Wednesday, May 13, 2009


withhold--a narrative strategy for delaying the presentation of vital dramatic information; a dramatic device for creating tension if not outright suspense in a story by means of causing the reader to wonder about a detail, event, or meaning.

Readers are natural matchmakers; they will speculate on the potential embers of romantic attraction bursting into flames when characters exchange glances or respond edgily to one another, seeing sexual tension everywhere, whether intended by the writer or not. Readers will wonder and make outrageous assumptions. Let them. They will suspect the suspects in a mystery for reasons other than those intended by the writer. Let them.

Writers who read their work in classes or writers' groups will frequently be enjoined to bring the story to a screeching halt by injecting physical descriptions and details of attitudes and beliefs. This is done in the spirit of wanting to be helpful, in pointing out to the writer the need for details that humanize the characters. Trouble is, such details are irrelevant and actual albatrosses until the reader is made curious about them in the first place. The proof of the reading resides in the curiosity itching away at these literal minds who ask for details. Most habitual readers can and will continue reading a story without knowing what color a character's eyes are or what she is wearing. Particularly if the character is involved in some activity such as arguing or asserting her independence or difference of opinion.

Some accomplished writers never describe characters, wanting readers to supply their own vision; their use of description and/or explanation is limited, conveyed by indirection rather than description. Prolific writers often limit their descriptions of characters and of settings to elements that reveal qualities by implication. Denise Mina, for instance, is at greater pains to describe her protagonist Paddy Meehan's attempts at dietary precautions than she is to provide actual references to body configuration, and as a result, when Paddy overindulges, the reader feels a sympathy for her interior climate.

Nor are detailed reasons for a character's behavior likely to impart greater gravity or conviction to a that character's behavior. Often such descriptions are the first things that can be removed in the revision process.

Hint: Make them want it, which they will if it is not presented too soon.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I never know how to respond when someone reads my work and then tells me I should put in a character's hair color or something.

Recently I came across this line--have more than you show. Always good advice.