Friday, August 30, 2019

WIthholding: the Cruel Betrayer

There are two kinds of withholding.

The first is the intentional refusal on the author's part to reveal certain information.  This kind of withholding can be useful in storytelling.  Obviously, we don't want the murderer revealed until the end of the mystery.  But this kind of withholding can be also dangerous.

Authors who intentionally withhold information must be aware of when withholding is useful and appropriate and when it is not.

The second kind of withholding is a matter of poor writing, a misunderstanding of how to open a scene or introduce a character.

I see some stories whose authors misuse intentional withholding.  But I see far too many stories in which authors simply don't understand how to reveal information in a way that draws the reader into a scene.  This type of withholding is often confusing and off-putting.  It betrays the reader's trust in the author's ability to engage them in a story by misleading the brain as it struggles to create a mental image of your scene, your characters, and your story.  The more you make your reader's mind grapple with a clear picture of your story, the longer you delay that clear picture, the more betrayed the reader feels.  You're much better off getting in, being clear, and getting it done quickly than in trying to drag out what the opening of a story or scene should accomplish.

I'll "use" a recent example from the slush pile (pretty much everything changed to protect the innocent).

Carley swore at the cantaloupe for the fourth time.  This time the knife had taken it upon itself to cut the melon into slices without her hand having to do anything.

"Magic?  No," she murmured to herself.  She glared at the offending utensil.

"Your father is spinning in his grave," a voice called out from across the room.

Carley spun around and frowned at the man standing in the doorway.

"Daddy would love it, and you know it," she replied before turning again to the melon on the counter.

Carley's uncle grinned and shook his head.

"A catering business is one thing, but opening a food truck?  That's a ridiculous waste of money," Don said to the back of Carley's head.

The most glaring and troublesome withholding in this scene is that of the second character.  First, he appears out of nowhere, when it becomes clear as the story progresses that he was always there and Carley knew it.  Second, he is introduced first as 'the man,' then as 'Carley's uncle,' then as 'Don.'

Why is this a bad idea?  Read carefully, each of those character introductions could be seen as a different person, particularly as the story was originally written by the author.  As is, I had to work too hard to figure out who was who, and that they were, indeed, all one person.  Don't make your reader work at understanding a story.  People read stories for many reasons, but work is rarely one of them.  In addition, that slow reveal of information, meted out little bit by little bit, does nothing to solidify a character in the reader's imagination.

I've written about imaginative engagement before.  The human imagination is an interesting thing.  It draws from a lifetime of experiences and information to create an image in the mind of what is being described by the words we read or hear.

For example, if I choose the word 'desert' each person who reads it is going to have an instant image in their mind of what that means.  For some it will be smooth sand dunes.  For others it will be barren, windswept plains.  For still others it might be red-rock monuments and soaring mesas.  It's not enough to merely use the word 'desert' to describe a scene.  But with just a few additional words, I can give the reader a much more solid image of what I want them to understand about the desert in my story.

Now let's open a scene in a desert:

The man walked across the desert.

Not much there.  I know nothing about the man, nothing about the desert, nothing about why he's there.  My imagination could go anywhere.  However, it's unlikely to go anywhere yet.  There isn't enough information for me to quickly settle on one of the many potential images my brain might conjure for this scene.  As an author, that isn't what I want.  I want to immediately engage my reader's imagination, immediately investing my reader in my world and in my story.  This scene opening completely fails to do so.

But if I change a few things and add a few words:

Mahmed climbed another dune only to see an ocean of dunes beyond.

This sentence telegraphs enough to the reader to put an immediate image in the mind and to draw the reader into the story.  One sentence conveys a character, a setting, and a situation in 12 words, and it does so right away--no delaying, no withholding.

What does this sentence accomplish that the first does not?

1.  Both sentences involve a man, but the second sentence has a man with a name.  Authors often underestimate the power of well-chosen character name.  In the second example, Mahmed communicates not only a man, but it communicates a man of a certain culture in a certain part of the world.  We now know much more about Mahmed than we know about the man in the first example.  We've even begun to formulate his appearance, right down to what he might be wearing.

2.    Both sentences involve movement, but the second sentence gives a type of movement that reveals much to the reader.  In the first, the man walks.  Does that tell us anything about the terrain?  Does it tell us anything about the man or the purpose or difficulty of his journey?  Only that he's walking.  But Mahmed is climbing.  That tells us that his journey is difficult, challenging.  It also tells us that this desert is not a flat, windswept plain.

3.  Both sentences involve a desert, but the second sentence uses the word 'dune' to place the reader in the environment, not 'desert.'  That word choice still places us firmly in a desert, but it also reveals very clearly what kind of desert the story takes place in.  We can imagine it very easily.  The wind-carved waves of orange sand, the long swells of dunes with their sharply-ridged backbones, the wind, the heat, the struggle to walk in the shifting and sliding sand.

4.  The first sentence is entirely bereft of any kind of connection between the man and the setting.  There is no dilemma.  So he's walking across the desert.  So what?  Why is he?  Is he just taking a morning stroll?  Is he walking along a strip of pavement because his car has broken down?  Is he an explorer?  The second sentence, in just a few spare words, makes it clear that Mahmed is probably alone, probably lost, probably a long way from where he needs or wants to be.  We know that he's probably in trouble.  We can go so far as to imagine he's thirsty, maybe a little desperate, discouraged by the view of that ocean of dunes.

The next sentences in our desert story should immediately take on the task of telling us what's going on, why he's there, how he feels.  The first sentence has already lost the opportunity to draw the reader in and make him care what happens in the next sentences.  The first withholds far too much important information, the purpose of which is to engage the reader's imagination.  The more quickly you can do that the better, and the best way to do that is NOT to hide information.  You don't engage a reader by tossing him occasional breadcrumbs.  Breadcrumb games are for dogs and toddlers.  The rest of us see the pointlessness of them very quickly and grow annoyed.  Never annoy your reader.

Now, back to our story opening.  Let me show you how it might have been done better:

Carley swore for the fourth time.  Once again, the knife had taken it upon itself to cut the melon into slices.

"No," she told it.  "No magic."  She grasped the knife by the handle and set it again on the counter with a thunk and a glare.

"Your father must be spinning in his grave," her uncle, Don, said from behind her.  

Carley turned and frowned at him.  He was leaning on the doorframe, his arms folded.  So much like Dad.  

"Daddy would agree with me and you know it," she replied before turning again to the melon on the counter.

Carley's uncle shook his head.  "A catering business is one thing, but buying a food truck?" he said.  "That's a ridiculous waste of money, and how are you going to succeed without the old Abra-cadabra?" 

Can you see how much better that is?  How the clear introduction of elements and characters takes us much more smoothly into an imaginative connection to the scene?

How would you have written it?  Practice writing a single sentence or short paragraph that clearly introduces character, setting, and conflict.  Need more inspiration?  Here are some examples of some great story openings, snatched from the page of Flash Fiction Online:

Irma Splinkbottom loosened the back string of her apron as she shuffled over to the sliding glass door in her kitchen. The temperature on the gauge outside made her hesitate. She knew Fall brought cooler temperatures to the small town of Sapulpa, Oklahoma, but 68 degrees at 2:13 PM. It rankled her to think she’d need to wear a light sweater to go out and pinch the spent blooms on her petunias.

("Irma Splinkbottom's Recipe for Cold Fusion" by Janene Murphy)

The night before Eli’s birthday, his mother made him watch as she jabbed a mop in a bucket and nodded toward the kitchen floor. She told him not to move. “Poison,” she said. “Poison, poison, boy-son.” The only light was the window’s moonlight and a bare bulb swinging in the pantry.

("Circle, Circle, Circle, Slash" by Jason A. Zwicker)

By the time they crossed the state line, Deb Burkett’s daughter, Linnea, had just about perfected her list of Things That Could Go Wrong in Wyoming. This was not to be confused with her list of Things That Could Go Wrong in North Dakota (car keys fallen down drop toilet, car died after crunching across gravel road) or Things That Could Go Wrong in Montana (rogue bison attack, car flown off switchback, tent chomped in half by bear hunting for the Jolly Rancher in Nathan’s coat pocket). When they spent the afternoon in Yellowstone, Linnea’s list suddenly got a lot longer. As eight-year-old Nathan clomped across the boardwalks, ten-year-old Linnea hung back, staring at the electric green rimming the bubbling pools of the hot springs.

("Things That Could Go Wrong in Idaho" by Kaely Horton)

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