Sunday, March 18, 2018

Your Voice, Please

The issue most novelists face isn’t a career like tinker, tailor, sailor, or spy, but, more likely, the residual from being or having been doctor, lawyer, or teacher. What might those last three share in common? A style slanted toward instruction coupled with “the curse of knowledge.”

First about that style. At least somewhat academic and professorial, there’s a plethora of multi-syllabic verbiage, as opposed to “lots of big words.”  The lofty tone is often characterized by passive voice, rather than “passive voice occurs frequently.” Contractions, unfortunately, are usually avoided. Sentences are long and complex but not necessarily rhythmic.

Determined to foster the meticulous understanding that previous professions demanded, novelists sometimes “tell” and then “show,” or “show” and then “tell”—just to make sure. Finally, educators and professionals often applaud this structure: Here’s what I’ll say, now I’ll speak my piece in detail, and, oh, since you perhaps missed it (possibly because you spaced out due to the endless repetition), I’ll just go over it one last time. 

First of all, novels need storytelling, suspense, and secrets. Edifying isn’t part of the recipe. In fact, what E.B. White said about poetry applies equally well to the novel: 

A poet dares be just so clear and no clearer... He unzips the veil from beauty, but does not remove it. A poet utterly clear is a trifle glaring.

And yet, ironically, the novelist obsessed with being clear at any cost might misstep anyway. Sadly, “the curse of knowledge” often interferes. As Steven Pinker explains,

I think the curse of knowledge is the chief contributor to opaque writing…It simply doesn’t occur to the writer that readers haven’t learned their jargon, don’t seem to know the intermediate steps that seem to them to be too obvious to mention, and can’t visualize a scene currently in the writer’s mind’s eye. And so the writer doesn’t bother to explain the jargon, or spell out the logic, or supply the concrete details—even when writing for professional peers.

Although Pinker’s emphasis here is nonfiction, the task of guiding readers through a fictional world can present an even greater challenge. After all, to compose a scene, novelists must know tons about setting, background, arc, motive, stage business, and conflict. No scene will be successful unless writers collect far more than will ever make it into the book. 

But here’s the problem. The prepping that helps a novelist create a better page increases the difficulty of assessing what readers don’t know or can’t follow.

So what’s the solution? You can’t undo the fact that you used to win cases or still consult or occasionally volunteer to teach here and there. You can remember that a novel isn’t a brief, a lecture, a lesson plan, or a diagnosis. So.

~ Walk in your reader’s shoes as often as you can.

~ Informalize your voice. 

~ Build bridges.

~ Provide grounding.

Tip: Great storytellers neither teach nor preach.

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