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The Writer as Compass Rose

3264396897_71af56840f_zA few months back, I woke in the middle of the night with an epiphany: My protagonist is a cartographer! I have always loved staring at maps: imagining the poor dears who live in Boring, OR. The taut-tushed inhabitants of Superior Bottom, WV. The inquisitive folks of Why, AZ.

And I love maps because cartographers are visual storytellers. From a map I can instantly identify the story of, for example, commercial airline hubs around the world, the logistical hurdles of walking from my house to yours, the location of Seattle’s 1,692 coffee shops, the projected trends in glaciers, world religions and peanut allergies.

Below is a story that appears to tell why, based on the number of red counties, Kerry and Edwards should have waved their blue flag long before the first Tuesday in November 2004.


But Mark Newman [1]‘s map below shows each county in a size proportional to its population. From this, we see a different story: the election was far closer than the first map suggests, so close that if Kerry and Edwards had won Ohio, they would have won the White House. Oh, OH10!

map-of-electoral-votes-weird-shapesIn this map there’s no reason for Newman to include mountain ranges or bodies of water, highways or state capitals. That level of detail would only muddy the story of the 2004 election and conceal the map’s true purpose. That said, if a map doesn’t contain enough detail, the user can lose her bearings. Plus a too-empty map tells a boring story. Much like this map of Boring, Oregon. 


(The Boring Chamber of Commerce has some work to do.)

Depending on the map’s audience, cartographers will include or omit particular details, so, let’s say I am drawing a map to show where my kids will catch the downtown bus and where they will go once they arrive. I will include landmarks familiar to them (Husky Stadium, the Montlake Bridge, REI’s climbing wall) but I will not include Déjà Vu, a Gentleman’s Club. My thirteen-year-old boy does not need the distraction of a Superior Bottom.

What to Include? 

As literary cartographers, how do we know how much detail to include? That’s a piece of cake: we include only details that build scenes and jack up tension and contribute to page-turning. Details that establish tone and setting and characterization. Details that reveal a character’s agenda and desires and hurdles. Nothing less and nothing more. See how easy that is?

You’re welcome.

Yes, since it’s impossible for me to determine which details are essential throughout your entire story, let’s narrow our focus and look at the detail required on the first few pages. It is the writer’s job to be (or at least create) a compass rose. Nine out of ten dentists agree that the first sentence of a novel should make a promise to the reader. That’s always felt a little fancy, and frankly, unclear to me. It’s more helpful to me to ask, How will I orient the reader in those very first sentences? The setting doesn’t have to be familiar, but when a reader is plunked down in the middle of someone’s story, she must feel like she is in good and trustworthy hands.

Take a peek at these first lines:

From J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye:

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.

From C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe:

Once there were four children whose names were Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy. This story is about something that happened to them when they were sent away from London during the war because of the air raids.

From John Banville’s The Blue Guitar:

Call me Autolycus. Well, no, don’t. Although I am, like that unfunny clown, a picker-up of unconsidered trifles. Which is a fancy way of saying I steal things. Always did, as far back as I can remember. I may fairly claim to have been a child prodigy in the fine art of thieving. This is my shameful secret, one of my shameful secrets, of which, however, I am not as ashamed as I should be.

In all three works, the reader doesn’t know whether she’s in the hands of a reliable narrator, but she does sense she’s being guided by a reliable author.

And that’s important. In orienting the reader in the world of the story, the writer is really saying, Trust me. While there may be surprises and twists and turns, I will get you from point A to point Z. Any apparent detours are not gratuitous.

Every step along a reader’s journey ultimately must result in an arrival that feels inevitable because of what has happened in the past (both the recent and the long-ago past). Much easier said than done of course, and that’s why writing a novel isn’t for the weak, impatient or arrogant. Writing a novel is hard, hard work.

A quick tip: Our critique partners are essential when it comes to knowing whether we have included enough detail. Why?, wonder the inquisitive Arizonians. Because the stories that reside in our head are so real to us that we forget they are equally real to precisely no one else. Enlist a fresh reader to flag points where she feels lost, confused, in need of an extra detail to explain a character’s agenda, motivation and expectations.

What to Omit?

A pumpkin cannot take the form of a jack-o-lantern without some strategic omission. A sheet of white paper can’t become a snowflake unless bits of that paper are strategically scissored away. Likewise, our pretty words and sentences cannot become stories without the strategically placed holes that pique the reader’s curiosity.

Thoughtful omission of a detail makes a reader say, “Hold on … now that’s interesting …”

Or, “Wait a minute, I thought …”

Or, “Well, that’s weird. I wonder why he did that … “

And she will turn the page in an attempt to satisfy her curiosity.

What, for example, is Boo Radley’s deal in To Kill a Mockingbird? Bad guy? Good-but-misunderstood guy? If Harper Lee shared Boo’s bio in chapter one, she would have lost the opportunity to create intrigue that results from the missing details in Boo’s bio. What on earth motivates Jay Gatsby to buy a hundred shirts he will never wear? We don’t know, and we read to find out. A savvy writer is a tease, dispensing details on a need-to-know basis.

Another quick tip: Just as a skilled writer gains a reader’s trust in the first pages, the writer cannot betray that trust by concluding the book with too many unanswered questions. That’s unkind. A writer must know what detail to giveth and what to taketh away, always giveth-ing the reader what she needs precisely when she needeth it. Thufferin’ thuccotash, it is hard to write a novel!

How about this: Take a look at the first few paragraphs of your own WIP. Do you establish a character’s desire or agenda? Do you set up just enough feeling of “place” that the reader knows where she is? Is there a compelling hook that leaves us not confused but curious?

Will you share those first few sentences so the WU community can see how a few sentences (with the just-right amount of detail) can tee up a story? Let’s have a mini workshop!

Thank you for sharing, friends.

Airline hub map compliments of Flickr’s John O’Sullivan [2].

Upside down map compliments of Flicker’s Jason Tester [2].

About Sarah Callender [3]

Sarah Callender lives in Seattle with her husband, son and daughter. A crummy house-cleaner and terrible at responding to emails in a timely fashion, Sarah chooses instead to focus on her fondness for chocolate and Abe Lincoln. She is working on her third novel while her fab agent pitches the first two to publishers.