Saturday, February 28, 2015

Active vs. Passive Participation

I love getting immersed in a good story.  With more modern media such as movies and TV, that’s a passive experience, with the medium defining what you see and hear.  That can be enjoyable, but books are capable of so much more.  A good book can engage and stimulate your imagination far beyond other mediums, inviting you to be an active participant in envisioning a fictional world which then becomes a unique experience for every individual.  Those are the kinds of books I love most as a reader, and those are what I want to write.

Part of achieving that involves keeping description to a bare minimum.  A picture is worth a thousand words (or more) so it takes a lot of excess prose to paint detailed scenes for a reader, and even if that’s well-written, it does them a disservice and bogs down the story.  Instead, I believe a writer should seek to suggest the setting and the characters with a few deft strokes.  A couple defining features of a character’s appearance plus a mannerism or two ought to be enough to bring them to life.  A few important fundamentals of their environment and you should be ready to move on to what’s important – the story.  Create an impression and let the reader’s imagination fill in the details.

The challenge for the writer, then, is choosing just the right elements to sketch the proper picture.  There are the basic things a reader has to know to be able to follow the story and the distinctive descriptions that bring individuality to a character or setting.  Selecting what’s needful and leaving off or cutting out what isn’t is part of the craft.  The art of writing is combining the necessary and relevant with the evocative.

Another way to stimulate the reader’s imagination is in how backstory is handled.  Many books begin with a lot of explanation of who people are and exactly what’s been going on.  That can be clumsily handled exposition, or it can be creatively integrated into character interactions, but it’s not strictly necessary.  The best backstory is like the proverbial iceberg – nine-tenths remains unseen below the surface, but it’s there giving invisible heft to the story, and sometimes subtle shadows of its hidden form appear to the eye of anyone watching closely.

So my approach is to establish just enough at the start for readers to follow the story.  Then I weave in bits of background as I go along, leaving lots of blanks to be filled in later so readers can connect the dots for themselves.  And even as each piece of the puzzle brings the background picture into better view, it should also create more questions.  Because I believe a story should always be opening up new horizons for the mind to explore.

Some books are like a movie – you sit back and let the story wash over you.  There’s nothing wrong with that, and in the hands of a capable writer, you can be taken on a wonderful journey.  My books are more like tours into an unknown country.  I’ve been there before you, getting to know the ground, and I guide you along a trail that will take you to some interesting places.  But I let you discover the sights for yourself.  And you may find something fascinating that even I didn’t know was there.

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