Part of a series of articles for the new writer
We all know how to report, of course, it’s the essence of verbal communication. We tell about our day, our feelings, and our stories. Just visit Facebook and you’ll see that in action. It’s told as a report because we’re alone on stage, the star of our own one-person show. So naturally, when we begin to write fiction we tell the story as we always have.
So why is that not enough?
The setting for this example is easy. We begin with a single character standing on the shoulder of a blacktop road next to a field of soy plants. The character’s hands rest on a fencepost. Before them the ground is level, but it slopes away in the distance into a shallow valley a few miles wide and extending an unknown distance in either direction from the vantage point. In the distance, close to the far side of a narrow river, the shoulders of a mountain thrust upward, forming the backdrop of a truly magnificent view. As far as the eye can see there’s farmland, interspersed with wooded areas, with the tracery of roads and the border-lines of fields dividing the view into visual pixels.
Above, the afternoon light throws a cloudy sky into relief, much of it heavy with the possibility of rain. The air, too, carries a hint of moisture on the gentle breeze, though the roadway behind is dry.
Got all that? It’s the scene. Any character placed in that scene sees precisely the same thing. So, if you tell me, “small watercourses could be seen here and there in the valley,” it’s a report of what the writer visualizes, and what even people driving by can see. So who cares? It’s static. It’s unrelated to the character and what the character is doing. Unless I’m reading the work in search of a beautiful view, it’s a waste of time telling me about it. It’s a greater waste if the description is in prosaic terms.
But every new writer does exactly that. They tell what there is to be seen, not what the character is noticing.
Let’s look at something very different. We’ll look at the scene as several different characters see it by plugging them into the setting I detailed, above and talking about what they notice, not what can be seen.
The starving farmer:
This man hasn’t seen rain for over a month. The valley is there for him, yes, and it’s just as beautiful as it always has been, but he sees it every day of his life, and it’s commonplace—unnoticed. He’s looking at the plants in the field in front of him and noticing the way the leaves are drooping, moisture starved and close to death. He’s noticing the clouds, poised so teasingly overhead. He frowns at the haze showing on the mountain where the breeze strikes the slope and sweeps upwards, condensing the moisture and causing it to rain on the flanks of that mountain, to run into the river and be carried away. He’s thinking of his family, and of how he’s not going to get through the winter if the crop fails. He looks, and he thinks, and everything he does is underlined by the prayer that fills his being: Please… Dear God, please send me rain.
This person is a visitor from another country, where drought hasn’t struck. She’s an artist, here to paint, and she sees the view through the eyes of an artist. She views the roiling clouds in terms of their contrast to the serene scene on the ground. She sees the drooping plants but understands their significance not at all. She sees the rain on the mountain and feels pleasure at the way it completes the picture, and smiles over the fact that it’s not where she is, ruining her perfect moment.
The wet farmer:
This lady is sullen. She stares at the rain clouds and hates every one of them. In the fine detail of her world the plants droop not with dehydration, but from drowning roots, as the result of a saturated summer and the probability of more rain conspire to push her to the brink. Her thoughts aren’t on beauty, but on giving in and accepting a man’s offer of marriage—he of the stinking breath and awkward hands. To her, rain and tears are inexorably intertwined. And everything she looks at reminds her of the decision she must make before nightfall. Beauty? There is no beauty there for her.
This man stands by the road, surrounded by glory, but he notices it not at all for itself. The fields represent life, and remind him of his lover, and the children they will have together. The vista, with its airy beauty, makes him reflect on the comfort he’s found with her. The mountains, reaching upward, remind him of her as she climaxed under his ministrations. He laughs as his eyes trace the series of peaks and his mind relives her gasps and clutchings. His focus is the coming evening.
The geologist. The bounty hunter. The land developer… All see the same image, and all take away only what they, uniquely, take away. And in doing so—in seeing something we wouldn’t see because our perceptions are shaped by our own needs—they take our interest.
Each of us is unique. Each of us perceives the world in a way that’s shaped by our own needs and experiences. Each of us have a different story.
Tell the story, not its setting.
These articles are not presented with a, “Do this and you’ll be a published author,” attitude. Anyone who tells you they can provide success via a few words on a blog page is scamming you. Instead, they’re one writer’s view of the ideas put forth by the writing teachers I admire and respect. I’ve done the series as part of what’s sometimes called a Benjamin Franklin debt. If some of what I say seems to make sense, I urge you to seek the teachers themselves, people like Dwight Swain, Debra Dixon, and a host of others, and read their advice directly.