March 14, 2012

Relying on Your Reader

As I’m working on a short story and also thinking about yesterday’s post, I’m struck by how much the reader is responsible for making the meaning in a story. 

When constructing a story, you want every detail to matter, to contribute to the whole.  That’s why “he was five foot ten inches with hazel eyes” rarely adds to a narrative.  It’s not meaningful.  Now, if you say, “he was six foot two in his stocking feet with piercing eyes” (a la Louis L’Amour) that means something.  It means he was tall and observant, and it says a lot about where he comes from and the narrator’s voice, even if it’s become cliché.

But sometimes we make the details too closely matched while at the same time too expected.  In other words, we make them clichés.  I’m basing this current story I’m working on partly on real video footage, and I’m here to tell you the actual actions within the video are much more telling and wonderful than the received images of grief I could concoct, though I hope I would push past that to more fully imagine things.

So I guess I’m saying we should put more emphasis on the specificity and uniqueness (which shouldn’t be a word) and word choice of the detail and less on its aptness ~ because if it is too apt, it is expected.  And I’m realizing that it’s the reader who makes the connection.  Disparate details amount to something in the reader's mind. Sure, we try to craft the resulting reaction, but if we’re in there trying to lead the reader by the nose, he’ll resent it.  Let the lovely details of the world speak for themselves.

PS Pix stopped by in the comment section and pointed out this great video by Kurt Vonnegut. Thank you!!


Pix said...

I also noticed this the other day. 'Tis good advice :))

Tamara said...

What a fabulous video!! Thank you, Pix! Adding it to the post...

I think I'll watch that every day for the next month.

~ Tamara