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Preserving the Act of Discovery

[1]Day after day, the thing that keeps me coming back to the blank page is the chance that in the process of filling that page with words, I just might discover something new.  I might learn something I didn’t know about my characters or the world they inhabit, or maybe I’ll even uncover a hidden truth about me.  Caught up in the thrill of one of these “eureka” moments, I often want to climb atop my literary rooftop and shout my epiphany to the world.  But I’m learning that sometimes, for the sake of the reader, I need to keep my discoveries to myself.

For example: I set a scene in my WIP in a favorite park that in springtime is graced with an abundance of a certain fragrant, flowering tree.  I framed my characters’ actions with the trees’ blossoming branches and petals that drifted away on soft breezes.  Only later did I recall that in real life, those trees had been planted at that very location to symbolize friendship.  Aha!  My book is about a friendship!  I was so blown away by this coincidence that I began to sow those trees everywhere in my WIP.  My manuscript reeked of them.  Yikes; time to prune. 

My inclination to broadcast my discoveries also showed up in the form of a character trait.  As it turns out, one of my main characters is very protective of the people he loves.  He’s so protective, in fact, that he frequently makes decisions he views to be in their best interests without consulting them.  Naturally his decisions can cause considerable problems as their consequences unfold. 

I didn’t plan this trait in my character.  He simply acted in this manner time after time as I wrote, until I noticed the pattern.  When I realized what he was doing, I was pleased.  The overprotectiveness is a good trait: it flows naturally from this character’s backstory, it contributes to his motivation and it creates plenty of conflict.  I knew it was helping me to create a three-dimensional, relatable character.

But almost as soon as I identified this trait, another of my characters hurried to point it out to him: “You’re always making decisions for other people.  Why do you have to be so overprotective?”

Time to hit the DELETE key.

My character’s trait emerged naturally, through showing, and that’s how it should be.  (Yes, it’s the old “show, don’t tell.”)  A reader might think explicitly about his overprotectiveness, or she might never consciously put that thought into words.  Either way, she doesn’t need me to spell it out for her via another character.

Chris Abouzeid recently wrote at Beyond the Margins about the writer as programmer “of the human mind and heart[,]” [2] noting that “most of the time, good writers do get what they expect.” 

When they describe the horror of mustard gas seeping through a soldier’s mask and burning holes into his lungs, nine out of ten readers—sitting in the comfort of their own homes—will hold their breath. And a well-crafted sex scene, delivered with the right mix of passion and mystery (and maybe a dash of anatomy), will get readers hot and bothered every time—even though there is nothing more exciting than ink and paper in front of them.

Chris is right, of course.  If we do our jobs well, our words transport readers to worlds of our creation, permitting readers to feel what our characters feel, know what they know and even believe, if only briefly, that they have actually lived bits of lives that existed in times and places outside of their own temporal and spatial reality. 

But to create this illusion in its fullest effect, we need to get out of our readers’ way a little, too.  In my examples above, a reader may never put together the pieces of the puzzle to think consciously that my character is overprotective or to make the specific connection between the tree and the theme of friendship, but that’s all right.  That reader may find something else in the details of my characters’ story that speaks to him more, something I never imagined because I’ve never lived the reader’s life. 

Through my words I need to evoke certain experiences, thoughts and feelings, to provide arrows and road maps to the main points I want to make.  If a reader doesn’t feel sympathy with a character who has just lost a loved one in a fire, then I’ve failed to do my job.  If my theme is friendship and no one gets that: again, I’ve gone off-track. 

But I have to be careful not to club readers over the head.  Because if I do, then first of all, they’re going to get a headache and put down my book.  Second, if by some miracle they do keep reading, they’re going to become impatient because I will have left no room for them to think for themselves and blend their interpretations with mine.  Reading is all about discovery, and I’d like to think that my WIP might someday become a book that leads readers to make discoveries of their own.

(Image courtesy Deviant Art’s “ivory-rose.”)

About Tracy Hahn-Burkett [3]

Tracy Hahn-Burkett has written everything from speeches for a U.S. senator to bus notes for her eighth-grade son. A former congressional staffer, U.S. Department of Justice lawyer and public policy advocate for civil rights, civil liberties and public education, Tracy traded suits for blue jeans and fleece when she moved to New Hampshire with her husband and two children. She writes the adoption and parenting blog, UnchartedParent, and has published dozens of essays, articles and reviews. Tracy is currently revising her first novel. Her website is TracyHahnBurkett.com [4].