Thursday, November 15, 2012

Guide, Don't Force

A lot of writers I know seem to me like they would be lousy in bed, as they have no concept of foreplay.  What do I mean?  Consider the following passage:

Steve looked into the fiery pit and watched the demons begin their murderous advance.  He felt anxious and knew that it was up to him to stop their escape.  Pulling out his trusty rifle, he wondered if there were enough bullets in the clip to make a dent, but he knew he had to try.  He fired again and again knowing that this fight would determine just when the world would end.

Now consider it if it had been written a bit differently:

Steve peered into the chasm.  The demons slithered their way up the sides and into the world.  Steve knew the sweat by his collar had little to do with the shimmering heat escaping from the pit, but he swallowed hard and leveled his rifle at the first creature.  Just holding the weapon steady was a challenge, but he managed to get off a shot.  As instinct took over, his fear shifted to whether his clip was too light to stop the onslaught.

The first paragraph definitely gives a feel for what's going on, but, in my opinion, it gives little wiggle room for the reader to get emotionally invested.  Instead, it tries to grab you by the collar and shout, "THIS IS HOW YOU SHOULD FEEL - HAHAHAHAHA!"

Don't get me wrong - there are times when you need to kick a reader in the balls and shove them in the right direction, but such a tactic should be used sparingly and only when there is little other choice in order to keep the story moving.  If you pull open the door and push people through too often, they'll eventually fight back and will become numb to what you are trying to show them.

I think the second paragraph paints a better picture and allows people to enter the story on their own terms.  Such techniques pull people in rather than push them, and it grips them in such a way they don't realize what's going on until they're knee deep in it.

Inference and allusion are much better tools in the writer's arsenal than simply telling you exactly what happened.  I believe that any fool can recite a description, but it takes someone with talent to put something out there and let the reader come to his or her own conclusion.  This requires trust in your audience - the belief that they're smart enough to understand your meaning without you having to tell them.  If you have to explain step by step, that ruins a large portion of the fun, kind of like explaining the punch line to your favorite joke.

Yes, sometimes the reader will come to the wrong conclusion, but if you've done it well enough, those instances should be few and far between.  The point is to get them to feel the emotions you want them to without screaming in their faces, because that usually produces little but a Spock-like reflex.

The best writers - Stephen King, Richard Matheson, Harry Turtledove - are masters at this, but it's one of the hardest things for writers to do, even experienced ones.  We so badly want people to "get" what we're saying, that we often treat them like idiots, and the publishing industry hasn't helped.  It has all been about "get your point across in as few words as possible."  While it's important not to be wasteful with your words, drawing readers into the story properly takes patience - you have to set the scene, build a character's personality, and make the tension believable.  Unfortunately, those few souls who understand this generally have it beaten out of them by a publishing community that shortens everything to less than its bare essence(yet another good reason to indie publish).

Remember, good storytelling is about coaxing your readers down the path you want them to go, not kicking them in the ass until they fall over.  If you're going to do that, at least provide them a safe word so they can leave when they want to without fear of further harm.

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