Ham-Fisted Writing Techniques Ran Up Cynthia’s Spine
Conventional wisdom says that readers enjoy crime novels because they like picking up the clues that let them try their hand at solving the mystery. Readers of fiction in all its forms also like picking up the clues to the emotional implications of a character’s actions, body language, and dialogue. When you revise your manuscript, look for the specific ways you offer those deeper dimensions.
One of the things I was constantly hearing at Clarion West was that you can sometimes get a bigger effect out of a reaction description if you omit the abstract agent of “shock” “pity” “horror”, or whatever it is that causes the reaction.
Horror ran up Cynthia’s spine as she whirled to face him.
A cold tingle ran up Cynthia’s spine as she whirled to face him.
The claim is that in this case, the second sentence is superior to the first because it permits the reader to reconstruct from context what the first states flatly.
If it’s not already evident from context that Cynthia feels horror, something’s wrong with the scene.
In fiction (as well as maybe in reality) abstraction rarely wins out over concrete detail, especially gestural detail.
Apropos of gesture, I recently read in The Secret Language of Success that children who learn to speak early tend to be less aware of body language than kids who speak later. Presumably this is because linguistically apt kiddos are forced to rely on body-language less.
And those early talkers are probably more likely to grow up and become writers than the other kids…
As a result, writers may have a double challenge when it comes to writing Cynthia’s reaction. Not only do we need to sublimate our “core content” (horror) into gestural language that people can understand, but we may be at a disadvantage when it comes to noticing gestures at all.
Because I’m the kind of person who never pays much attention to body language unless it’s Saturday night and I’m trying to find out if a cute boy wants to kiss me, I was frustrated by this realization.
So much so that it could only come out in a 4chan-style greentext story…
>spend 15 years in school paying attention to language’s propositional content and ignoring body posture, speech tics, etc
>think I’m ignoring the inessential in favor of what Really Matters
>become fiction writer
>realize that you can’t write good scenes without being a good observer of gesture & posture
Nevertheless, we’ve got to learn how to use body language, so we might as well get started now. The comfort of course is that we body language illiterates can at least choose other details… some of the time. The rest of the time, we’ve just got to learn how to watch people.
It was always such little details rather than the lofty ideas which went straight to her heart.
-W.G. Sebald, The Rings of Saturn
On the topic of detail winning over abstraction, I also have a nice music theory quote to share. In his edition of Berlioz’ Treatise on Instrumentation, Richard Strauss remarks that a single bow marking is…
often more effective than the most eloquent expression marks such as “gay”, “grazioso”, “spirited”, “smiling”, “defiant”, “furious”, etc. Our worthy instrumentalists and their dear conductors pay very little attention to them.
As a writer, I’ve finally accepted the fact that a very good proportion of Hemingway’s iceberg beeds to stay the hell below the water-line. The question now becomes one of finding oblique ways of using concrete details to state what might (less effectively) be put flat on the page.
I wish I could say more about how to do this, but it’s probably the number one challenge I’m facing right now as a writer. Maybe I’ll never get over it.
What are your thoughts on this topic?
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