8.15.2017

The Example Proves the Rule

This principle is an important aspect of the effort an author must make to concentrate. Picking one example is often the best way to illuminate the spirit of the whole. That’s because a reader can recognize nuances of the individual instance, whereas a reference to a trend can remain too general to grasp.

Let’s start with a train of thought, one of the most difficult tasks a novelist must accomplish. Consider the sentence: “Irene was so sick of her job.” That statement, in itself, is not bad. We all can identify with that. Yet it’s also undefined, a widely made claim that doesn’t really move us. Does that mean she’s a chronic complainer? That’s a lot different from a woman browbeaten by a boss who “inadvertently” touches her.

Stop and step down to the next lower level. What is her single biggest problem with her job? Now expand on that idea: who is implicated in that issue? What are the particular circumstances that bring it about? In other words, use the one specific idea as a wedge to open the entire subject. Let your mind go and enumerate all the details that make her sick of that one aspect of her job. Let’s say her commuter bus is frequently crowded by the time it reaches her corner, and she often has to stand. Now I, as the reader, can identify with that. I know how much I’d hate to stand.

This same method of couching general statements around a specific incident applies to character development. Let’s say, to stay with the job motif, you’re writing a novel about Wall Street greed. The hero, Allen, has joined a hedge fund run by Jared. Rather than saying, “Jared was legendary for making brilliant trades,” could you focus on one trade in particular? Take your time to bring the example to life—with Jared’s overconfidence in the outcome, as opposed to Allen’s doubt about how money could possibly be made. Who did Jared talk to just before he made the trade? What has that person gloatingly said to Allen?

Now you can expand to that string of Jared’s strange triumphs. What, in passing, were the circumstances of those trades? If one person keeps showing up during the process, could Allen wonder if he’s behind the trades? In other words, the example proves the rule because you can define Allen in terms of the characters grouped around that one deal. Even though Wall Street usually bores me, I’m interested because I want to know how Allen fits in that menagerie.

Exercise: Review the manuscript with an eye for general statements and change them to specifics. You only want to pick the most illuminating. We don’t need a full run-down on what Casey buys at the grocery store for her family of four. In other words, don’t expand on mundane material. Just pick out the most telling points you want to make. Then group your thoughts around those nuggets.

“Writing is an exploration. You start from nothing and learn as you go.”
—E. L. Doctorow

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine

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