Writing Right with Dmitri: Inviting Reader Sympathy

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Tip of the Week: They're=they are.

Their=Belongs to them.

This one's really a no-brainer if you aren't a major world leader.

Writing Right with Dmitri: Inviting Reader Sympathy

Editor at work.

While writing up the Sojourner Truth speech, I briefly considered using an excerpt from her 'as told to' biography by Olive Gilbert. I rejected this idea immediately: not because Sojourner Truth's story isn't compelling. It will tear your heart out. The problem is, it tore Olive Gilbert's heart out. She's so busy doing all the emoting for us, we don't have a chance to experience the story for ourselves. Take a look:

At the blowing of the horn for dinner, he [Sojourner Truth's father] groped his way into his cellar, anticipating his humble, but warm and nourishing meal; when, lo, instead of being cheered by the sight and odor of fresh-baked bread and the savory apples, his cellar seemed more cheerless than usual, and at first neither sight nor sound met eye or ear. But, on groping his way through the room, his staff, which he used as a pioneer to go before, and warn him of danger, seemed to be impeded in its progress, and a low, gurgling, choking sound proceeded from the object before him, giving him the first intimation of the truth as it was, that
Mau-Mau Bett, his bosom companion, the only remaining member of his large family, had fallen in a fit of the palsy, and lay helpless and senseless on the earth! Who among us, located in pleasant homes, surrounded with every comfort, and so many kind and sympathizing friends, can picture to ourselves the dark and desolate state of poor old James – penniless, weak, lame, and nearly blind, as he was at the moment he found his companion was removed from him, and he was left alone in the world, with no one to aid, comfort, or console him? for she never revived again, and lived only a few hours after being discovered senseless by her poor bereaved James.

Narrative of Sojourner Truth, a Bondswoman of Old Time, 1875, p20.

This is just awful.

Ms Gilbert is so busy signalling her sympathy to us, and telling us that we probably couldn't understand how terrible 'poor old James' felt when he came home to find out his wife had a fatal stroke, that we can hardly find the story. Cut this out, people.

'Oh, sure,' you say. 'We get it. But we never do this. We don't use 'sadly' in our stories, just to make sure everybody knows how torn up we are about events. Well, hardly ever.' Good, but what should we be doing instead, writers?

We should be helping people discover those feelings for themselves. That's harder. It takes work. Let's watch a master at work.

– A great old woman, said Sean, trying to be bright after the examination was over. Had a hard life, but can stand anything. She'll be all right in a few days; and as the doctor remained silent, added, think so, sir?

– She's a very old woman, the doctor remarked, very old; and tired, too. The pulse is weak; very weak; and he stood, staring at the still figure on the sofa – waiting for the fee, Sean thought bitterly.

– I can't give you the five shillings just now, he said aloud, flushing crimson, for a cheque I got hasn't been cashed yet.

– Cheque? The doctor was startled. What cheque would you have? and he set his soft hat firmly on his head, looking searingly into Sean's face.

– One I got for writing a book, said Sean; it's to be published soon.

– A book? Indeed? Well, the next time you haven't a fee handy, get the Dispensary doctor, please; that's what he's for – to attend to you people.

Sean O'Casey, Inisfallen, Fare Thee Well

Sean O'Casey's story was almost exactly like James'. O'Casey had finally been paid for something he'd written. (He was forty.) But he couldn't get anybody in Dublin to cash his cheque. He ran from pillar to post trying to get an advance on that £15 cheque so that he could buy his mother food and comforts. He came home to find her dying. This is how he told it, in third person. He didn't emote all over us. He let our minds do the emoting. Yes, back into the time machine to punch that doctor on the nose.

How do you let the readers do the feeling?

  • Set the scene, but don't tell them what to think about it.
  • If something is obviously wrong, don't rush to make sure everybody knows that you know it's wrong. Just explain what happened.
  • Don't push emotions onto the people in your story, whether real or imagined. Especially don't do that if they're real. 'Elvis was shocked to find out about his record's success.' Don't say that. Say the record was a big success. If his shock is part of your story, use a quote that says something new.
  • Try to make scenes vivid. Use details to nudge the reader toward the response you're aiming for. If you want them to understand that the person in the story was brave, place emphasis on the details that show danger. If you want them to see two people falling in love, paint a romantic picture. Don't spell it out. Let the reader do the work.

Reading emotional 19th-century stories always makes me wonder if the writers thought nobody but themselves had ever experienced these emotions before. What they do is worse than virtue-signalling, which is just trying to make people recognise your moral superiority. It's trying to convince the reader that you are more sensitive than they are. It will backfire: they will get mad at you. And you will deserve it. Write so that they don't know you're there. Sean O'Casey did, and it was his mother.

Writing Right with Dmitri Archive

Dmitri Gheorgheni

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