Making Readers Believe the Unbelievable
November 30, 2015
THERE ARE NO MAGIC WANDS in the writing business.
You’re little more than a prospector, digging it out one word at a time.
I have always liked the Stephen King quote: “Making people believe the unbelievable is no trick. It’s work.”
And so it is.
Often, it’s hard work.
There are the right words that make people laugh, cry, or scare the hell out of them.
There are the wrong words. And the wrong words make the writer cry, and they can scare the hell out of him when he sees them show up in print, in cold hard type that can never be erased and might not be forgotten.
We are sometimes guilty of using too many words. But then, as Stephen King said, “Belief and reader absorption some in the details. An overturned tricycle in the gutter of an abandoned neighborhood can stand for everything.”
Forget the details. And you’ve forgotten the reader.
Let readers see the overturned tricycle, and you have caged their attention and locked it away. Eliminate the overturned tricycle, and readers wonder why you even bothered to bring them to the abandoned neighborhood.
Details require a few more words, perhaps, but details are worth every one of them. The mistake, however, comes in writing too much about the tricycle.
The reader does not need a two-page or even a two-paragraph description of the scene. The tricycle is there.
It’s in the gutter.
The reader wonders, “What happened?”
You have him now.
Leave him haunted by the mystery of it all.
As Hunter Thompson, the Gonzo Journalist of the beat generation, wrote: “Not a wasted word. This has been a main point to my literary thinking all my life.”
It’s vital to add all the critical details.
But you don’t have to waste words to do it.
You don’t have to say: She was tall, standing about five foot, eleven in her stocking feet, and was as slender as a New York runway fashion model, with a long fur coat draped around her fragile shoulders. She stopped to light a cigarette and looked like she could use a glass of wine, probably an afternoon Chablis.
Just write: She’s a long, cool woman. Fur coat. Cigarette touching her lips. In need of a free drink, probably wine. Definitely on the prowl.
Once it’s said, you don’t have to wallow in it.
So when you’re writing the next paragraph in your novel and you’re in doubt about what to say, just remember the words of Jack Kerouac: “It ain’t whatcha write. It’s the way atcha write it.”
We deal in the illusion of words, and that’s the only trick you ever need to know.
The second book in my Ambrose Lincoln series is Conspiracy of Lies.