Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Context and Randomness

Should you be able to take a random page out of your book (or any book) and have it make sense? If you can, does that mean that you're telling too much, and not showing? How much of your story should rely on what has gone before? All of it, right?

Then how do those authors do it: read a scene from the middle of their books? I know, I know...they do a little setup, and then they read. But I've tried to do it, and the setup gets longer than the actual reading! So I give up and read the very first chapter, every time.

I look at the manuscript I'm working on now, and I think: if someone read page 93, would they have any idea what's going on? I want to say that most experienced readers would. But I also hope that any reader, no matter how clueless, would get something out of it, too.

It's like a really good comic strip, like ZITS. You could never read it, then see it one day, and totally get it. But it's even better if you've been reading it all along, like I do.

Which is a very long way of getting round to saying: Hey! Did you read ZITS today?

Jeremy and his dad are playing catch.

Frame: Dad?
Frame: Yeah?
Frame: This is great. Yeah.
Frame: (Mom) You had a meaningful conversation with Jeremy?? How???
(Dad) First you have to get over the idea of using words.

That's what I mean right there! By page 93, you shouldn't have to be using so many words. The more your readers understand, the less you have to say. One small action carries with it the weight of all the pages before it.

At least, I think so. What do you think?


  1. This is exactly one of the ideas express by Ursula LeGuin in the series You Must Read This. She discussed Dr. Zhivago and said this about writing:
    Only now do I realize how much I learned about writing a novel from Pasternak — the way a writer can leap across miles and years, so long as you land in the right place; the way accuracy of detail embodies emotion; the way that leaving more out allows you to get more in.

    I LOVE the whole notion of less is more. I had a dissertation advisor who always talked about getting rid of "window dressing," and stripping the ideas down to the bare essentials.

  2. Oh, great link, Tricia. I'm an admirer of LeGuin.

  3. Since I've been reading an oldie, The Woman in White for the past month, I have to say I've grown to appreciate sparsity. That book isn't only thick, it's THICK!
    But true, sparsity is hard to come by, it takes real talent to avoid some of it's pitfalls, like losing what you're really meaning. That is, some books aren't quite thick enough.

  4. what do I think?
    I think you're brilliant and funny and quick...

  5. Good point, Heidi. Sparsity should never cause the reader to go: HUH?

  6. Oh, and thanks, Liz. Right back at ya.

  7. I love ZITS and this idea of taking a single page... wow.

    Less is more, and now I must try this...although if I *can't* get anything out of page 93, I shall be very disappointed...


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