Thursday, August 04, 2011

Letting Readers Play a Part

We have entered the final week of the creative writing workshop I have been teaching since late June. The assignments have gotten more sophisticated with each passing week. I have one from this week that I will share here.
Emotions—love, hate, fear, loss, guilt, or grief.
Select one emotion from the list above and write a paragraph or brief scene in which a character demonstrates the emotion. You may not use the word at all in the scene, either in narration or dialogue. Remember: Readers like to play a part in the scene. Let them SEE characters come to life through what characters say and do—whether it’s body language, dialogue, or overt action.
Note the difference between…
1) Tommy would never forgive himself for what he’d done that night, years earlier. His mother’s boyfriend, Jeff, had been hitting her, and when she screamed, he woke up and committed the crime. He hadn’t done it to kill Jeff as much as he’d done it to protect his mother.
Now, he paced in his cell, following the conviction, and felt guilty. He’d killed a man, and, as a Christian, that weighed on him endlessly.
2) Tommy stared at the Bible. It lay on the narrow bunk of the place he now called home like an endless reminder. He read it dutifully, the pages thin and crisp in his fingers, the way the blade had felt cool against his palm before his life had changed years ago; before his mother’s scream had woken him from the soft dreamscape typical of any six-year-old to the harsh reality of being her protector.
He moved away from the bunk, to the window lined with iron bars and wire-meshed glass. The word protector had so many different meanings, he thought.

You will notice the plot is identical in both versions (and if you read my post last week, you know where I got my idea for this scene): a son has been incarcerated for stabbing the man who beat his mother. He is pacing, thinking.

At its most basic level, the assignment is designed to help writers "show" and not "tell." More subtly, though, the passage (hopefully) illustrates the difference between recap and backstory. (Carefully re-read the second sentence of the first version and compare it to the way the same material is conveyed in the second version.) Also, I aim to create—in the second passage—a scene in which the reader is allowed to play a part, something I believe all readers want to do.

Allowing readers to experience a scene is always a goal of mine. I don't always accomplish the goal (certainly not on many first drafts), but I work to convey the information via a cinematic presentation.

Try your hand at the exercise and, as always, let me know how it goes.

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