Paint the Picture, Not the Conclusion
Imagine you’re the commander and your platoon is under attack. You learn a private observed an enemy formation a short while before the mortars started falling. You’ll probably want to know several things, but the most urgent will be how many enemy did the private see, what equipment did they have, and what were they doing? Was it enemy, or the enemy that is attacking us?
To arrive at a clear understanding, you’ll want both the details the private remembers and the conclusions he drew. You’ll want the information delivered concisely. You may not agree with his conclusions, but they are integral to his report because they include information that contributed to his understanding. For example, the private might not know the hand signals given by the point man, but his interpretation that they were about to attack is relevant. You may not accept his deductions—as commander, your understanding of context might point you to a different belief. However, you will still value his insights because they tell you how he understood what he saw. As the commander, you want all of the information, and you’ll sort out its relevance.
Is your reader like the commander?
First, lets consider the commander’s objectives. What does he want? To more fully understand his environment so he can take action that improves the odds of defeating the enemy. The commander is looking for survival and victory. Given these motivations, how likely is the following dialogue?
Mortars are falling. The ground shakes. You—as commander—and the private are hunkered in a hole. You say, “Sergeant Storm said you observed activity outside the perimeter a short while ago. What did you see, private?”
“What sort of men?”
“They appeared to be wearing camouflage.”
“Like ours or like the enemy’s?”
“Like our enemy wears.”
“What equipment did they have?”
“They had rifles, I think.”
“Did you see any other equipment?”
“There appeared to be two men with giant tubes on their backs, and two others with sizable heavy obelisks.”
“You mean, like mortar crews?”
“What were they doing?”
“They were walking slowly, slightly bent forward.”
“They were spread out over that hillside.”
“What direction were they moving?”
Can you hear the commander growing frustrated? In fact, can you imagine a scene like that playing out at all? It’s difficult to conceive of a private responding this way unless he is the token low-IQ guy in every Hollywood war movie. Given average intelligence, and that mortars are falling and bullets zipping, he’s more likely to say, “I saw an enemy patrol, fourteen men with rifles—maybe more—including two mortar teams. They were on the hill over there, and looked like they were preparing for an assault.”
Herein lies the difference between communicating as authors versus communicating in real life. Our goal is not to communicate. It is to create the desire to understand.
The storyteller has different objectives
The storyteller wants her readers to feel compelled to turn pages.
In real life and in fiction, we provide information to others so they can arrive at conclusions. The manner we provide the information affects the other person’s ability to draw a conclusion, thus is of prime importance to a storyteller. If the author fails her primary objective of creating reader engagement, no other objective may be satisfied.
In real life we want answers. In fiction, we demand puzzles.
Although the private would not have spoken in the drawn-out manner of the dialogue above, it was nearly effective as fictional dialogue because it allows the reader to assemble information into a context and then guess about the relevance of the context. As authors, the more opportunities we create for our readers to draw their own conclusions, the more engaged they become.
Although the private never in the dialogue says the words patrol or attack, you—as a reader—had no problem making that leap, and as you assembled the information into a context, part of your engagement was based on creating and testing possible explanations that account for the facts, and eliminating the flawed ones.
We deliver information differently in story than real life.
As an example, imagine decades have passed. You’re sitting beside your grandfather, and unlike most who saw war, your grandfather is a storyteller. Instead of being his commander, you’re now his grandchild.
“So I was shaving out of my canteen cup with a broken piece of mirror, when my eye caught movement on the hill, way off.”
“What did you see, Grandpa?”
“Well it was the derntootinest thing. There were a bunch of them, walking slow, like this, kind of bent forward, had their rifles like this… spread out… all across the hill…”
“Who were they, Grandpa?”
“Well, they had on enemy uniforms…”
Obviously, Grandpa’s telling a story. The manner is piecemeal, not too unlike the dialogue with his commander from above, except that in the context of storytelling it makes sense to deliver facts slowly, allowing tension to build, and providing time for the audience to test hypotheses. Because the danger is long past, the goal is not to survive, but to keep the kids on the edge of their seats so they can feel the power of a story, and learn from it as if they were there. Grandpa gives enough information to provoke a question that furthers understanding, and judges the effectiveness of the story not by whether he is concise and clear, but by whether the kids remain deeply engaged.
Be like Grandpa.
To keep readers engaged, let them draw their own conclusions.
Clarity in fiction doesn’t come from telling readers what to think. It comes from drawing pictures so clear their conclusions eventually become inescapable. From this, a simple rule: Don’t avoid creating a clear picture by explaining the relevance of an obscure one. Meaning, if you collapse relevant action into a summary or a conclusion drawn by your protagonist, there’s a big chance you’re missing an opportunity to draw your reader into the story.
Instead, explore the text. Is there something you could show the reader to help her arrive at the conclusion on her own? What’s more powerful?
“She looked upset.”
“She threw the steak knife at me.”
What are your thoughts? Let’s unpack it more in the comments area.