Hugging a Stranger

Cocooned in a study, a writer spins out plot skeins that lead where they will. When a piece of action is needed, a suitable character has to be chosen. A familiar acquaintance may come to mind, and the author smiles, remembering some personal details that will tickle the reader. A half page or page emerges of telling insight into . . . who is this person, again?

“Be here now” is a useful philosophy for living your life, but it does not work so well in writing novels. In the grand scheme of hundreds of pages, continuity is far more valuable. That’s because writing is experienced sentence by sentence. Reading, by contrast, is experienced page by page, even chapter by chapter.

On this larger scale, the desire to access a character’s inner secrets has to be earned. First, a character is introduced. He performs a deed that captures our interest. In other words, he is serving a plot function. The more interesting things he does, the more the reader wants to learn who he is inside.

This progression does not exist in isolation. It occurs in the context of the other characters the reader is keeping track of. If you have devoted 50 of the first 75 pages to Jill, for instance, my natural inclination as a reader is to stick with Jill. She’s the one I’ve gotten to know and, if the writer is doing her job, the one whose darkest secrets I want to discover.

So this newcomer, call her Robin, may be a hoot, but I don’t necessarily want to know her intimate secrets just yet. Without a context set up beforehand, I don’t know how to judge those secrets. Am I being told this is a one-time deal, or is her personality ruled by this aberration?

In effect, you’ve wasted that great insight. As a reader, I’m feeling squeamish about being told more than I wanted to know about someone I don’t know yet. You’re better off waiting until that character’s fifth scene, or however long it takes for the character to become a featured player. By then he will matter more to me. As my level of comfort grows, I’ll want to be let in on that little secret of his. And then I’ll smile too.

Exercise: Review the manuscript with an eye out only for that character’s scenes. Write down when she appears (the page numbers) and how long each appearance lasts. By her fifth scene, has the total number of pages of coverage reached maybe 20-25? Now look at the secret. Is it time yet for the level of confidence you’re divulging?

“Secrets, silent, stony sit in the dark palaces of both our hearts: secrets weary of their tyranny: tyrants willing to be dethroned.”
—James Joyce

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine

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