Forget Suspense, EXPLAIN EVERY DETAIL

by Ksenia Anske in


This Friday I stared working on Draft 5 of SIREN SUICIDES, my 1st novel, and I had anxiety over not having anxiety before starting. Weird, I know, let me explain. Throughout 3 months of writing Draft 4, every morning I would battle about 30 minutes of knuckle-biting, crying, hyperventilating, and other beautiful symptoms of self-doubt. It was exhausting, debilitating, and outright ugly. I hated it, yet every single morning it would repeat. All I could do was power through it. In the meantime, several weeks ago, I started reading Haruki Murakami's 1Q84. This is my first Murakami book, and I was blown away by the fact that I was glued to reading every single little detail about his characters, including them brushing their teeth and checking their nails. WHY? Because he did the old SHOW DON'T TELL and I got to see how the characters feel and connect to them on the human level. The more I read him, the calmer I became.

After having finished Draft 4, I took a 1.5 week break, to let my Beta Readers dish in, and to distance myself from the story. I kept reading 1Q84. Then, on Friday, a miracle happened. I sat down to write, and the anxiety was gone! Not only that, I wrote for 6 hours straight without checking Twitter (if you know me, you'll know this is close to impossible). I was absolutely calm, going from paragraph to paragraph, quietly explaining every single detail. NOT doing an info dump, no, but doing it the way Murakami does. He gave me courage. The real test came in the evening, when I emerged from my room, having spent a whole 6 hour to write only 4 pages (usually I do about 7 to 12 pages a day) and was ready to show it to my boyfriend (he's my sounding board). He said, "This is good. If you keep this quality of work, it will be awesome." I will try to summarize my experience here for you, to hopefully help you get rid of this stupid anxiety thing we all have before starting. So here goes:

A confused reader will throw your book away in a fury. Kurt Vonnegut said, "Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages." For a while I couldn't understand it, but I do now. I started out my book by diving directly into action, and almost 90% of my Beta Readers complained that they had no idea who sirens were, how they looked, what their powers are, etc. I bit the bullet and realized I need to write from the perspective of a reader, slowly explaining everything along with moving the action forward. It works like this: every time I'd stumble in doubt, I knew it was time to explain. I know you know what I'm talking about. All of us have those moments when we write and pause, wondering, should I maybe dive deeper here? But the fear of losing the reader drives us forward. Guess what, it's ok to stop and explain. It doesn't mean it has to be a whole paragraph, it could be a sentence or two. The fact remains - the reader doesn't know what is in your head. So do it. Here, I'll give you an example and you tell me if it's better or not:

Draft 4 excerpt: "Nothing would irritate Daddy more than finding a fully clothed corpse of his sixteen year old daughter on the morning of her birthday, floating in his beloved antique clawfoot cast iron tub held up by four enameled sirens, ruled by the Siren of Canosa, or, in plain bathroom fixture speak, the bronze gooseneck faucet. How fitting. Ailen Bright, the deceased, to be guided into the after-life by a tap."

Draft 5 excerpt: "Nothing would irritate Papà more than finding the fully clothed corpse of his sixteen-year-old daughter on the morning of her birthday, floating in his beloved antique carved-marble tub. The ridiculous Bright’s family relic. Each of its corners is held up by one of four sirens, their mouths open in a lethal song, their hands upturned in worship to Siren of Canosa, the typical funerary adjunct. Papà’s name for the faucet. How fitting."

Do you see the difference? I threw in a small change, but already you can see the bathtub better. As I go along, I explain more about each siren, their names, Siren of Canosa, her origin, and more. I know this is ridiculous to feel, especially for a first time novelist, but I feel I'm doing the right thing. I'm calm. Awesome, right? (And yes, by popular request, I'm cutting out names Daddy and Mommy.) 

The more detail you show, the better you'll root the reader in your story. Fantasy or no fantasy, you're building a non-existing world, and it has to be convincing enough for the reader to believe in. Think of a good movie you recently saw. Think about camera close-ups in that movie. The furrowed eye brows, the fidgeting fingers, the unlaced shoes. In a good movie a good director will show you those details to make you decide for yourself what the character feels. We've all seen bad movies where a character tells you, "I feel awful!", and it takes away from your game of guessing, and you become bored. In good movies you are on the edge of your seat, guessing, discovering, nodding your head when you get it. That's the thrill of a good story. Then after the movie you share your experiences with friends, and feel exulted if they saw the same (or not if not, but that it another topic). A good book works the same way. If the author tells you how the character feels, you go, "Bullshit!". You're pissed because you want to decide for yourself. If, however, the author shows you all the little things that lead you to understand how the character feels, you're glued. You're gone. You love the book and you tell all your friends.

Don't be afraid to over-explain, you can always cut it out later. That's another lesson I learned from reading Murakami. At times he would explain in meticulous detail how a character prepares himself dinner, to the point where I wanted to go buy same ingredients and try it for myself. At other times, he would simply skip it, saying the character had dinner. I couldn't understand why. I get it now. It has to do with pacing. Whenever something emotionally important is happening inside your character, take all the time you want to explain what he or she does, show us the turmoil. We will gobble it up. But when the character makes a decision to act, move along and don't bore us with details.

I'm beginning to ramble here and somehow I don't feel I've captured enough essence of the calm I got recently when startting Draft 5. Grrr. Sorry. I'll try to distill it more in my head to share. I can't NOT to share because the feeling is so awesome. Was this helpful at all? Let me know...  

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