Apr 04 2012
As much as possible, mentally engage your readers by giving them clues they can use to draw conclusions and inferences. Instead of just telling your readers “the security is incredibly tight at this military base,” remind us of the foggy day the guards fired three rockets at what turned out to be an angry llama. It’s far more memorable and interesting than telling us what to think/feel.
Are you “showing” enough of your story? One way to check is to see how much of your story is implied. For example, on any given page, how times can the reader infer something rather than just read a conclusion you gave to them? My rule of thumb is that each page should give us room to make an inference (rather than tell us what to think/feel) at least twice. Show us the llama. That may sound difficult, but you have a lot of possibilities. For example…
- Characterization. Can we make inferences about personality traits, demographic traits, or any other information that might develop a character? (For example, in the excerpt below, the character doesn’t say how old he is, but there are clues).
- A character’s thoughts/feelings/beliefs. For example, is there any evidence implying a character is lying or putting up a facade? Is there any evidence implying that a character’s beliefs are incorrect? (For example, in the scene below, the main character is probably wrong about his father in at least one crucial way).
- Motivations and plot. Why does a particular character do X rather than Y? For example, in the excerpt below, if you think about why a murderer might poison a victim rather than shoot him, you probably know more about the victim than his son does.
- Setting. Can we figure out anything about the setting beyond what the announcer has told us?
Here’s the opening paragraph of I Am the Jackal:
There are a lot of things that could wake you up in the middle of the night in Bellem—you know, that don’t involve gunfire. Cop cars, cop sirens. Shattering glass. Sometimes yelling from the streets, screaming, sometimes the guys trying to party in the apartment next to you. Sometimes normal things like phone calls. And sometimes phone calls from the hospital, saying that your dad’s in the E.R and that he’s been poisoned and he’s convulsing and, would you please come to the hospital right now for him, only I don’t hear that part too well ‘cause by then the only thing I can hear is Mom screaming “GET OUT HERE, SETH!”, a slamming door, and nothing else.
What sort of inferences were you able to make? Here are some I came up with, starting with the most obvious.
- The city is a hellhole. Crime is out of control.
- The main character is almost certainly a teenager. First, Seth lives with his parents and it’s unlikely anybody would say “your dad’s in the E.R.” to an adult (rather than “your father’s…”). His voice and vocabulary are mature enough that he’s obviously not a child.
- Seth is badly shaken up by his father’s situation… Just look at how disoriented that last run-on sentence is. It’s 64 words long. The sensory imagery and syntax shows he’s overwhelmed.
- …but Seth doesn’t admit he’s shaken up. This suggests to me that he’s something of a stoic, perhaps a tough guy.
- There’s something extraordinary about the father that made somebody want to kill him. Poisoning takes a lot more effort and skill than a mere shooting would. The father is obviously a big deal to somebody if he’s worth poisoning. It’s unlikely anybody would put in that much effort unless the father were special in some way. (Also, the use of poison strongly suggests the father was the target, whereas a shooting victim might have been a random bystander).
- The son doesn’t know what is extraordinary about his father. It’s hard to tell from a passage this short, but the main character doesn’t mention anything about who might have poisoned his father or why. In contrast, if he had known his father was very special (e.g. a superhero or major politician), he probably would have mentioned that or at least hinted at it right away.
- The father is probably a superhero or a criminal. Why else would somebody be poisoned in a crime-ridden city? This also gives us one possible reason the father wouldn’t have told his son and why the killer(s) chose an exotic murder weapon–if the victim was a superhero, trying to shoot him would have been crazy. I also considered the possibility that the victim was a major political or business figure, but dismissed it because he lives in a really bad area.
- Backup theory: If the victim isn’t a superhero or criminal, maybe he was poisoned by his wife or a jilted mistress? I mostly discounted romantic motives because the mother’s shocked reaction suggests that the marriage is happy, but it’s worth keeping an eye out for any signs of romantic trouble. Even the distant possibility that there’s more to this marriage than meets the eye makes the relationship more interesting than it would have been otherwise.
In part, the opening paragraph above is gripping because it gives readers room to speculate. How much more boring would it have been for the narrator to just tell us everything on the surface without giving us any room to wonder about what lies beneath? (E.g. “I’m a teenager that lives in a city with a lot of crime. My father just got nearly killed”). Give us details and let our imaginations roll. By the way, it’s okay if readers come up with some incorrect speculation. Even wrong inferences encourage the reader to pay closer attention.
(Thanks to Margaret for suggesting this article).