What power outages can teach us about writing

power outage

For those of you who dwell in parts of the world other than Texas, USA, I would point out  that we are suffering drought conditions.  The drought has lasted for several years, but kicked into high gear in 2011 when we saw relentless summer heat.

And I mean relentless.  For instance in 2011 in East Texas where I make my home we had over one hundred days of one hundred degree (Fahrenheit) heat.

That’s hot.

The last two summers have seen some relief from the heat, but little in the way of rain fall.

Until Sunday anyway.

Sunday afternoon a storm blew through my neck of the woods dropping much needed rain.

And, of course, it knocked out the power for about eight hours.  No good deed goes unpunished.

The power outage came just before night fall, so it was time for wandering around in the dark, and warm, not cool, reflection.

Since I was unable to run my usual traps, a blog here, a blog there, a rumination about the next chapter of my current work in progress, I had some time to reflect on power outages themselves and what they might teach about writing.

The result of this time in isolation was a simple question, the answer to which I am still considering.

What makes powerful writing?

There are a number of ways to go at this question.  One could approach it from a writer’s perspective or a reader’s.

But the end result is the same.

Powerful writing is writing that grabs a reader and won’t let go.

As a writer, I have a tendency to think that such power inhabits the words themselves, the right phrase, the proper vocabulary for the text, the pacing, the unexpected twist.

Although I think these are all important ingredients, they still fall short of explaining why one passage goes to the heart of things while another, just as well constructed, doesn’t.

A passage of a few simple words can be dynamite. One that features a long, difficult sentence or paragraph can be explosive, too.

Maybe it has something to do with genre.  Sci-fi readers look for one style, Romance readers another, thriller readers a third.  People who like thrillers may get a charge out of seeing the next person take a bullet to the brain, while literary fiction aficionados may find such writing abhorrent, and long for a descriptive passage that sums up the inner workings of a character’s mind.

But power in writing is beyond genre, too, in some strange way.  Killing off someone for the heck of it doesn’t make a thriller powerful, describing the autumn leaves of the trees doesn’t make literary fiction effective in and of itself.

So, despite how many ways we circle around it, the heart of the matter seems always to come to this: the power of writing derives from the story. Without a story that means something on a fundamental human level all the writing techniques in the world cannot create power.  They may entertain, and perhaps that is all an author should strive for.

But somewhere there is a bridge between entertainment and a powerful story, and that bridge is a tale that grips us and will not let go.




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