Shading the Truth

A writer, even a well-prepared one, starts a novel with a ton of questions about who their main characters are. Sparks that ring true emerge seemingly out of the blue as you write. As that process of connection becomes more sure, the frequency of sparks increases. That’s one of the best aspects of writing: discovering hidden gems inside yourself.

Many of these uncovered points affect plotting. Hector’s fascination with the rites of santeria, for instance, influences his desire to go beyond snatching purses. The issue then becomes: when do you tell the reader? How do you tell her? I have edited manuscripts in which the author pours out everything in one long spill of the truth. I suppose I do want to know that information—eventually. Not all at once, though, because now that topic is robbed of all its mystery. 

I am reading Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead right now, and while her prose lies far beyond the abilities of most writers, her narrative approach is instructive for anyone. She tells snippets of incidents from so far inside her first-person voice that I have to piece together what is going on. I want to keep reading until the full picture comes into better view.

You too can adopt this style. Let’s say you have all sorts of information about santeria: the chickens, the blood, the priest, the Mexican village, etc. Maybe you start with Hector’s attitude as he walks the streets, looking for prey. What does his participation in his grandmother’s rites make him feel like as a person? Write about how that affects his strut. Has he bought a collare with the beads of Shango? Does he finger it as he walks, feeling in touch with that superior knowledge? Notice that none of this work is saying boo about the thrill he feels when the chicken’s throat is cut. You’re saving that for when it will hit home.

You’re using a limited scope to mask the wider view. That’s the way we are in real life. Harriet could say, “My father is as tight as the bark on a tree.” If you don’t know the context, you think the reference is merely to his being cheap. You don’t know that’s what his divorced wife said a hundred times after he remarried. Or he refused to pay for Harriet’s college tuition even though he could easily afford it. In other words, the storyteller is taking her sweet time to lay out the whole truth.

Exercise: If you have a body of information you wish to impart, write out snippets of it. Half page max. See if you can write in such a way that the character’s viewpoint obscures large sectors of the whole. Shoot for six pieces, of progressively greater length, repeating certain key ideas. You’re luring the reader onward by deliberate narrative approach.

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view.” 
—Harper Lee

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine

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