This is the first of six observations on writing craft
Here’s a sentence I find myself writing over and over when I’m marking up contest manuscripts: Writers love to investigate – it’s what makes them engaged readers!
(And now you know if your work was judged by me, because I am in love with this concept.)
I started thinking about readers as investigators during the past year or so, and I love how clearly it draws the relationship between writing and the act of reading. It gives me a way to look at my writing on a sentence level and consciously make it more dynamic.
I began noticing it when my attention would wander during dialogue that didn’t ask me to participate in any way.
This is dialogue where two people are responding exactly to what each other is saying. One asks for information, the other gives it. One makes a remark that merits a certain emotional response, that emotional response is given. All the relevant information for the interaction, scene and narrative are given in the text of the dialogue without activating the subtext.
This leaves me, the reader, with nothing to do but passively receive what I’m given.
What I really want as a reader is to be an active participant. I want to be given crumbs to collect, and follow. I want to be required to carry one piece of information with me, and arrive at some new understanding by connecting it to another piece of information. I want, basically, to play connect the dots. The story gives me enough solid points to travel through, but I draw the line.
We’re puzzle machines. If we see two disparate pieces of information we will immediately begin to find the connection between them. This is where we engage readers – by leaving the answer blank and asking them to find it.
(That’s a bit reductive. A satisfying narrative will likely eventually state the answer – it’s just way more satisfying if I, the reader, have already solved for the same.)
There’s an example I always think of that does this so beautifully, from Peter Temple’s Truth. (I’ve written about it before).
The detective, Villani, is out with his dad preparing his property for approaching bushfires. His dad mentions that one of Villani’s brothers is scared of him, to which Villani replies, ‘Bullshit.’ That appears to be the end of it. For half a day they clear the property, and Villani’s internal thoughts are on his dad and their history. That evening they’re sharing a beer and talking about other things when Villani says, ‘Why’s Gordon scared of me?’
There’s so much meaning we can read into the space between these two things. Villani’s initial response, ‘Bullshit’, seemed to be a full-stop. He disagrees, end of story. When he brings it up again out of nowhere, we realise that he’s been thinking about it this whole time. That gives us a new sense of him as a character: That he’s sensitive and defensive. That he acts first and thinks later. That he cares about what his family thinks of him. That it bothers him to think his brother’s scared of him.
Even more, the phrasing of his question, ‘Why’s Gordon scared of me?’ tells us something. If he’d said, ‘Is Gordon really scared of me?’ it would still have the flavour of dialogue that responds directly to what’s been said. However, his phrasing shows us that he’s not only been thinking about it but he’s drawn a conclusion from it: He agrees with his father.
This sense of internal thought and self-knowledge makes him feel complex and real. Like an adult. And none of that happens on the page, it all happens in my puzzle-solving brain, in the conclusions I’m drawing from the evidence presented to me.
The more I’m asked to participate in the story, the more thrilling it is.