Thursday, September 24, 2015

An Abrupt Shift

You know how you're cruising along in your writing, just happy as a clam, when something comes along and shakes you up?  Sometimes you aren't even sure what it is, but you know it's out there, and it won't go away just by your ignoring it.

Then I'm in a cellar groping for the light switch.  I know it's here somewhere, but I just can't find the darn thing.  If I don't find that switch pretty soon, I'll have to leave without my favorite bottle of wine.  Sure, I can live without it, but that would be a tragedy.

Okay, some of you are wondering, What the hell just happened there?

What I did above may have been a bit crude, but I did it to illustrate the jarring shift in mindset when you start down one path, only to be pulled down another by the author.  I see writers using this technique sometimes.  I don't always agree that this is the best method for snapping the audience out of their state of complacency, but it can certainly re-focus them.

Harry Turtledove, to me, is one of the masters of this.  I love his books, mostly because he advances the action through character development.  Sometimes, however, he swings between characters and action so much that you get whiplash.  In his Great War series, he often takes the action and pushes it back and forth in ways that keep us guessing.  One moment you're with General Custer and about to make a breakthrough in the trenches in Tennessee, and the next you're out at sea trying to enforce a blockade.  If nothing else, it keeps you as the reader on your toes.

Unfortunately, not many are capable of using this technique in the right way, and since there is no one "right" way, what I mean is when the situation dictates.  It's hard to break the audience from its complacency, and an abrupt shift can sometimes do that.  But if it's done improperly - like when your action is rolling towards a climax - it can really piss off your reader.  Folks like a payoff, and if you use an abrupt shift at the wrong time, it's like pulling out early...the satisfaction is never quite the same.

This is where the art of writing comes in rather than the science.  You've got to know your story, as well as your audience.  What will they tolerate?  Can you bring things back under control, or did you just make someone throw the book across the room in disgust?  If you want to get this right, you have to experiment, and you have to hand choose your audience to see if they pick up on it the way you want them to.  Or you could try it after you've established yourself and want to shake things up, but try it at the wrong point and all you'll do is alienate people...and people who you alienate aren't likely to buy your next book.

In other words, be daring...but be carefully daring.

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