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“Dramatize it! Dramatize it!”

January 18th, 2012

In my previous post I promised to spend time responding to questions submitted during my most recent presentation on “The Art of Revision” at Seton Hill University. If you want to know more about the backstory, please take a look at that previous post, otherwise . . . read on!

The next question in my stack is one that we did not get to during the residency:

How do you go about writing a story in which the main character is unaware of a major plot point that the reader needs to know about?

This need to know issue can be tricky, for although writers should fully understand the forces at work on their characters and the worlds they inhabit, the best stories are often those that dramatize compelling action without explaining why they happen.

By dramatizing, the writer is better able to more accurately evoke the mysteries and ambiguities of life.  Think about it? Aren’t the most interesting experiences the ones we figure out for ourselves, where we learn about people by observing their behavior, where we develop a sense of a place by moving through it – exploring and interacting? We should expect no less from our fiction.

Hemingway said it best in his essay “The Art of the Short Story”:

“If you leave out important things or events that you know about, the story is strengthened. If you leave or skip something because you do not know it, the story will be worthless.”

Of course, Hemingway didn’t write science fiction. He didn’t build worlds, but he nevertheless had a knack for making the landscapes of Europe and Africa accessible to American readers who had never been. He did so by dramatizing the interactions of interesting characters within those landscapes, conveying a sense of how things work by showing them at work. Science fiction writers do this all the time, using a technique called in-clueing (which I believe was coined by Jo Walton).

The trick, then, is not to explain . . . but to not explain.

Work out the backstory thoroughly for yourself, then dramatize it . . . and trust the reader to get it.

Do you agree? Have anything to add? What to ask a follow-up question?

The comment box is open.