AngiePen (angiepen) wrote,

Build-Up and Reveal

Bernita Harris posted about cliches of characterization and specifically the hand-wringing dilemma. It's a great post and I agree with her, but this is the part which particularly struck me:

The character paces about, whispers aloud, sits on something convenient and slumps in despair. Female character sometimes throw something , then fling themselves down and sob.

We are supposed to experience sympathy, tension, until the writer reveals the terribly difficult choices facing the Muttering Mannequins.

We don't.

I think the main problem with this kind of scene is the fact that the writer is trying to manipulate our emotions and failing. Of course, the whole point of writing fiction is to manipulate the reader's emotions but it has to work. A writer who uses this sort of manipulative device is assuming that the readers will be bouncing in their seats in an agony of curiosity to know just what horrible problem is confronting the character.

But if we don't already know and empathize with the character then we're probably not going to have all that much patience for this sort of scene. All right, fine, show me that the character is in agony over something but don't make me wait too long to find out what it is. If this is the opening to the story and I don't know the character then I have no sympathy for him or her and absolutely no investment in whatever problems they might be having. No matter how well written the scene is at the line level, it's going to lose me if it runs on for too long. The fretting and worrying actions and descriptions can be absolutely new and original, guaranteed free from cliches and off-the-shelf phrasing, but if I don't know this character and don't care about him then I'm going to get bored and impatient and eventually go looking for something more interesting to read.

And let's suppose this isn't the first scene in the book. Suppose I do know the character and do care about her and feel some worry about this mystery problem of hers. That still doesn't mean that a long, drawn-out dilemma scene is a good idea because it raises expectations the writer might not be able to fulfill. The longer a scene of vague agonizing is, the more startling and fascinating and gripping the problem had better be when it's finally revealed. A writer who sees the extended agonizing over the mystery problem as a good tension raiser in and of itself might not realize that she's setting herself up to fail when the big reveal evokes only a "Yeah, so?" or an "All that fussing and angsting over that??" response from the reader.

It's like the writer has said, "I have a secret surprise! Want to know what it is? Really? I don't think you want to quite enough yet! I'll stretch this out and tease you a bit more, I'll make you wonder a little longer, I'll pretend I'm about to show you what it is and then go back to teasing for a while, and only when you're in a fever of agony yourself will I reveal it!"

Then they yank back the curtain and go "Tah-DAH!" and we see... a donut. It might be a really yummy donut, maybe even our favorite kind, but even the best donut in the world doesn't justify that long, teasing build-up. No donut ever could. And while the writer is beaming over her own cleverness in having kept her audience in suspense for that long, the audience is eyerolling and wandering away. Because even the best donut only warrants a "Surprise! Here, have a donut!" level of build-up.

The pay-off always has to justify the build-up. Otherwise the readers are going to feel like the promised surprise turned into a practical joke at their expense.
Tags: writing

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