Last week’s post drew a lot of reactions—in these politically charged times, writers are seeing that truth is more important than ever. When we write something that pierces the heart, that makes readers cry, that alters the landscape of who they are at a fundamental level, we have written truth.
Writing Tip for Today: Here are some additional ideas for writing truth:
Don’t Tell Me, Show Me
I know, you’ve heard this a bazillion times. Show, don’t tell. But in writing truth, showing matters more than simply following the rules. If you write in a “telly” way, you are influencing the reader by inserting your own bias into a scene. Truth is better served by learning to show the character and his motives, actions and reactions. Readers can better absorb (and thus relate to) a character’s story if it enters their consciousness by way of the emotions rather than thought. For instance, if you write, “She sat down and sobbed for all she had lost,” the statement automatically is routed to the thought/analysis part of the brain. But if you write, “She sagged into a chair, still holding little Sammy’s favorite teddy. She whispered in between ragged sobs, ‘Why, God why?’ She clutched the stuffed bear even tighter.” Now we’re processing emotion, which goes to a different brain region. Emotions almost always win over simple thought, and since everyone has mourned at one time or another, readers will relate to the character in a visceral, truthful way.
Write the Truthful Stuff
I’ve had students who do a fine job of setting the scene and describing the conflict and action, yet fail to dramatize the correct, or essential parts of a story. One memoir student wrote a great story about how she took in a feral cat and slowly gentled him into a trusting house pet. The author took pains to describe meaningful emotional truths about her relationship with this kitty, only to summarize the most emotional point of all: when she was forced to put the cat down due to its illness. The one sentence about the death of her feline friend screamed for more words. Readers crave to experience the depth of feeling such an act brings out in those who love their animals. Write sparingly or even skip stuff that doesn’t contribute to the emotional tension of any scene. Example: If you act out too many details of a character going into a restaurant, ordering food, eating it, etc and then tack on, “And suddenly a man walked in and held him at knife point,” if you haven’t built up the main character’s emotional state, readers may be confused or dissatisfied with the scene. Unless you’re setting up a cliffhanger, give the most weight (and words) to the important purpose and main action of the scene. If you act out or give too many words to the wrong parts of the story and skim over the true meat of a tale, readers will be dissatisfied. The original “promise” of the story that you make clear in the opening must be kept, or the “truth” of the story will be lost.
Less is More
Powerful writing often does not spell out the conclusion or life lesson a character reaches as she works through the conflict of the scene or reaches the story’s resolution. Why? The old writing adage “Less is More” comes to mind. Readers want to interpret a character’s actions and reactions for themselves, and they are drawn to writing that allows them to feel on the deepest level. Omitting ending details that tie up a scene too neatly also removes tension and causes readers to lose interest. Let your writing provide some open-ended conclusions to help give a sense of tension and movement and to draw readers into reaching their own conclusions. Emotional truth is hard to ignore.