Dont Lecture Your Reader

There you are, deep in your story somewhere, and you realize that there's some vital information that your readers really ought to know. So you write something like:

Charlie had no way of knowing this, but it is a well-documented fact that Type A personalities suffer a high incidence of heart attacks, and his enemy Sam was definitely a Type A personality. Sam's troubles had begun early in his life, and an examination of his early background provides an interesting example of how compulsive Type A behavior can be destructive

It's probably pretty obvious to you that this kind of lecture doesn't fit very well into contemporary fiction. There was a time, in the earliest days of the novel, and before the modern short story had begun to assume its present form, when a fiction writer could address "You, dear reader", and speak author-to-reader like a stage lecturer might speak to an audience. But fiction has become much more sophisticated since those long gone days, and readers now won't stand for lectures by the author.

Why? For at least two reasons: First, lectures by the author violate every principle of viewpoint, as just discussed in the two preceding chapters; second, such lectures completely stop the forward movement of the story, and so distract the reader from the plot, where he should be focused.

Another possible reason for avoiding author lectures in your fiction: you may find yourself deviating from the fictioneer's goal - the telling of a story- to that of a pamphleteer, which is trying to sell a belief. Fiction may convince readers about some moral, ethical or political issue, but if it does, the convincing is a by-product of the tale-telling. Fiction does not exist primarily to convince anybody of anything; it exists to tell a story, and by so doing to illuminate the human condition.

Let me make a suggestion: if you ever find yourself saying that you are writing a story to "prove" something political or whatever, shelve that story instantly, and don't work on it again until you can write it for its own sake.

Of course writers of fiction care about issues of the day. Often they have very, very strong opinions. But the published writers entertain. They don't write to prove anything. If their story happens incidentally to say something thematic, that's grand. Most stories do end up implying some idea or feeling. But the convincing-if any happens -is a by-product of the storytelling process, and cannot be its goal or the story almost certainly will come out like a very bad Sunday sermon rather than as a story.

So perhaps you have been convinced not to try to use fiction as a delivery system for your opinions. A soapbox is better. But what about those inadvertent, well-meaning technical slips that might also read like a lecture in your copy?

These are sometimes harder to catch. As we've mentioned in Chapters Twelve and Thirteen, you'll establish a viewpoint and write in such a way as to remind the reader often where that viewpoint is. It should be relatively easy for you to slip in material that you the author want in the story as long as the viewpoint character needs to think about it.

What do I mean here? Simply this: Faced with the need to work some factual material into her story, the good writer does not say, "How can I get this into the story?" Instead, she asks herself, "Why does my viewpoint character need to learn (or recall) this information?" Or, "How can I get the viewpoint character to notice what I want noticed here?" Which is quite different from sitting back as the author and shoveling in data.

The more you practice your handling of viewpoint, the easier and more like second nature it will become. The more solidly you're writing in viewpoint, the less likely it is that you'll launch into a distracting lecture by the author.

Look for lectures in your fiction. They tend to be chunks of information that you the writer stuck in there because of what you wanted in the story- rather than what the viewpoint character would be thinking or dealing with. If or when you find such obtrusive chunks of author intervention, figure out how to get them in through the viewpoint.

Ask yourself such questions as:

• What can happen in the story to make my viewpoint character remem ber this?

• What can happen to make my viewpoint character seek out and get this information in the story "now"?

• What other character might come in to tell this information to my viewpoint character-and why?

• What other source can my viewpoint character come upon to bring out this desired information? (A newspaper story, for example, or TV news bulletin. )

There are always ways you can devise to avoid dumping information into the story via the author lecture route. There are always ways... and you must always find one of them.

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