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This is Part II of a rundown on author Robin Black’s lecture: What do Readers Want and Why Do They Want it? as part of the Lighthouse Fly-By Writer’s series. (Read Part I here.)
We spent a lot of time talking about Beginnings. Many of us (especially short story writers) have learned the rule in media res, to start in the middle of the action, and often in a workshop, one will hear the dread suggestion that the story “really starts on page 5″… of a ten page story. But Black had more to offer about how to begin a story so that the reader will let go and forget that she is reading.
At the beginning of a story, there is a wall between the writer and the reader, and the writer has everything (the story) on his side of the wall and the reader has nothing on her side. In order not to overwhelm the reader, the writer has to figure out how to feed the story to the reader bit by bit, rather than tossing the entire story over the wall and overwhelming the reader.
So what’s more important than starting in the middle of the action is to simply begin simply. Nothing is wrong with starting a story: “He sat and looked at his feet.” It’s something the reader can grasp, it’s short, and it’s simple. The initial images should be so clear that the reader turns the page. And while one could argue that “he sat and looked at his feet” is not clear, it’s something the reader can fill in for herself in her imagination until she receives further information. The problem sometimes is that the writer tries to put too much description, especially into the beginning (“he sat on the cold hard bench in the middle of the park, looking at his feet, which were encased in brown dirty boots, the laces untied and dragging on the ground”). The reader can only process so much.
Also, a simple declarative sentence like “he sat and looked at his feet” signals to the reader an absence of anxiety on the part of the writer, which gives authority to the writer and allows the reader to trust the writer. Once the writer establishes this authority, it (almost) doesn’t matter where the story starts. So Black’s advice is to err on the side of simplicity, to err on the side of clarity.
Thickening Agent/Ragged Edges
Another approach to revision is to add a Thickening Agent or Ragged Edges to a story. Another rule, especially for short story writers, is that only things that are necessary to the story should be included. During a workshop, a writer might be asked the question: “but what about the sister?” Black suggests that adding a brief mention of something in a story, such as a dead father, adds a thickening agent to the story, making the character more real to the reader because we all have such stories in our own lives. Several of my notes refer to haunting a story with dead people, because it’s part of life, part of the human condition, and while a story doesn’t have to be about grief in order to have dead people in it, it signals that the character has a real life.
Ragged Edges is another way to think of this concept of giving characters extra “unnecessary” facts in order to give them depth. Black gave the example of mentioning a first marriage in a story, but then not mentioning it anymore. This gives the reader room to use his imagination to fill in his understanding of the characters. If you stick to a rule like “only include what is necessary,” you risk over-buffing the story and making it too clean and too pat, which isn’t like real life at all. Don’t over-buff because the reader will be rebuffed.
Point-of-View (POV) and Narrative Distance
Black said there is always a right POV for a story, but it might take awhile to find out what it is. In order to discover it, a basic question for the writer to ask is: how much is the reader supposed to believe what the main POV character believes? And then the writer should also ask: which POV puts the most pressure on the story?
If you use the first person POV, it’s understood by the reader that this is limited to the character’s viewpoint, so the reliability of the character’s beliefs and interpretations can (and should) be questioned. However, if the question of reliability is not at issue in the story, then why would you use first person anyway? It wouldn’t be putting sufficient pressure on the story.
Many stories are written in third person limited, which means that while the sentences are in third person, the POV is limited to the viewpoint of only one character. Black said that there’s a risk with using this limited POV because it feels like the reader is forced to endorse the narrator’s version of events. She advocates inserting some narrative distance (even if the writer sticks with one character and doesn’t try to be omniscient), and gave the following examples to distinguish the two. In the sentence “Mary looked disapprovingly at her daughter, scruffy again,” the last part of the sentence is in Mary’s limited POV. However, in the sentence “Mary looked disapprovingly at her daughter, which was typical behavior for her,” the last part of the sentence is from the narrator’s POV and tells us more about Mary than the limited POV can.
As I tried to synthesize my notes earlier this week, I suspected this would turn into three parts—and I was right! Stay tuned for the final installment about Robin Black’s workshop, where I’ll reveal her secrets about first drafts, revision (even though this is ALL about revision), and something I’ll call “how to be a writer.”