February 22, 2018 § 26 Comments
A few years ago I studied at Writers In Paradise with the wonderful Laura Williams McCaffrey. I brought pages from a young-adult novel, thrilled to share for the first time with people who didn’t know me, didn’t love me, had no vested interest in my happiness. My hope was they’d be gripped by suspense from the very first page, the start of a countdown to a terrifying conclusion.
They found it blah. It didn’t grab them. Sure, the voice was nice, but it was just a teenage girl thinking. Where was the action?
I said, “But there’s this countdown…”
“Countdown to what?”
And that’s when I realized I’d left out a key piece of information. In ten drafts, I had failed to give the reader the most important detail: The protagonist has a gun in her lap.
I’d spent seven years with this character and story in my head. For me, the gun was just there. Why wouldn’t it be? But it wasn’t on the page.
Editing memoir, I often see the same quirk of a major missing piece.
Dad’s an alcoholic? That’s why he acted like that? It’s not in here for the reader. Adult-writer-you might want to make that clear even if child-narrator-you is oblivious.
There’s a ton of money supporting this giant home renovation in another country. The reader wants to know at least briefly how you got it.
Wait, there was an implied sex scene after the picnic at the end of that chapter? Please write enough of it that we know it happened. Even if you just take off her shirt or stroke her hair.
It’s hard to remember all the information readers need to make sense of our story–not because there’s too much to tell, but because we already have a full background briefing. We’re sick to death of the details. We’re afraid to be too obvious, to overwrite, make our work too simple or somehow un-literary by speaking plainly.
I’ve said before, all books are mysteries. Just as if we read a whodunit where the murderer didn’t show up at all until the page before he’s caught, the reader feels ripped off if they don’t have the breadcrumbs to follow your trail. Think about re-reading a classic sleuth novel, and the pleasure of noticing all the clues you missed the first time around, how each puzzle piece falls into place, the last detail snapping into focus right at the villain’s unmasking.
Writing memoir also calls for careful clues. Show the life experience on the way to discovery of illness that shows you can fight (or are fighting for the first time), and the team of doctors, family and friends fighting with you. The hints of family history overheard as children, that now you know were secrets covered up.
It’s counter-intuitive, but don’t surprise the reader. When we reveal the hidden reasons behind our torment, or show our triumph, or beat the tumor, we want the reader instead to be shocked. Fascinated that it turned out this way, but realizing that of course that’s how the story had to end. We want our books to be heavily laden vehicles with bad brakes, rolling down hills toward brick walls. We’re shocked at the impact–but having watched the dump truck full of chickens gather speed, we’re not surprised. If the brakes suddenly worked again, stopping the truck abruptly inches from the wall, it’s still a powerful shock (plus relief!) but again, it’s not a surprise. One way or another, everything pointed to an explosion of feathers and squawks.
Take a look at your essay, or your manuscript. What’s the stunning conclusion, the revelation, the connection the reader makes at the last minute? Go back and find the clues. What logically leads to this conclusion, step by step? Is it subtle enough to still need to finish the story to find out what happens, but clear enough that a reader who doesn’t know the plot already will say, “Ohhhhhhh. Yeah. That had to happen–it’s the only way.”
The illusion in our heads is of a fully realized world, provided with every necessary action and relationship to contextualize our story. The reader only gets what’s on the page. Give them enough cards and top hats to be in on the illusion, too.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. No chickens were harmed in the writing of this post.