Writing Without a Net

Yesterday, I was helping my wife put the finishing touches on her latest children’s book. The story is in great shape, but the critical revelation scene at the end of the book wasn’t flowing. Everything that needed to happen happened and quite quickly, but the scene dragged.

So we focused our efforts. The problem, we determined, wasn’t the entire scene, but one paragraph, the paragraph where the protagonist’s critical change actually occurs.  We read it aloud several times but still couldn’t pinpoint the problem. Then my wife zeroed in further, not just on the troublesome paragraph but on a troublesome sentence—and then, not even on a sentence but on a single clause.

“Wait,” she said. “I’m telling them she feels relief.  I’m not showing it.”

It was true. In the critical, pivotal moment of the book, at that turning point toward which the entire story was driving, she slipped and told the reader the protagonist had changed instead of showing it. And what was most poignant was that all the showing she needed was already in that very paragraph, only in the wrong place. All she needed to do was pull out that one telling dependent clause, flip a couple sentences, and the paragraph, the scene, and, in the end, the entire book, worked.

One of the hardest disciplines to master as a writer is to trust that what we wanted to say has been said. Books are filled with paragraphs and pages telling the reader what the writer has already shown them. To trust we must give up the net of telling and cross the wire without fear. We tell because if we say, “The hero felt relief,” we know for sure his relief is on the page because we just put it there.  Now there can be no doubt.

No matter what we are doing, all our efforts to replace trust with certainty in this way invariably backfires. You cannot escape the inevitable truth that a reader always makes up his or her own mind about whatever you have written. To embrace this truth is to embrace the true nature of the relationship between audience and artist. Allow them their natural role, which is to finish in their imagination the story you began.

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