Here’s a question for you: Who’s the superior writer, Jane Austen or Ernest Hemingway? If you answered Jane Austen then you probably write more emotionally, embracing exposition and characters’ interior lives. If you answered Ernest Hemingway then you may believe that emotions on the page are cheap, gooey and artless. For you, showing rather than telling is not just good advice but an iron law.
Restraint, showing, suggestion and subtext all are valid fiction techniques that lie on the cool end of the spectrum. They’re most pronounced in the kind of literary fiction that’s called minimalist, but coolness is a quality that can prevail in any type of story. Cool writing can excite admiration but it acts to distance readers from characters. In its extreme form it reports a story at arm’s length.
Interiority, exposition, reactive passages and emotional exploration are techniques that fall on the warm end of the spectrum. They’re most noticeable in romance novels and women’s fiction but can be found in plenty of literary novels as well. Warm writing invites readers’ emotional involvement but leaves less room for readers’ imaginations. In fact, when you supply everything readers are supposed to feel they may wind up feeling little at all.
Cool writers can benefit from warming up to their characters and opening their interior lives. Warm writers can become stronger storytellers by more often showing through action, using restraint and suggesting feelings rather than slathering them on.
Which type are you, warm or cool? Whatever your answer, here are some ways to strengthen your style:
- Are you a cool stylist? What scene are you working on right now? Who’s your point of view character? Open a fresh document. For fifteen minutes let your POV character spew what they’re feeling. Is any of that useful in the scene?
- Are you a warm writer? What scene are you working on right now? Who’s the POV character? Ask that character, what is it you’re secretly aching to do right now? Go on. Go for it. Given permission, how does that character do?
- Are you a cool stylist? What’s your main character not saying right now? Have another character say it instead.
- Are you a warm writer? What’s your main character feeling in your latest interior passage? Make your main character suddenly reticent. Convey the feeling solely through action.
Whatever your natural temperature as a writer it’s good to be aware, acknowledge the limitations of your natural style and, selectively, work to compensate. When your coolness is balanced by warmth, and your warmth at times is retrained, your fiction will broaden in appeal. All readers will find a way in.
Photo courtesy Flickr’s RKHawaii