Sunday, May 14, 2017

Chocolate and the Novelist

Picture, then inhale the scent, of your favorite flavor. Better even than lilacs, right? Chocolate offers poetry for the tastebuds, antidote for sadness, compensation for anxiety or stress. It’s also a reminder to everyone, including novelists, that enough is enough. 

Take details. Consider the many, many paragraphs of your novel that aren’t drama, action, or dialogue.  These fall into two general categories. 

Some narrative is immediately and directly integrated with the plot, thus creating or sustaining tension. Examples? Backstory, foreshadowing, some kinds of setting, or revelations of resources characters possess or lack. Description intrinsically linked to plot often zips along.

But a lot of the detail in novels has nothing to do with plot. Imagery and information often defeat tension. Still, novels would be mighty thin without description, symbolism, character nuance, and topics from art through zebras. 

Narrative, plot-oriented or otherwise, always affects pace, though the first  category far less than the second. That’s where chocolate comes in. First it fills your mouth with something besides your fingernails while you decide how much you need for clarity, reader satisfaction, and agent attraction. Chocolate soothes during the painful acceptance that you’re not a mindreader. Also, it warns that even something glorious can overwhelm, even nauseate, if over-indulged.  

You might consider all those add-ons that make fiction worth reading—and writing—as the sweet tang of chocolate: fantastic in moderation, but unappealing in smothering doses.

Tip: Too much, even of something quite wonderful, remains—too much.

Subtlety is key. According to Jerome Stern:
Serious writers, including comic writers, are interested in subtlety, in avoiding heavy-handed effects and obvious characterizations. They want to make readers pay close attention, and readers enjoy picking up on clues as subtle as a hesitation or a dropped glance.
Readers expect novels to order chaos, but not to remove every doubt. Readers want lots of chocolate, but not as the main course. These questions might help.
  • Do you leave space for reader imagination?
  • Do you overstate rather than imply?
  • Unsure whether readers “get it,” do you repeat once more, just to be sure?
  • Do you explain your metaphors?
  • Do your adverbs (“lazily,” crazily,” “dazedly”) “tell” what the dialogue already “shows”?
  • Do you ever overwhelm your plot with description or fact?
  • Do you write as if you have faith in reader ability to infer?
Thomas Mann observed that
Subtlety is the mark of confidence… A writer who is confident need not prove anything, need not try to grab attention with spates of stylism or hyperbole or melodrama… He will often leave things unsaid, may even employ a bit of confusion, and often allow you to come to your own conclusions.
In other words, enough chocolate to satisfy (which could be a lot!), but not to overwhelm.

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