Monday, 11 November 2013

Putting Ideas In The Reader’s Head

If Jack and Diane were about to have a baby so they bought loads of baby clothes, but then Diane suffered a miscarriage and was no longer able to have children and they ended up selling all the baby stuff, that would make for a sad story most people would sympathise with.

But if I put the story in this form: 

For Sale: Baby shoes. Never worn. 

...the impact of what happened is much sharper.

The difference, other than the impressive brevity, is that in Hemingway’s famous six word story, the realisation of what happened occurs in the reader’s mind.

Even though there are no details and no specifics, the part of the brain that puts two and two together and comes up with four adds that feeling of accomplishment to the emotion being expressed, magnifying it.

In short, if you can get the reader to work out the cause of what characters are feeling, then they are much more likely to share that feeling.

It is, of course, far easier to just tell the reader what’s going on. If the subject matter is an emotive one (like dead babies) then they’re still going to have some kind of emotional reaction. But we are so used to things unfolding in predictable patterns that we often become detached and distanced from what we are being told. We see it coming and we’re able to ease past it.

It’s the way we interact with each other. Most of the time we know what someone’s saying before they’ve finished saying it; and we’re already planning our reply. We’re very good at it because we get a lot of practice and nine times out of ten we guess right. But when things don’t turn out the way we expected it pulls us out of the noise and hubbub of everyday life and we pay attention to what’s being said—Wait, what did you say?—and then you’re much more likely to react on a deeper level.

In term of story, the emotional parts where characters are facing difficult situations and choices often get treated in a simple and straightforward manner because the subject matter speaks for itself. If Amy is going to have an abortion, the situation is already so infused with meaning and preconceptions that it may seem pointless to add anything. And if you do it can end up feeling heavy-handed or clunky.

You may think leaving it to the reader to form their own opinions is part of good storytelling, but there are few writers who write to encourage people to keep thinking whatever they want to think.

In most cases, the writer has set out a sequence of events to elicit certain reactions. Not necessarily to push a particular political agenda (although that can certainly be a possibility), it can just be to have the reader root for this character against that character, have them hope A falls in love with B or be on board with the idea that aliens ruling over us isn’t acceptable.

These are things the writer wants to happen, not just by chance but by design.

You can hope the reader falls in line with your way of thinking, and some probably will, or you can lead them to where you want them to go. Without them realising it.

Kind of sneaky, but pretty much the basis of all good fiction.

For example: 

Amy turned up at the clinic exactly on time. She didn’t want to have to wait around, thinking about how painful the procedure was going to be. But it was over very quickly and she didn’t feel a thing, not for many years. 

A little bit of wordplay to wrongfoot the reader and it stops being about my views on abortion, or even yours. Instead, you’re focused on Amy’s experience. You can still make a judgment on what happens and how she handles it, but for that moment when it isn’t clear what was said and then all of a sudden it is, everything else is removed from the equation and you get a pure blast of the here and now. This is what happened to Amy.

When you get the brain working on putting the pieces in place, even if it’s fairly obvious where they go, there’s less room for distraction, opinions and daydreaming. You fix the reader’s mind on those words on the page.

That’s the power of coming at things from an unexpected direction. Not to be vague or mysterious, or to try and drum up curiosity, but to lift the moment out of the narrative stream we’re so used to and give it the reader’s full attention, even if only for an instant.
If you found this post useful please give it a retweet. Cheers, you.


Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

io9 has a writing contest revolving around the six word story. It's kind of interesting.

Sarah Allen said...

That 6 word Hemingway is one of my favorite things ever.

Sarah Allen
(From Sarah, with Joy)

Anne Gallagher said...

Peter Mayle does this very effectively in his stories. I never know what's around the corner, yet I'm grounded.

I love Hem's story, but it's so sad.

Anonymous said...

Amazingly timely post, for me. I'm editing an anthology, and choosing one version of a writer's story over the other has come down to this very issue. Sending him a link to your post, and also...

Prepare to be retweeted!

Unknown said...

Your post reminds me of Hitchcock's quote: "There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it." Leading the readers' minds to where you want them to go, yet letting them figure it out all by themselves. Makes for great fiction!

M.L. Swift, Writer

mooderino said...

@Mike - certainly not an easy task.

@Sarah - the Hemingway kid certainly has potential.

@Anne - it's the sort of thing that's easy to understand but very hard to do.

@Lindy - I am prepared.

@ML - the difference between suspense and surprise in important thing for all writers to grasp.

Unknown said...

I really enjoyed the post, Moody. One of the most frustrating things to me is deciding how obvious to be. There's a school of thought that says, "Trust the reader to figure it out." But my experience has been every reader's an individual, and some just aren't as bright as others. What one gets, another won't, and they'll get frustrated with the story (and writer). Then if you make it plainer, some readers will roll their eyes and chastise you for "hammering" the point instead of being more subtle. Grrr.

mooderino said...

@Lexa - personally I think it's better to be a little obvious but to get there indirectly. There are times when complicated logic works, but it can be more frustrating than satisfying, even when you figure it out. Just taking an unusual approach can be enough to engage the parts of the reader's brain they weren't planning on using.

Anonymous said...

I must admit that I'm guilty of revealing too much to the reader. I'm eager to get my story across the way I want to, but now I'm thinking I should look over what I've written (recently finished a novel) and look for opportunities to let the reader think for herself. Thanks for a great post as usual.

mooderino said...

@ymmas - even the simplest of changes in how we present information to the reader (especially exposition) can turn predictable into fascinating. Congrats on finishing the novel!

LD Masterson said...

I saw an ad in our neighborhood newspaper last year: "For sale. Prom dress. Never worn." Not as heartbreaking as Hemingway's story but with so many possibilities, I wished it was the opening to a story.

mooderino said...

@LD - You know, you could always write that story yourself.

Julia Hones said...

The loss of a baby is a tricky subject.
People have trouble understanding the pain of losing a baby.
I have been there, so I know what a lonely journey it can be.

Unknown said...

That is such a powerful line, stirring up more emotion than most authors can do with a page of text. I enjoy leaving certain things to the reader's imagination because they personalize the situations, filling in the omitted detail with details from their own experience and imagination, bringing them that much further into the story. I enjoyed your post a great deal. :)

nutschell said...

This is something I most definitely need to work on. I'm such a wordy writer! Which is why I'm so thankful for that all important process known as editing. :) Gives me the chance to weed out those unnecessary words--and scenes if need be! Another well done post, Mood. Oh and how I've missed your blog! HEY! I just noticed a certain book on your sidebar which you are promoting as a new release. oh mygosh what a wonderful surprise to see Story Sprouts on there! Thank you so much!!!
hugs, hugs, hugs,

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Moments where everything is stripped down to the facts - like in your example. Those can be just as powerful.

mooderino said...

@Julia -sorry for your loss.

@Michael - thanks.

@nutschell - can never have too many hugs.

@Alex - if you set it up right it can be very powerful. All in the timing.

Rachna Chhabria said...

The 6 word Hemingway is great. "In short, if you can get the reader to work out the cause of what characters are feeling, then they are much more likely to share that feeling."
At times I struggle to show the reader the character's emotional state, but with effort its getting better.

mooderino said...

@Rachna - making an emotional connection to a fictional character is one of the best things about reading, i think.

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