Every once in a while I get myself into a jam, and, though I think I have every thing I need in writing a piece of a scene, it fails to gel, I feel frustrated and tied in knots, and I keep going at it from all directions, starting and restarting the section without getting to a coherent flow.
I tried an old newspaper trick this morning.
Newspaper reporters have to make it fast and easy for a reader to engage with a story, get the basic information into the reader before she does the pre-computer equivalent of clicking on something else to read: giving up on one story, and finding either another one to read or moving on to the rest of her day.
Your English teacher probably taught you this, too (I didn’t have an English teacher, so maybe that’s why I came to this in a roundabout way).
It’s called 5W + H.
And it means, you recall, supplying the six pieces of information the reader needs to lodge the basics of the story in his head:
- Who – people present or necessary to the story
- Where – setting
- What – is going on (the plot)
- When – time, time frame, sequence
- Why – are you telling this story? Why did they do it?
- How – the plot reaches resolution, and the information is transferred securely into the reader’s head.
The order doesn’t really matter as long as, after a very brief period, the reader has enough to interest him to keep reading the details.
TV news people usually drag this out as long as possible, especially if there have been little advance hints all day (news at 11) – and now they have to supply the goods. They tease you along with the less interesting bits, finally supplying the actual meat of the story (which is often anticlimactic – I waited up past my bedtime for this?) after as many commercials as possible, when they could have ‘informed’ you the first time you heard about the story.
Writers can’t afford this – the reader won’t stick around.
For the writer of FICTION
The problem for a writer is when the dramatic pieces want to come first – the startling headline, the shocking news – but they won’t make sense without the more informational bits.
Readers have an empty gray-goo area in the brain, a formless void, when they approach a new story, and it has to be filled in quickly.
If you don’t reveal that this shocking dog’s death occurred, not in their neighborhood, but in Manila, they will 1) assume it’s local, and 2) be annoyed at you when they find out it’s not.
So the system is: shocker, fill in the absolutely necessary stuff to orient the reader, more shocking details.
But it’s not the reader’s job to avoid the confusion: it’s the writer’s job.
LEAD with the emotions
Life is boring – readers need vicarious experiences.
We are, as Lisa Kron says in Wired for Story, primed to absorb new information that we need.
Need is critical: grab readers by the emotions, and supply the details as quickly and efficiently as possible, and they will follow.
What I figured out was that I’m relatively good at doing these steps in a normal scene – hook, set the scene, supply story, leave cliffhanger of at least one question so the reader will read the next scene.
But not when I get tricky – for good story reasons – and try to cram a lot into the piece of scene.
Then I need to stop, make sure the 5W+H are provided asap, and choreograph the presentation of story information in the most effective way I can. Deliberately. As if I had a news desk editor with a lot of experience to satisfy, and the pickiest readers.
The contract with the reader
Lead the reader down the garden path, as it were, until we find the dead body.
If you can do this in a tricky case, it improves the facility for doing it in normal situations.
It comes down, after you’ve identified the 5W + H:
DON’T CONFUSE THE READER – FOR VERY LONG.
Just as soon as the reader starts to think all this is a bit too much, it GELS.
Because the critical information is all there.
And the reader is no longer confused, the dreaded info drop has been avoided, and the story is firmly lodged (one hopes) back in the reader’s brain.
The analytical side of my brain is very pleased with itself – the artistic side is chomping at the bit.
The details? You’ll eventually have to read Pride’s Children: NETHERWORLD to grade my performance, but I can tell you the bit is the beginning of the second scene; it involves four people and four different settings; there is a tiny necessary shift in the timeline; the formatting helps (Lord knows how I’m going to do this in the audiobook version); and, if I do it right, it will bring you right back into the story with very little ’splainin’ (think Ricky Ricardo and I Love Lucy: “Lucy! You got some ’splainin’ to do!”).
Trust me, the other way was long and boring.
What say you? I love discussion.
Thanks to Stencil for the ability to create images for posts.