Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Secrets of Creating Characters in Written Fiction (Part 7)

Nudging the Reader Along

As a writer, you lead the reader to interesting places. The best way of doing that is to entertain the reader as you go to those places. On a small scale, you can do this with any descriptive paragraph by selectively leaving out detail in the opening sentence, then filling that detail in later in the paragraph.

The beginning of any paragraph should feel like a beginning. If you cut off the beginning from the remaining sentences, something should feel missing. A movie or TV show can carry itself through the opening on little to nothing, but not so a paragraph. Reading happens only when a reader actually reads. Without the reading, a book is a stack of paper. If the reader is to go forward, they must want to know more about the topics that you’ve already presented.

Let’s start with a weak introductory sentence. If I say, “Bob walked into the saloon wearing blue jeans and a red shirt,” I can stop right there with no penalty in stopping. This sentence requires no explaining. Nothing hangs on its exploration. This sentence doesn’t get the reader curious or keep the reader engaged. With sentences like this, readers start skimming because they can. There’s no penalty. They don’t learn when the story takes place, what sort of story to expect, or why Bob is worthy of being a character in a story.

You catch a reader’s curiosity by leaving out details and sense. A good paragraph opening begs for explanation. A good hook sentence refuses to stand on its own, creating an unbearable tension that can only be resolved by going forward into the next sentence.

Let’s go back to our standard example about Bob.

Bob walked into the saloon wearing blue jeans and a red shirt. His brown hair escaped from his torn hat. He walked up to the rail in that saloon and ordered a drink, then turned around to look at the girls.

I’ll make a few capricious changes.

“Walked” is the first verb in the paragraph.”Walk” does not beg any detail. Bob could also saunter, trot, plod, or drag. We’ll use “drag.” “Bob dragged into the saloon.” This gets the reader curious about why he dragged. So we, as writers, should follow that curiosity trail.

If I just write the sentence, “Bob dragged into the saloon,” then end the paragraph there, the reader will feel that something is missing. Good. That’s the feeling that we want the reader to have. There’s a hole there that the reader wants to fill in.

Here’s the example.
Bob dragged into the saloon. His horse had thrown him at Clovis Ditch, leaving him to walk that long trail back to town. His horse got back first, looking smug and not at all sorry. She didn’t even try escaping again as he hitched her to the rail. His ankle now desperately hurting, Bob scraped his bent spur across the saloon floor, drawing the attention of everyone there. The boys there all knew who had been thrown. After all his bragging, they were happy to laugh behind his back. So much for picking the girl of his choice.
By careful word choice in that first sentence, I not only changed the way that the whole paragraph flowed, I changed the way that the paragraph wanted to behave, and most importantly, I changed how the paragraph expressed the character of Bob.

If you don’t believe me, look at the next example.
Bob pirouetted into the saloon, looking like he was about to leap into a musical number, with lots of fancy dancing, long waving flags, and Anne Miller tap dancing down the bar while sliding drinks with her feet. When he leapt onto the nearest table, the table tipped over, sending him into the penultimate hand of the territory’s most exclusive poker game and the territory’s second most expensive bottle of bourbon.
With a one word change, our perception of Bob immediately changed, and what came after had to change.

The trick is that this nudging technique pulls the reader into the character as well as the story. That's what you want. You want a character that promises more detail, and the reader then wants to learn that detail.