Monday, June 19, 2017

Grin and Bear It

Yesterday my daughter, five-year-old granddaughter, and I hiked a mile in and a mile out yesterday through deep Alaskan woods to the foot of the Byron Glacier. It was a life-changing experience, and nothing makes you feel smaller than a glacier. Believe me on that.

Here's Byron Glacier. Notice you can't
see me? I told you they made you feel
small. (And just forget I'm behind the
camera. That's not important.)
In and around the parking lot and on bulletin boards near the entrance to the hike were prominently posted bear alert notices. It's late spring in Alaska and bears, newly awakened from their winter hibernation and many of them with young cubs, are hungry. Very hungry. And somewhat ornery. So to be on the safe side, the authorities caution hikers to make noises, whistle, shout occasionally, or otherwise make themselves known to bears who might be in the vicinity. Nobody wants to walk up on a bear--a mother bear, in particular--no matter how much you want a picture.

We had no problems in that regard. Molly, my granddaughter, is a great noisemaker. She sang, marched, called out marching orders (if, Heaven forbid, everyone around her wasn't marching), yelled, whistled, chattered incessantly, and occasionally shrieked at the top of her lungs for no apparent reason. She was downright joyous. She wasn't bothering anybody since at a mile long, the path comfortably held several hikers without anyone being on top of anyone else. At one point, I suggested to her mother that we tape her, then sell copies to other hikers so they could avoid making their own noise. No sense letting all that talent go to waste.

What does this have to do with writing? I'm getting to that.

Thanks in large part to Molly's efforts to warn bears to our presence, we didn't encounter any. They'd have had to be blind, deaf, and downright crazy to approach us anyway. They probably covered their ears and hightailed deeper into the woods the minute we got within a mile or two of them. We hiked back to our car and drove to the small town of Girdwood to get some ice cream and took a drive around the little village before heading back toward Anchorage. In passing one side road (to the water and sewer plant, no less), my daughter noticed something white and out-of-place. She turned around and as soon as we turned down the road we saw a huge bald eagle take off (it's wing span had to top four feet). I was busy being agog at the bird, but Darice noticed something else down the road. It was a bear--a baby cub--climbing its way up the telephone pole. I think that's what the eagle was after. I don't know if they eat bears, or just attack them for the fun of it, but heck, what do I know? Anyway, by the time we got to the pole, the baby was gone and in its place was Mad Mama. I got a few shots of her running into the woods at top speed (word of Molly had evidently spread quickly).

My point to this is that while in the location where we should have encountered a bear, we didn't. And then in the most unlikely of places, a water and sewer treatment plant, we not only found a bear, but its mother, and a predatory eagle. We were surprised and amused as you can well imagine.

How does this apply to writing? Well, I think that's the way we should approach our writing, particularly in scenes that can become predictable. Dangle the obvious in front of the reader, then pull it away, and then when they least expect it, toss it back at them. This would work with a variety of genres--tense horror moments, humorous scenes, even romantic ones. Readers are readers because that's what they do. Read. And because they read a lot, they can almost predict what writers are going to do if we're not one step ahead of them. This technique is nothing new. Authors have been using it for ages, but played well, the reader won't realize that's what you're doing until it's done. And that's the beauty of it. It's one of those things we have to use carefully and with restraint, or else the reader will overcome us and get one step ahead. We don't want that.

Always keep them a step behind. And always, always leave them wanting more.
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