One challenge of being creative is that our minds often work much faster than the rest of our bodies can. Ideas can come at such a rate, our enthusiasm for a topic or story can be so intense, that we can find ourselves tripping over our words or leaving out things like nouns and verbs.
When I was much younger, I would see this challenge play out on my typewriter.
My thoughts were so frenzied and my fingers so quick that I would physically overwhelm the ability of the typewriter hammers to rise at the key stroke, strike the ribbon against the paper, and fall back into place before the next key stroke catapulted the next letter. Time and again, I would sigh in frustration as I would stop to manually separate the two letter arms that had become entangled.
But even in the absence of mechanical typing, such enthusiasm can result in conceptual clogging, where thoughts that cross your mind fail to find a home on the page.
Although this happens more in fiction than nonfiction writing, I have read examples in both situations where a writer has failed to include important information about their characters, the plot or even the settings of events. Because we see everything in our heads, because our thoughts move so quickly, we may not realize that we have failed to put this on the page.
When I write a line of dialogue for a character, for example, I hear the character’s voice in my head and I know his or her emotional state, so I hear the intonation that reflects that state.
On a good day, the same information is relayed in the words the character speaks and/or in the actions the character performs while saying those words. (On a really good day, the words spoken and the actions taken don’t exactly align, revealing subtext.)
As often as not, however, I threw down the first dialogue that came into my head or described a relatively generic action to get to the really cool moment a couple of pages from now.
Again, I heard the intonation. I know how the character is feeling. So, in my head, nothing is missing. Everything a reader needs to understand what is happening is found in the black letters that stripe the white screen or page.
Am I reading what you’re writing?
Your reader is not in your head, however. She doesn’t necessarily know how the character feels or where the story is going.
She will likely fill in those blanks with her best guess based on what she’s already read, and she might be right.
But if she’s not, if her assumptions are wrong, the moment of realization might be quite jarring, and she may have to drop back to re-read one or more passages to catch up to you.
NOTE: These moments are particularly noticeable if you have someone or a group do a cold-read of your work. The minute a reader starts the line “wrong”, you see (or hear) the potential train wreck ahead.
Any success you had in engrossing your reader and revealing your creative genius dissipates, and has to be newly won in the subsequent pages.
As the reader, if I need – or even just want – to know something to help me understand a character, relationship or scene, make sure I do. Make sure the idea or concept is on the page.
You ultimately cannot control what goes on inside the head of any reader, whether their personal perspectives or attitudes or what kind of day they’re having, but you can do as much as you can to get your idea, your story across with as few filters as possible.
You don’t necessarily have to do this with Draft One – anything you can do to ride the wave of enthusiasm and get Draft One completed takes priority.
But as you transition to Draft Two, Four or Eleven, look for opportunities to be clearer in your intent for your characters and your story.
Aiming for clarity
How many ways could a given line or sentence be read?
Unless you’re purposefully pulling for subtext Nirvana, try to reduce that number, if for no other reason than the number in your head is probably three to five times lower than what it actually is.
Sometimes, clarity comes in the perfectly chosen word.
“Cameron put his glass down.”
“Cameron slammed his glass down.”
“Cameron let his glass drop.”
“The glass slipped from Cameron’s hand.”
Sometimes, clarity comes with more information/words.
“Cameron put his glass down.”
“Cameron gingerly nestled the glass into its condensation ring.”
“Avoiding a fist of broken glass, Cameron lowered his drink to the table.”
Yes, you run the risk of over-writing, and it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve been accused of writing travelogues rather than setting descriptions in early drafts.
I would argue, however, that it is better to cut back something over-written than omit vital information.
And yes, for genres such as thriller or horror, you may want to avoid providing too much information for fear of ruining the suspense.
I’ll talk more about genre another time, but in the interim will suggest that while you may wish to mislead your reader, you never want to lie to them, even by omission.
Once the final reveal is made, the reader should be able to go back and see all the connecting dots. Simply leaving out an important point is a cheat, from my perspective, especially if it prevents someone from making connections.
Misdirect, fine. Leave things open to interpretation, certainly. But never lie.
Seeing what’s not there
So, how do you know what you’ve inadvertently left off the page?
Time away helps.
Once that initial energy has dissipated, put the work away for a while. Clear your head by working on something else, and only then come back to it and see if it reads like you wrote it.
Alternatively, as suggested above, have someone (or some-many) read it aloud to you while you sit completely silent – not easy. You will hear every clunk and every reinterpretation of your intent.
And sometimes, you simply cannot see it, which is where people like me come in: experienced story analysts who know the standard or common issues that arise and can not only identify where they occur in your work, but also offer insights or possible fixes.
This is feedback at a higher level than editing – although many of us instinctively edit – and the best story analysts help you find your way of telling your story, not theirs.
Because the story analyst didn’t write your story, they’ll see the gaps or holes much faster and more clearly than you will, and will help you fill those gaps, ensuring that you have left it all on the page.
So, What’s Your Story is a story analysis service designed to help anyone tell their story better, whether fiction or nonfiction, long or short, written or verbal. Even if you’re just looking for a quick sense of how well you’ve told your story, we should talk.