Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Closing the gap between the reader and your characters

I had planned on writing new content today--and indeed I did complete my preplanning while on a walk on the greenway near my house this morning before work--but instead I decided to do more revisions. That's resulted in a net of about 200 new words, and that's just from the first 1.3 chapters alone.

Why do more revisions now? Well, last night I finished re-reading Orson Scott Card's CHILDREN OF THE MIND, and then I started on Phillip Pullman's THE GOLDEN COMPASS. This is the first time I've read that book, but my wife loves it (as I know many others do). I'm not very far into Pullman's book yet, but one thing has already struck me in his writing: the way in which he quick closes the distance between the reader and his protagonist, Lyra, in the first chapter. He does this with light description of Lyra's thoughts and motivations rather the heavy-handed exposition that plague the start of many novels. Even when he directly tells us things about his characters, he does so in a way that is surprisingly unobtrusive. For instance: "It might have been enough to make her cry, if she was the sort of girl who cried." Beautiful. That's a line that would be at home in one of Hemingway's short stories.

Pullman's blend of dialogue and action is wonderful as well, and I was particularly interested in how he implies actions with dialogue without actually resorting to describing the actions themselves: "'Yes, it was the Tokay,' said Lord Asriel. 'Too bad. Is that the lantern? Set it up by the wardrobe, Thorold, if you would. I'll have the screen up at the other end.'" This one statement (in full context) implies what Asriel and Lyra are seeing, and what the servants are doing. Very compact.

There are certainly a number of other authors who write with this sort of precision, and some who write with even greater precision, but for whatever reason a few things clicked for me when I read the first chapter of THE GOLDEN COMPASS. I'd already been thinking that I was consistently too distant from my dual protagonists, Darrell and Elaine, but tonight I finally figured out how to correct that. It turns out it doesn't take all that much: just a few more insights into their thoughts and emotions where such insights are of value, and the result is narrative that I believe feels much less detached from their pov.

Much as I love Michael Crichton's books and ideas, he's one who always seems to maintain a pretty hefty distance from his characters. Tom Clancy is another one who does that to some degree--I love both the Jack Ryan and John Clark characters, and I've read every last book containing either of them, but I always get the feeling that I'm watching over their shoulder rather than seeing through their eyes. Perhaps this style is considered necessary to the thriller genre, but it's not something that I ever wanted to do, and I felt like I was doing that with ALDEN RIDGE. Fortunately, by learning a few things from Card and Pullman, I believe I've figured out how to efficiently close that gap between the reader and the characters without sacrificing pacing.

I'm going to try to get a lot more of these edits done tomorrow, and perhaps I'll be able to get some new content written then as well. It depends on how quickly the edits go, and how much the new scenes call to me to be written.


Rachel V. Olivier said...

What a cool epiphany! I hear C.S. Lewis used to get ideas on his walks, too.

Christopher M. Park said...

Thanks! And, I used to have my best insights in the car on the way to work in the mornings. But now I don't commute anymore, so I've decided to start going on morning walks in order to get that sort of idea-generation going again.