August 9, 2010

Commandments for Writers Series: #4

4 Thou shalt not saw the air with abstractions, for readers, like lovers, are attracted to particularity.
I have mentioned in a few posts how I need to remember that readers are intelligent, and I don't need to include everything but the kitchen sink for my readers to "get it", taking them by the hand and pointing out every symbol, unfolding every hidden meaning, or explaining the purpose of every move.
On the other hand, being too abstract landed me with a recent revision request, and I thought I could use the example here.
In The Inn, the main character, Elizabeth, has a past. I referred to it vaguely, only hints, leaving the reader to fill in the blanks. But this past is a major factor in Elizabeth's character, her reactions. Even I wasn't sure if there was a string of past events, or one single occurence, that affected her in such a way.
The feedback was this:
"The author has clearly shielded Elizabeth's past so that the reader does not know much about [her], but there's not enough back story about Elizabeth to give the reader a strong grasp of who she is."
While it's true I wanted Elizabeth's character to unfold, this critique also pointed out that instead of "unfolding", I just revealed her past at the end. Kind of a let down.
With the invaluable help of my author friend, Abel Keogh, I was able to insert bits and pieces of Elizabeth's past along the way, building tension and momentum, without giving it all up until absolutely necessary. But, more importantly to building a better foundation for Elizabeth's character, I created a singular specific event in her past to overcome, and created situations where it is brought up, and she either has to address it, or brush it away. The result surprised me (a lot of things do as I learn this craft). It was a good surprise.

And yes, I'm being abstract because I don't want to give any more away.

What do you think of abstractions vs. particularities, in writing OR reading?


Ann Best said...

I think abstractions just don't work in fiction, especially not today. I had a creative writing teacher who, like your editor, pointed this out. The reader has to/wants to know what's going on. You can't leave them second-guessing.

Good advice. I try to remember it at all times as I'm working on my revisions.

Kimberly said...

I think that, as in life, it's all about balance. In such cases we have to know enough that we don't feel like we're being bludgeoned over the head with our own ignorance throughout the story, but there has to be enough mystery that the tension builds, our interest is held...It's a delicate dance, and so easy to misstep!

Krista said...

It is a thin rope to walk, isn't it? I'm imagining holding a very long balancing pole on the high wire. Thank you for your comments, ladies!

Kate said...

This is a tricky balancing act and one I struggle with as well. How much is too much and how much is not enough? Obviously info dumps can't be used, but it takes an artisan's skill to weave in the crucial points in just the right amount and in precisely the right places to increase sympathy and tension. Good luck!

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