I am working on a scene in which two characters, a young man and a young woman, begin dancing. They are at a wedding; the young man is old friends with the groom. The young woman is dating another of the young man’s friends.
The drama, if there’s any, can be found in the young man’s reluctance to dance. He was the one who asked the young woman, but when it comes time to actually dance, he fears looking like a fool.
She moves effortlessly. She takes his hands and guides him. She shared with him earlier in that evening that she has been passed over for a teaching position she really hoped to get. Her disappointment clearly shades her mood; yet while they dance, the young man notices how attractive she can be when she lets worry go and finds herself in the moment.
I know a few more things about this couple. I know, for instance, they will wind up together a little later in the evening. It won’t go well; she’ll leave to find her boyfriend and the young man will wonder whether he ought to drive back to his apartment and kill the next few days drinking.
In three days, he’ll board a plane for the next in a long line of five-day stints at a job he took without thinking, and which is slowly bringing out the worst in him.
In three days, she’ll be filling out applications for retail sales jobs, management jobs, making herself sick thinking she’s giving up.
These characters have lived in this unfinished draft going on two years now. Do their stories still matter to me? Yes; but while writing this scene I feel I’ve lost the sense of urgency to find out why.
I wonder if I struggle with this scene (it’s taken me the better part of a month to track my characters this far) because I know where these two will end up. Maybe the mystery is gone; maybe the truism “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader” applies to curiosity also.
This much I know is true: the story has lived such a long time inside my head that parts of it may have calcified while other parts remain malleable. These more fluid sections and scenes and bits of backstory may require greater fluidity overall.
I’ll spare you the full list of inconsistencies I’ve found in character and situation; let me just say that the dance floor scene has taken so long for me to write in part because certain bits of dialogue had to be weighed against what these characters said and did earlier in the book.
As I continue grinding my way through, I also realize I don’t yet know for sure whether I’ve given readers good reasons to care about these characters.
I had some help coming to this realization. I recently encountered Chrissy Kolaya’s “How connecting with early readers through my ‘Reader Feedback and Serialization Project’ helped me improve and publish my first novel.” In this guest post, Kolaya shares her approach for gathering early readerly support for her second novel. While her method and the results are well worth reading about, studying, even modeling, what struck me most were her reasons for seeking feedback from readers:
I work in academia, and because we spend so much time talking to and working with specialists, we sometimes find it challenging to translate our work to a general audience. (Incidentally, this communication challenge also ends up being one of the central themes of the book.) I wanted to make sure that didn’t happen here. As a writer, I care about writing books that challenge readers, but that also invite them in and engage them.
Kolaya shares my yearning to communicate with and engage readers. She also suggests that writing should be welcoming. Readers should not only be challenged, but invited into a story, encouraged to consider the questions raised its characters and events.
My wife helped me a few years ago do as Kolaya did. I was surprised how willing friends and family member were to serve as readers of my work, and by how much I learned about them through their comments — hopefully as much as they learned about me through the writing.
I also learned a great deal about my writing strengths and weaknesses.
One story proved difficult for some of my readers to connect with. The writing was clear, the descriptions engaging. But the characters and the central thrust of the story felt inorganic and predetermined.
I hadn’t realized, until two readers pointed out how unlikeable these characters were, that I was breaking one of the fundamental rules of storytelling: don’t judge. I hadn’t used craft to reveal gradually my characters; I had judged them, and had written the story to reflect those judgments.
I need to relearn that lesson. The second draft of the novel especially will depend on my ability to see whether readers can engage with the story I’m trying to tell.
While working on the final scenes, I need to keep in mind some of the principles Kolaya suggests should guide writers:
- What questions, about character motivation, insight, theme, etc., does this scene allow me to answer?
- Have I kept my attention on detail, gesture, action, rendering scenes clearly so as to challenge readers the right way?
- Have I kept commentary to the barest minimum?
I have to be careful not to think too much of audience, though. I’m still writing “with the door closed” (to borrow Stephen King’s metaphor describing how a writer should approach the task of getting down a first draft). I’m essentially still writing for myself, telling myself the story. This doesn’t mean the above questions are unnecessary; they simply address my own tastes, concerns, and needs as a reader. What do I want from the rest of the story? What elements are yet essential to seeing the story achieve its fullest potential?
I need to find ways to keep what I think I understand about these characters from clotting the draft. I need, for instance, to find ways to take the scene I describe above and allow some of its messier elements to drive the writing. What if the young man suddenly feels himself crossing the line with his buddy’s girlfriend? How might his anxieties impact her feelings? Questions like these may help me better understand other parts of the draft — why, for instance, both characters seem to cling so desperately to difficult jobs and relationships.
When I finish the draft, I can ask readers to help me decide if I’ve treated them as equals, participants, co-creators of a fiction dream in which two characters share a meaningful evening together. I don’t want them feeling locked out of the story. I want instead for them to feel as if I’ve invited them to be my dance partner, because without them, I’m dancing alone to the music inside my head.
Image Credit: Andreas Rønningen via Unsplash.