Today, Carolyn J. Rose is posting here on Straight From Hel.
Carolyn is the author of several novels, including Hemlock Lake, Through a Yellow Wood, AnUncertain Refuge, Sea of Regret, APlace of Forgetting, No Substitute for Murder. She penned a young-adult fantasy, Drum Warrior, with her husband, Mike Nettleton.
She grew up in New York’s Catskill Mountains, graduated from the University of Arizona, logged two years in Arkansas with Volunteers in Service to America, and spent 25 years as a television news researcher, writer, producer, and assignment editor in Arkansas, New Mexico, Oregon, and Washington. She founded the Vancouver Writers' Mixers and is an active supporter of her local bookstore, Cover to Cover. Her interests are reading, gardening, and not cooking.
Don’t Club Your Reader With Your Message
As a substitute teacher, when I’m not giving instruction I like to blend into the background, to be there if I’m needed to answer questions and explain directions for projects, but otherwise to be unobtrusive. My goal is to keep the focus on the lesson, to help kids learn and think, not to influence their thinking by telling them what I think.
The same philosophy can be applied to writing fiction. For me, the story unfolds more smoothly if the writer blends into the background and deflects attention from himself/herself.
An author who intrudes into the story to belabor a point, express an opinion, provide far too much background information on a subject, or make sure the reader “gets it,” is taking time and attention away from characters and action. When the author ceases to work behind the scenes through characters’ thoughts and dialogue, the flow of the story can be disrupted. That, in turn, can disrupt the reader’s involvement.
Sometimes the reader feels clubbed over the head with the author’s message. A clubbed reader—even one in agreement with the message—may skip passages or even put the book down.
As an extreme example, let’s say I have strong opinions about chunky peanut butter.
Here’s that message delivered in what I call a character rant. The character is channeling the author who is obviously up on his/her soapbox expounding, lecturing, and dumping opinions like a load of wet cement.
Carla added a giant jar of peanut butter to her shopping cart. Smooth, of course. The chunky stuff was gritty and stuck in her teeth. On top of that, it demonstrated laziness and carelessness on the part of producers—and lack of respect for the correct way to do things. Chunky peanut butter represented all that was wrong with the United States. Standards had slipped appallingly in the past fifty years and politicians were only greasing the skids for further decline. It was all the fault of the Supreme Court. No, it was the fault of those men who wrote the Constitution. That document was far too vague. There was too much leeway. Far too much room for interpretation. And it didn’t help that . . .
And on and on and on, in huge, dense paragraphs.
Now let’s put that message in short bursts of dialogue to make it more interesting and easier on the eye. And let’s go a step further and allow another character to challenge Carla. That lets us examine the peanut butter issue from other angles and learn more about both characters as they debate it.
Carla plucked a jar of smooth peanut butter from the shelf and set it in the shopping cart.
“Can’t we get crunchy?” Alex asked.
“Crunchy?” She frowned at her four-year-old grandson. “Crunchy is gritty.”
He nodded and swung from the handle of the basket. “I like that.”
She shuddered. “It sticks in my teeth.”
“I like that too.” He grinned. “That way I have some for later.”
Carla narrowed her eyes. Was he baiting her? No, surely not. He was too young. But it appeared this innocent child was becoming a tool for his mother’s liberal agenda. Well, since her son apparently was doing nothing about it, it was up to her to set Alex straight.
“Crunchy peanut butter is inferior,” she told him. “It’s what you get when workers no longer take pride in what they produce.”
Rubbing the end of his nose with his index finger, Alex gazed up at the display of peanut butters.
“Pay attention, Alex. My father wouldn’t tolerate crunchy peanut butter in his house and I won’t either. It’s a symbol of what’s wrong with this nation!”
“Okay.” Alex turned and peered into the shopping cart. Then, using both hands, he lifted a carton of orange juice and thrust it toward her. “Then I guess we gotta put this back.”
Carla gaped. “Why would we do that?”
“On accounta the guys who made it didn’t do their job ’cause it still has pulp in it.”
Carla has been painted into a philosophical corner.
I’m right there with her because she was expounding on my theory—a theory that seems to have some holes in it that I didn’t notice until Alex challenged it.
How will I write her out of this corner? Will she amend her rule to explain this contradiction? Will she re-examine her beliefs? Or will she defend them? Will I change my tune about chunky peanut butter?
You tell me.
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