Writing Right with Dmitri: Manipulative Writing (The Good Kind)
Last week, friends, I was telling you about commas. Also bad English teachers. One reason writers balk at examining their punctuation more closely is the dread of stirring up traumatic educational memories. I sympathise.
But think about it this way. Are you going to let your writing – your personal, heartfelt expression – be inhibited by the actions of a person you didn't like, who didn't like you, whom you haven't seen or heard from in decades, and who may be dead by now? I thought not.
That way, the terrorists win. As they say in my country.
One reason for paying attention to things like sentence structure, punctuation, and other trivia is that your use of them is a tool to guide the reader. You can subtly influence the reader's attention and emotions by the way you lay the story out on the page. You tell their eyes when to stop. You cause them, mentally, to race ahead breathlessly, eagerly, with anticipation, but also dread, to find out what's around that ominous, darkened corner…
Is it Aeschere's head? (See Beowulf.) Or the missing car keys?
See? You can give them permission to breathe. Or not.
You can use dialogue to manipulate readers into liking, or not liking, your characters.
Here's an example: suppose your character is talking about her parents. She's the first-person narrator. Does she keep telling you, the reader, about 'my mother' and 'my father'? That puts a distance between you and the information. It also subtly indicates to you, the reader, that the narrator is uncomfortable with being too revelatory. You might begin to question whether the story you're getting is 100% reliable. If that's what you're aiming for, run with it.
But if the character sometimes refers to 'Mother' or 'Father', you know something more about their relationship. That relationship itself is more formal. This may indicate something about their level of domestic intimacy, as well as their class background. A different set of emotions might be suggested by the use of 'Mom and Dad', or 'Mama and Daddy', etc. You can control this information by your word choices.
Taking charge of your orthographic choices gives you more power over your narrative. Of course, it's important to make sure the reader can follow you. Make anything unusual you do self-tutorial – meaning, show them where you're going with it.
He was not purring smoothly. Timewise, it was jangle.
However, it was the longest single speech they had ever heard him utter at one time, the staff, the ferrets, the loggers, the finks, the commex, but not the mineez, who usually weren't around to know, in any case. But even they scurried to find out –
Who is the Harlequin?
– Harlan Ellison, 'Repent, Harlequin, Said the Ticktockman'
This is a weird story, and hard to follow. But the writer makes it easier on the reader with his word choices, his paragraphs, and his punctuation. You can play around with these kinds of things, once you get the basics down.
Don't let the terrorists…er, the bad English teachers win.