On my bookshelf I have a copy of (Not that You Asked) by Steve Almond. After chatting a bit with him, he inscribed some of his rules for writing on the flyleaf. The second rule he wrote is:
“Slow down where it hurts.”
When I read that, it blew my mind. I wrote it in huge letters on the whiteboard above my desk. The other rules he wrote I kind of already got. But when I read the second rule? Holy cannoli. Lightbulbs exploded in my brain.
If you’re crinkling up your eyebrows and asking, “So? What’s the big deal?”, then you’re either A) a better writer than I am and you don’t need to read this blog entry, or B) in denial and don’t read your scenes closely enough.
I just finished reading The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan. She followed Steve’s second rule with excruciaing results. When the story grew tense or sad, she made sure I (the reader) was right there, in her protagonist’s head. Suddenly I’m living in a post-zombie apocalypse world, struggling against the tide of Unconsecrated.
*shudder* It made for a thrilling, heartbreaking read.
This is all about that whole “show don’t tell” thing everyone talks about. How easy it is to tell the reader character so-and-so felt sad when her lover died. She cried. She mourned. She didn’t eat for three days. Blah blah. Information is there, the reader is informed. Move on.
Of course none of us would really do that, right?
You’ve seen it happen in books. So have I. We finish the book and think, “Yeah, that was pretty good.” But there’s something missing.
We — the readers — were missing.
If we follow the “slow down where it hurts” rule, we take our readers into the scene. They experience the setting, the dialogue, the action. They get muddy and dirty and bloody and crushed right along with our characters. They emote. We make them cry for joy. We break their hearts. And as a result, reading the story changes from a cerebral experience (“Yeah, it was pretty good”) to a physical experience. A blood-pumping, tear-choking, heart and soul experience. (“You have to read this book!”)
A heart and soul experience doesn’t happen when the reader is aware she is sitting on the couch in her living room, reading words on a page. It happens when she loses herself in the story. When she’s engaged. By slowing down and delving in, by poking those ouchy spots and really feeling those bruised areas, we pull her deeper into the magic.
Then — like me when reading Ryan’s Forest — she’ll finish that gut-wrenching scene and have to get up from the couch just to jump around and break the tension. She’ll finish the book, be surprised to find she’s been sitting on her couch all that time, and then proceed to walk around in a stupor looking for the Kleenex.
As a writer, that’s what I’m on about. That’s how I want to write. If you don’t or you haven’t thought about it, you should.
How about this. Why don’t we just agree right now, one writer to another. I’ll break your heart if you’ll break mine. You slow down where it hurts, and make me feel your story; and I promise to do the same. Deal?