chinery. Since readers can’t supply what’s missing, make sure that you do.
Tip: Break the habit of long stretches of dialogue, description, or narration. Blend them.