Framing the Issue

In our private thoughts we can dream up provocative ideas about our own lives that, later on, seem ideally suited for inserting in a novel. I’ll use one as a running example throughout this post. “Upon meeting new people, I seem to engender a common response. The person reacts like: I may be a loser, but I’m not so low that I need you as a friend.”

On the face of it, that thought seems powerful. Man, what a terrible thing to think about yourself. When inserted in a novel, put down in black and white, however, the thought may start to feel silly, especially after a few rounds of review. It’s so serious, so stark. You poor little worm, you. Rather than throwing it out, though, you may want to consider the context in which it appears.

The first option is to have the character make a joke out of it. He tells someone, “Sometimes, you know what I think? Upon meeting . . .” Now you’ve taken off the ponderous weight. The reader isn’t forced to feel solemn. Yet you’re still putting the character’s opinion out there. People can read between the lines. If you think that framing is too light, have the other character take it seriously. “Oh, Hal, you’re not that bad . . .”

A second possibility is attaching the notion to a character other than the one narrating the scene. That way the onus isn’t placed on the character that the reader is following—i.e., emotionally involved with. It’s some other poor sap. You can even reveal something about your main character by the way she reacts to the pronouncement. “You know, Hallie, I’m really getting sick of  . . .” 

If you feel you have the writing chops, a third option is to double-down. You surround that statement with a number of other self-deprecating thoughts the character has. When a stark idea is couched within fictional “facts,” such as the character narrating the events that led to being dumped by the love of his life, you’ve greased the skids in that direction. Now the thought is a final thump! That guy has got it bad. The sentiment rings true because you took the care to support it.

Exercise: As with so many other facets of writing, you should experiment with your approach. Try all three of the options and see which one strikes you as the most genuine. By way of analogy, think of the statement as a topic sentence in a paragraph (although you may run longer than that). How are you going to build the supplemental sentences around the nugget you really want? 

“A serious writer is not to be confounded with a solemn writer. A serious writer may be a hawk or a buzzard or even a popinjay, but a solemn writer is always a bloody owl.” 
—Ernest Hemingway

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


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