Monday, July 11, 2011

Why Your Reader Is Your Co-Writer

Authors would save themselves a lot of work if they would just remember they have a partner in this storytelling game. Their readers. Literature, more than any other art form, is a collaboration between writer and reader. The writer provides the building materials—the plot, characters, dialogue, and details—which the reader then uses to construct a visual and auditory story in his imagination.

The more involved our readers, the more vivid their reading experience will become—and the better our stories will be. The trick for authors is figuring out how to get out of the reader’s way and let him personify our stories in a way that brings the action and emotion to unforgettable life. In his writing craft book Unless It Moves the Human Heart, Roger Rosenblatt compares this partnership to the one we see every time we go to the movies:

…great movie actors leave the work to the audience. …They just say their pieces and the moviegoers fill in the emotions. A good writer does the same thing. If you have something worthwhile to say and you just say it, plainly and clearly, your reader will add in his or her life and feel it personally. Your reader will think it was you who gave him the depth of feeling that’s unearthed. But all you did was hint at it. It was he who dredged up the great heartbreak, or delirium, or outrage at injustice. You merely created the sparking words.

Have you read a book or watched a movie that connected you to the characters in such a way that you could almost hear their unspoken thoughts? The Bourne trilogy, Black Hawk Down, While You Were Sleeping, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, and The Kid are just a handful of movies with the ability to accomplish this for me—and, naturally, they’re all perennial favorites as a result.

Good actors make this kind of understatement an art. What the likes of Matt Damon, Russell Crowe, and Bruce Willis can accomplish with a facial quirk and a moment of silence requires more effort and thought from a novelist, since descriptions of character expressions don’t usually carry the same weight as their visual equivalents. Below are a few tricks you can utilize to leave room for your reader to fill in the blanks in a powerful and personal way.

1. Speak plainly. Don’t confuse understatement with ambiguity. Readers shouldn’t be left to wonder what you mean. If your character is angry/ecstatic/terrified/guilt-ridden, spell it out.

2. Don’t over-explain. Don’t feel you need to explain every little thought and emotion that pops into your character’s heads. Once you’ve shown the reader what’s going on inside the character’s mind, move on.

3. Don’t under-explain. Internal narrative is our gift to our readers. Unless you’re going for a Hemingway-esque style (which isn’t recommended, unless you’re Hemingway), don’t skimp on internal narrative. Balance—just the right amount, no more, no less—is the key to effective narrative.

4. Rely on unique and evocative action beats. Authors aren’t able to achieve the same nuance of personality and emotion as actors on the screen (saying your character stared moodily or quirked an eyebrow really won’t convey all that much to your reader). But we can utilize physical responses unique to our characters and their situations to help readers see our cast as realistic and unique human beings.

5. Rely on dialogue. The subtext offered by dialogue—subtext that often says something entirely different from the words themselves—gives us a marvelous opportunity for understatement. Ideally, your dialogue should be so crisp and original that readers will have no difficulty hearing the character’s voice and all its many shades of meaning.

6. Show, don’t tell. Finally, this oft-repeated bit of advice bears sharing once more. If you have a choice between saying your character is angry, having him think Oh, I’m so angry, or showing him heaving a raw chicken at someone’s head in a fit of temper—always opt for the latter.

The art of bringing the reader in as a co-writer is ultimately the entire art of fiction. But these few tips will give you a head-start as you seek to deepen your stories and bring your characters to life.
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  1. Some great advice here. Thank you.

  2. Excellent insights. If I can tap into my emotions I help my readers tap into theirs . . . and they now connect with my novel in a deeper, more immediate way.
    Of course, this takes more time ... more effort ... but it makes for better writing.

  3. I loved Rosenblatt's book. (It's one of two books that I've given 5 stars to on Goodreads.) He's right, you're right, and if I follow your advice, I think I'll write better.

  4. @Beth: I'm big on the idea of tapping into our physical sensations when we're writing. Whenever we react physically to something, it's usually because we've hit on something powerful. For me, the sensation is the feeling that my chest has "collapsed." When that happens, I pay attention.

    @Laura: I haven't been able to read the entire book yet, but if the whole thing is as good as that quote, it's definitely worth five stars!

  5. Good grief, you're brilliant. Now if only I could balance everything just right I'd be golden!

  6. That balance part is where it gets tricky for everyone!

  7. "Your reader will think it was you who gave him the depth of feeling that’s unearthed. But all you did was hint at it."

    I remember reading somewhere that a woman contacted a Christian author and laid into him about the foul language he used in his book. He didn't use any, but he apparently presented his character's personality and anger so well, it was easy for the woman to envision. That's writing!

  8. Fabulous! You don't happen to remember the name of the book, do you?

  9. Those are great points! It really helps when you think about it terms of actors, like you said. Slowing down my own thoughts and thinking about how the readers will interpret the plot, dialogue, etc. of the scene I'm working on has often helped me create an even tenser or more visual scene than I originally wrote.

    Great advice!

  10. One of my favorite tricks is what I call "the movie factor." Whenever I'm struggling with a scene, I close my eyes and envision how it would look if I were a director shooting a movie (complete with soundtrack). The new perspective usually presents some fresh ideas.

  11. I think one of the craziest things I've noticed about fiction writers is we all must be so many people behind the scenes: writer, set designer, director, editor, marketer, spokesperson, and even characters. We forget we also have to be watching it all from the front row too. We really are a particular kind of crazy.

  12. Great analogy! Does that make us brilliant - or just control freaks?

  13. "Master and Commander" is brilliant. Another movie that makes me think I can hear the characters' thoughts is "A Few Good Men." This is true for all of the actors, but especially Kevin Pollack and Wolfgang Bodison. They convey so much without saying anything.

  14. The Patrick O'Brian books off which the movie Master and Commander is based are also a brilliant example of how to pull this off in written fiction. They're just plain genius.