Wednesday, March 03, 2010

The (Little) Squid on the Mantel

Okay, so the title of this post is a bit of an inside-joke, and blatantly stolen from fellow WSer Lyda Morehouse. It's our equivalent of the old theater saw that says if you put a gun on the mantelpiece in Act I, it better damn well go off before the end of the play. We just use a squid because, well, because we do.

Still, it seemed as good of a way as any to introduce the topic of reader expectation, and how we as writers should be aware of it.

Now, there are some pretty obvious types of reader expectation. I don't, for example, write a fantasy adventure novel and expect a fan of restoration romance to run out and pick it up, let alone necessarily enjoy it (although if he/she does, great!). My book is aimed at a specific audience, and that reader tends to fall outside of it. Easy, and pretty straight forward. By the same token, if I start my book out with a tense, action-packed scene, I have set a certain expectation in the reader's mind. This doesn't mean I have to have constant, non-stop fight-fight-fight action going all the time (which would be both exhausting to write and to read), but I had also better not spend chapters 3 through 20 going through a very pain-staking, convoluted, introspective character/world/theology study, either. That way leads to flung books and lost readers.

But this is big-picture stuff, and we already know all of that, right? Right. (Riiight?)

So what am I talking about today?

I am talking about the smaller expectations we make with the reader on almost every page: the unconscious flags we wave for readers that, as writers, we should try to be aware of. The descriptions, actions, and so on that tell readers one thing, but can, in not-quite-on-the-mark writing, lead to broken promises. Flags that, in essence, make something look like a squid when it is not.

Um, okay, you say. I think I see where you're going, but how about some examples?

Glad you asked.

One of the easiest examples I can think of is character description. I believe it was Roger Zelazny who said (or wrote...I don't recall the medium) that he consciously tried to limit descriptions of secondary characters to three qualities, and then move one. Something like, "Durand was a small, barrel-shaped man, with a bristly crop of hair and a dingy brown suit that looked like it had last been pressed some time during the Carter administration." (Mine, not Zelazny's -- can you tell I've been preparing for a panel on Noir Fiction?). I tell you three things here -- build, hair cut, clothing -- but it manages to paint a concise, yet memorable, picture. I can pretty much expect that, if I did it right, the next time I mention Durand's suit (or build, or hair), the reader will have an instant image of him to retrieve in their head.

Okay, great. I used three attributes and 32 total words to create a sketch of a character. So what? Well, it all goes back to expectations. By sticking to this level of description, I have tried to tell the reader something. I have said, "This character is important enough to warrant a name and a couple characteristics. You are supposed to remember him. However, he will most likely not be a key character, so you don't have to work too hard on keeping him foremost in your head." In presenting a limited picture of Durand, I have, hopefully, also signaled to the reader that Durand is going to have a limited presence/importance in the story. Likewise, if I spend a good paragraph or more describing Durand (or a place, or a flower, or...), then I am signaling to the reader that he is more important. In short, by giving him more real estate on the page, I am implying that he should take up more real estate in the reader's consciousness, as well as in the development of the story.

Now, that isn't to say this is merely a matter of basic math, where word count = importance. There is a lot more to this than having a three-box checklist. I have to be aware of my writing style in general, how I tend to portray other characters, places and events, and so on. If I am a writer who lavishes description on everything, then this guideline is going to fall beyond flat -- it will likely go through the floor and damage the flow of my work. Likewise, if I tend to dole out as little description as Hemingway, three attributes effectively leap off the page and scream, "Important guy! Important guy!!" You, as a writer, need to figure out what works with your style, so you know what you are conveying to the reader. Likewise, you need to figure out when it is okay to go in the other direction (whatever that may be for you) to better convey an idea, or a setting, or a mood.

The point is, I know what I am saying (or at least trying to say) to the reader when I drop someone like Durand in their lap. I am aware of the cue I am giving them based on what I am presenting on the page, aside from the words. And this is the place where I think a lot of newer writers get hung up: they focus so much on the world, so much on the characters, so much on getting everything in their head on the page and painting as complete a picture as they can for the reader, that they don't realize they are painting a squid right next to their lovingly described spear-carrier. How you put something on the page is just as important as what you put on it. And that applies not just to descriptions, but also action, world-building, dialogue...just about everything -- all of it can serve double, or even triple, duty, even when you may not mean it to.

So, does this mean you should sit, paralyzed, staring at the screen, terrified you are telling the reader the wrong thing when you say "he had red hair" instead of talking about "the fiery locks on his head"? Of course not. You write what you write, and you figure out what works over time, and you fix it if you think you need to. That's how you develop your craft. But part of that growing craft is to also be aware of the subtler things your words are doing on the page. And, of course, to be able to recognize the occasional squid when you see one. :)

1 comment:

tate hallaway said...

Thanks for the shout out, Doug, but I actually think the "squid on the mantlepiece" is best attributed to the folks at the Turkey City Lexicon.