Writing Right with Dmitri: Getting Out of the Way of the Story

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Writing Right with Dmitri: Getting Out of the Way of the Story

Editor at work.

I've said this before, but I'm going to say it again. The problem most writers have – even professionals – is trying to stay out of the way of their own narrative. This past week, I've been reflecting on why that is. I think I had a glimmer of an inkling of an insight the other day. See if this is any help at all.

Communication tends to be personal for most people. When they talk to each other, they're trying to establish a connection. They want to be understood. They want to convey some information or message about themselves.

I approach things differently. It may be a result of years of teaching languages, but whenever I talk to anyone, I'm always thinking, 'What do they need to know? What background information is important to them? What information is useless and should be left out?' As I said, this probably comes of decades of trying to help language learners figure out how to deal with pesky tenses and such without making them flee in terror from the task of learning a new language. Which, if you think about, can be a daunting prospect. But it occurs to me that this might be a good gadget for writers to have in their toolbox: the ability to step back and let the reader's/learner's/audience's need drive the discourse.

No matter what you're writing – a short story, poem, recipe, news article, whatever – your writing can't be an information dump. And it isn't all about you, your character, your knowledge of the subject, or your personal burning need to tell whatever it is. If you want to unburden yourself, join the RC church and go to Confession. Writing is really about the reader.

Try this checklist on for size:

  • Where is the reader starting? What is their probable state of ignorance of whatever you're going to tell them?
  • What kind of background are they going to need to understand the story you're telling? Who/what/where/when? Be prepared to offer setting. No matter how familiar a Tesco's is to you, please keep in mind that there are no Tescos in most of the world. I, for instance, have never seen one. What's it like? Are the lights garish or subtle? How loud is it? How big is it?
  • What starting place is most likely to pique their interest? There's a reason why 'It was a dark and stormy night' is a meme. Dark and stormy nights are inherently interesting, no matter what comes next. Not everyone is fond of cafes. Besides, there are different kinds of cafes. Describe, please.
  • What kind of information isn't useful or interesting? In particular, what are you putting in there because you're interested in it, but they won't be? Take that part back out before your reader gets the urge to brain you with it. The brand name of the motorcycle may not say anything to someone who knows nothing about motorcycles. Try adding a descriptor like 'top-of-the-line' or 'antiquated' before those numbers.
  • What explanations do you need to offer about the motivations behind any actions in your narrative? Which can you leave up to the reader? Be sure not to try to oversell your own point of view. Also, try to describe events or processes 'without praise or blame', as Krishnamurti said. The fact that you're the writer doesn't give you a licence to dictate the reader's opinions. You're particularly fond of peaches/experimental jazz/tattoos? Be aware that your reader may not be. I have never eaten a madeleine, and now I will never be able to (gluten). It just doesn't have the resonance for me it would for Marcel Proust. Remember that, too, when contextualising in-story experience.
  • Learn to stop before it's too late. Don't go on and on and on, just because you know something. If what you're going on about isn't germane to the subject matter, and is unlikely to interest the reader, leave it for another time. Save it in your 'Outtakes' file. You have one of those, don't you? If you don't, start one today. Outtakes files can be revisited on days when you have writer's block. Or during NaJoPoMo.

A word about that last point, about stopping before you bore everyone to death. Are you writing a guide entry? Don't go into expert detail about things. Save that for the expert website. BUT….as the Prof says. But, if you know a juicy, fun, general-interest-type titbit that goes with your entry, don't leave that out! Include things that add interest. It's worth stretching to get that good side trip in, as long as it will interest whoever's reading.

In other words:

  • Don't leave readers out in the cold. Tell them what they need and want to know.
  • Remember to contextualise.
  • Don't add extraneous information that readers will not want and won't know what to do with.
  • DO include details that will add interest.

And now….

While the manufacture of rubber goods is in no sense a secret industry, the majority of buyers and users of such goods have never stepped inside of a rubber mill, and many have very crude ideas as to how the goods are made up. In ordinary garden hose, for instance, the process is as follows: The inner tubing is made of a strip of rubber fifty feet in length…
Scientific American Supplement, 13 February 1892, quoted in The Paris Review, 14 February 2014, as part of a series called 'Sleep Aid'. Click link for more and link to original article.

Ponder this prose. Then go and write in a completely different way.

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