Writers, Trust Your Readers

Hello, lovely ladies and classy gents!

Today, I want to dive into an issue which has been irking me for quite some time. The idea of trusting the audience is something that I once thought to be simple. As a young lad, my father and I went to the movies nearly every weekend. What I wanted was simple: I wanted for the director of whatever movie I was seeing to trust the audience. I did not want to be spoon fed, I wanted to figure things out for myself. I wanted to think. This is one of the reasons why Inception struck me so profoundly that I deemed it my favorite movie upon leaving the theater. It remains my favorite to this day even after over 20 viewings across the years (If you think DiCaprio was awake at the end, you are sorely mistaken and we can talk about that in the comments. Don’t worry, I’m a professional. It’ll be okay).

giphy

Things have changed a bit for me. Now I’m in the creator’s position, except in my case, I’m writing a novel. The rules are different. When one commandeers a film, visual detail is obligatory. Shots must be framed and filled to portray moods and focus attentions. Yet when one wields a pen and tackles a blank page, the circumstances differ. Detail is no longer obligatory. The author must provide some detail, of course, enough to paint a living picture and a fluid understanding in the reader’s mind, but how much is too much? How little is not enough? This is what I’m wrestling with through the lens of trusting the reader. The issue is one of space: How much space should the author leave open for the reader to

1) create images?

2) unravel plots?

Let’s address the first point: When it comes to creating an image of a setting populated by characters, how much space should the author leave open for the reader to fill in himself/herself?

I have found that my writing is laden with an abundance of visual and sensory detail. (If you would like read a brief excerpt from my novel-in-the-works, you are welcome to do so here). Like any writer, I have a strong idea of what is populating my page at any given moment, and so I feel that, in order to convey the world to the reader, I have to write descriptively. Other writers prefer to write more concisely, offering key descriptions and leaving it at that. In many cases when I read, regardless of what the author describes a character as looking like, I tend to imagine whatever I want. So are my heavy descriptions futile? Perhaps for some readers. Nonetheless, I’m still seeking balance.

locke_backgammon

In some cases, I will set a scene using extensive detail. In other cases, perhaps when the dialogue is meant to be quick or there is sudden action taking place, I’ll forego the details and cut to the chase. I figure this provides a cushion to the reader to piece together what is happening for himself/herself while it also serves as a pacing technique. I think Robert Jordan showcases the technique of forgoing detail expertly. Typically, Jordan describes everything in his world with hyperfocused detail. The exception? Swordfighting. Instead of describing movements of those engaged in combat, he attributes names to the moves exercised by blade-wielders, names like ‘Swan Rises Over the Lake’ and ‘Horse Trots Through the Field.’ Descriptions in that vein brilliantly entrust the writing to readers’ imaginations.

Ultimately, I want to approach trusting the reader with filling in visual blanks as follows: The first time I introduce a setting or character, I won’t restrain myself from describing what I feel needs to be described. Over time, the necessity of such description about the same characters/settings will become unnecessary. I will trust the readers, at the point, to understand the desert as it is portrayed in my story, as it is a frequent setting. I will trust the readers to understand the intonation of my characters’ speech and their novel expressions after a time. I will still describe the settings and expressions, but I will describe them for the sake of indicating them rather than re-explaining them.

Trust applies perhaps more readily to the story element of plot (point 2). My younger self demands that I not spoon-feed the plot to my readers-to-be, and I certainly don’t want to let the kid down. Linear, predictable plots are no fun, but writing Inception is no easy task. How can an author trust the reader to bear not knowing something? How can an author handle withholding information from the reader and trust that he or she won’t shut the book and stop reading? I think the answer is simple: give your reader bread crumbs with some peppered olive oil! So long as your reader is given morsels of delicious bread at every turn, they will stick around for the main course and leave full and happy. But if you throw a steak at your reader soon as they sit down and rush them out the door soon as they finish, they won’t be charmed, they’ll be annoyed and frankly unimpressed.

lost1

Much the same, the bread will help you to make your dramatic reveals all the more impactful. “Oh, that was hinted at in Chapter 2! And in Chapter 5!” I learned this lesson after failing to leave bread for the reader.

Many months ago, I sent a very early draft of my novel-in-the-works’ first chapter to my cousin Alex Azar, author of Nightmare Noir. He gave me the following criticism about the passage below:

___

“This carpet, where did you get it?” the stranger demanded. His silver-green eyes frantically tore across every inch of the carpet’s ornate design. The question wasn’t particularly directed to either of the couple, and so both hesitated, unable to comprehend why the man could possibly be interested in a soiled rug.

Lynn-Holly shook her head profusely as if to rid herself of her confusion. “A client gave it to me. It was a gift.”

What does she do that she has a client? If this does take place in the 1800’s she wouldn’t really have a job unless she’s a hooker and her client is a john. – Alex Azar

___

I got a good laugh out of his criticism, but after I laughed, I searched for the earlier bit where I explained that Lynn-Holly was a seamstress to show him that he must have skipped over that part. Alas, I couldn’t find the part because I hadn’t written it! I know that Lynn-Holly is a seamstress, it’s no secret, but I forgot to tell the audience! Thus, this passage made no sense. This instance provided me an important lesson that if I want something to be so within the pages of my novel, there must be breadcrumbs. There must be context. If you give your reader bread, and the bread is good, and you refill the bread basket frequently, you can rest easy knowing that they will probably enjoy their steak when it comes.

tumblr_mr277aoy101rf3wd1o1_500

So that’s all. What do you think? How do you go about trusting the reader? How do you balance detail with imagination? Mystery with reveal? Let’s talk!

Thank you for reading. As always, stay classy.

~J.J. Azar

Why I Value Character Over Plot

I saw a movie a while back about a bunch of hit-men trapped in a warehouse after a botched robbery. The hit-men are trying to figure out who ratted them out. The whole movie takes place in a warehouse! The whole thing! We don’t even see the robbery, we only see a guy running from the robbery. There is one random scene at the beginning which took place at a restaurant, and another in a car, I think, but for the most part, the movie has one setting. By the end of it, we know who the rat is, but over all…nothing happens!

That movie is called Reservoir Dogs. It’s one of my favorites of all time. *cue Kanye*

“JJ, what is this sorcery? You just switched like a light switch.”

Allow me to explain, disembodied voice.

Reservoir Dogs is a story of such small scale, of such little consequence, yet it’s stellar. How? How can a story that largely takes place in one ugly-looking room be stellar? Lovely ladies and classy gents, the answer is character.

Character, for me, is the most important aspect of every story.

I understand why others disagree. I understand why others value plot over characters. Some want to read for what happens while others want to read for who it happens to. I fall into the latter category. Note, I understand that many may tilt their heads and ask, “Why would I have to decide? I like both.” I like both too, but there has been a long debate between the two, and so I’m weighing in on it.

Imagine this: a Mexican musician living in Detroit releases a couple of records in the early 1970s. His sales are pitiful. Then, in 1997, he wakes up to find that he’s actually sold more records than Elvis Presley…in South Africa. Little does he know that his politically charged, poetic lyrics have become rallying cries against apartheid. He doesn’t know about his explosion of fame because he isn’t receiving royalties. Word of mouth doesn’t reach him because people assume he had killed himself on stage while performing. Well, this man is known as Sixto Rodriguez, and he’s a real dude. A real, living dude. With a style often compared to that of Bob Dylan and a particularly remarkable first album (Cold Fact), he’s a man worth knowing. Rodriguez’ story is shared in the documentary Searching for Sugar Man.

Check out the first lyrics to his song, “Rich Folks Hoax.”

The moon is hanging in the purple sky
The baby’s sleeping while its mother sighs
Talking ’bout the rich folks
Rich folks have the same jokes
And they park in basic places.

The priest is preaching from a shallow grave
He counts his money, then he paints you saved
Talking to the young folks
Young folks share the same jokes
But they meet in older places.

So don’t tell me about your success
Nor your recipes for my happiness
Smoke in bed
I never could digest
Those illusions you claim to have going.

~Sixto Rodriguez, “Rich Folks Hoax”

Rodriguez’ story is undoubtedly a fascinating one. I mean, does anyone find his story to be underwhelming? I wouldn’t think so. This man’s life’s plot has merits of its own, but I wouldn’t be sharing it with you if Rodriguez wasn’t who he was. Even after touring South Africa and Australia and the US and a host of other places where he eventually gained fame and fortune, he still, to this day, lives in his little apartment in Detroit. He’s soft spoken. He’s humble. He hardly seems fazed by his own staggering, unlikely story. It’s because of Rodriguez, the man, the character, that I chose to share his story. If the guy was an egotistical dufus, I wouldn’t give him the time of day.

If the most remarkable story ever told is written about the least remarkable of people, I simply won’t care. Think about it this way: if somebody you do not care for shares a crazy story about how he scaled Mount Everest in seven minutes or had a conversation with a gorilla, you might be mildly intrigued. Mildly. On the other hand, if your closest friend shares a remarkable story, you will be far more invested and interested in what your friend experienced. Why? Because your care about your friend! I would much rather a story be character-driven than plot-driven.

Reservoir Dogs is founded upon the strength of its characters and the dialogue between them, not its plot. Sure, the movie has a sound plot, but the movie’s heart lies with Mr. Orange, Mr. Yellow, Mr. Pink, and all the rest of ’em.

I figure I’ve made my point. I want to hear from you. Which do you prefer? Character-driven stories or plot-driven stories? Let’s talk in the comments below.

As always, stay classy.

~J.J. Azar

An Opportunity to Talk Wheel of Time: This Is My Genre Tell Me Yours Book Tag

Many fortnights ago, my name was drawn in the Hunger Games. I fought bravely, tackling the Character Dating Tag with fervor. After threatening to eat poisonous berries, I was spared by President Sutherland, the white-bearded father of Jack Bauer. But now we have reached the Quarter Quell, and my name has been drawn once again. Wow, how convenient that the sequel features me having my name drawn a second time! I’ve been tasked with tackling the This is My Genre Tell Me Yours Book Tag, a tag which presents me the opportunity to dive into genre. The two kind benefactors of this year’s Quarter Quell are Lashaan and Trang of Bookidote, a blog I have enjoyed following since the beginning of my Wordpress experience.

Unless I want to get chopped in half by dystopian teenagers, I have to credit Drew @ TheTattooedBookGeek as the creator of this tag. He’s a fantastic blogger who you ought to follow if you aren’t already. The war paint is on. Here we go!

thisismtgenrenrwlogo

1. WHAT’S YOUR FAVOURITE GENRE?

Sorry, I live in New Jersey. I don’t recognize that spelling of “favourite.’ Next question.

Kidding, kidding. I love the Brits and all those who spell like them. Truth be told, I don’t have a favorite genre. I enjoy a wide range of stories. But all is not lost! I thought I could use this opportunity to share some more about my influential relationship with the Wheel of Time series, so I’m choosing Fantasy!

2. WHO’S YOUR FAVOURITE AUTHOR FROM THE GENRE?

10242009105514PM.jpgRobert Jordan! He’s the guy behind the Wheel of Time series. His story is a fascinating one. He published the first book of the Wheel of Time series in 1990. In 2005, he published Book 11. The same year, he was diagnosed with cardiac amyloidosis, a rare blood disease. Tragically, in 2007, Jordan passed away. He left behind an incomplete, epic fantasy series beloved by millions of fans across the world. Brandon Sanderson eventually went on to complete books 12-14, finishing the series using extensive notes left by Jordan. There’s a whole lot more to his story, so I implore you to read up on who this man was and how he worked and wrote. He is a grand inspiration of mine who has had a substantial impact on my life.

3. WHAT IS IT ABOUT THE GENRE THAT KEEPS PULLING YOU BACK?

The scope. Talk about immersion! Fantasy books have history and cultures and strife and grand stakes. When I read Fantasy, I feel like I’m diving into something that’s already been going on. I feel like I’m witnessing a story as opposed to reading one as it’s being written. When Robert Jordan was asked to sum up the Wheel of Time in a few words, he responded, “Cultures clash, worlds change, cope.” That’s grand, and that’s the kind of reason why Fantasy is a stellar genre. Scope!

4. WHAT’S THE BOOK THAT STARTED YOUR LOVE FOR YOUR FAVOURITE GENRE?

WoT01_TheEyeOfTheWorld.jpgThe Eye of the World, Book #1 of the Wheel of Time series. When this book was handed to me years ago, I hadn’t a clue what I was about to begin. I’m currently on Book 9 of the series and I’m still infatuated with it. Since starting the series, I’ve recommended it to many others and a handful have fallen for it as I have.

5. IF YOU HAD TO RECOMMEND AT LEAST ONE BOOK FROM YOUR FAVOURITE GENRE TO A NON-READER/SOMEONE LOOKING TO START READING THAT GENRE, WHAT BOOK WOULD YOU CHOOSE AND WHY?

I wouldn’t recommend a book, I’d recommend a movie. Eight movies, actually. I would implore anybody considering whether or not to dive into the Fantasy genre to watch the Potter films! The Harry Potter films feature a rich fantasy world translated to film properly. Magic, stakes, and lore is aplenty. If you’re into Potter, you could ease your way into other, more involved Fantasy worlds.

6. WHY DO YOU READ?

I read because I like stories. I’ve always been a huge movie fan, and in the last few years, I’ve watched some quality television. Books present stories through a different medium than do movies or shows. It generally takes me longer to read a book than to tackle a movie because I like to soak in every word, but the effort is often worth it. In the case of Wheel of Time, it’s unreal how invested I often become while reading.

____

I’m late to the party on this tag, so passing it along when most have already tackled it wouldn’t make a whole lot of sense. Thus, I’d like to tag any who would like to volunteer as tribute.

Have you heard of the Wheel of Time series? Have you read any of it? Isn’t it fantastic? Let’s talk!

As always, stay classy.

~J.J. Azar

Violence and Gore in Writing: Is There a Limit?

Happy Friday, lovely ladies and classy gents! Before I dive into this week’s topic, I’d like to let you know that I’m holding a Question/Answer in light of the blog hitting 100 followers (woo!). WordPress has been wonky following the recent update, so I wanted to make sure you knew. If you’d like to leave me a question, I invite you to do so here!

Now, onto what you clicked for: violence.

In an almost paradoxical fashion, violence is a fascinating subject. Humanity has learned the horrifying consequences of violence en masse time and time again, yet we have yet to shy away from it. Inflicting harm upon another human being is understood to be immoral, yet we enjoy reading, hearing, and watching stories full of violence. Isn’t that interesting? We sure give violence a whole lot of limelight for something we hate. One would think violence would be treated more like how Mike “the Situation” Sorrentino was treated at the 2011 Comedy Central Roast of Donald Trump (The star of Jersey Shore was booed because he was intolerably unfunny).

But we don’t treat violence like we treat the Situation. Rather, we treat violence closer to how we treat Rihanna in that nobody actually likes her, but she is impossible to avoid so you nod along to her songs anyway.

There are two key reasons why violence is pertinent in our stories:

  1. it’s a knowable, human plot device which can be used to propel the story forward
  2. it’s fun.

No, really. It is. When Quentin Tarantino was asked to account for the violence in his films while promoting Kill Bill, he responded, and I quote,

Because it’s so much fun, JAN! Get it!

Tarantino’s right. Violence is fun. Don’t we all enjoy executing Mortal Kombat fatalities on our friends? (The intestines come out the nose, you say?) Don’t we all enjoy Tarantino’s Tupac-fueled western shootouts? I know we enjoy UFC, and it’s not only for the leprechaun who would surely pull out my sternum with his bare hands if I made such a comment to his face (please don’t hurt me, ye Lucky Charms mascot, ye). e475e88202155040418450dd9d53a8cb83b0a142.gif

But that’s the thing, isn’t it? Violence in reality is a whole different ball game. I’ve seen fistfights up close. I’ve been in a couple. And you know what? It’s nothing like the movies. Do you guys recall Robert Downey Jr.’s Sherlock Holmes movies? Neither do I. But I do recall Holmes’ freeze-timey-hyper-perception trick where he observes his opponent and devises an intricate way to immobilize him by exploiting his weak spots. Yeah, real life isn’t like that. Fighting is comprised of a nearly incomprehensible flurry of balled fists and blurred limbs. All of the choreography you’ve seen in Star Wars goes right out the window. There’s nothing cute or coordinated about violence. There’s no rhyme to it. There’s no glamour, no flashiness. Even in the UFC, where professional fighters spar with each other, the result isn’t a dance-like fight like we see in Kung Fu movies. And we know this.

Be it through the news, documentary footage, personal experience, or WORLD STARRRR!!!!!, we’ve all seen the ugliness of real-world violence, yet we still feature it extensively through fictional means. I find that to be interesting. Not surprising (violence is practical and exciting, as I said), but interesting.

Throw in gore on top of violence and we have an intrigue smoothie (How’s that for a visual?). Indeed, if violence is the piñata, gore is the candy. This leads me to the question posed in this post’s title:

Is there a limit to violence and gore in writing?

The technical answer is no. A writer can technically write novels chock full of graphic butchery and extensive violence. I have yet to read a novel that is so blatantly gratuitous from start to finish, though I’m sure many of you more wizened readers can recall picking up such a book. It should go without saying that writers have a right to write whatever they would like. Everyone has that right, and it should remain so.

But I don’t care to discuss technicality. Sure, technically I can eat a book if I divide it into small parcels and pair it with hummus and a touch of olive oil, but that would be a pointless display of jackassery more than anything. I’m interested in pondering what sort of responsibility a writer has when putting pen to paper. Should violence be written graphically as to portray its heinousness Hacksaw Ridge-style, or should violence be written “cleanly” as to only communicate the bare action? Should graphic violence be written sparingly, only “when essential?” Or perhaps violence should be written 100% freely, with no restrictions or second thoughts paid to it. Let’s discuss.

In Homer’s The Odyssey, Odysseus finds himself at odds with Polyphemus, a cyclops. The hero and his crew devise a plan to escape the monster’s clutches. What follows is a pure thrill.

Heating the end of the pole until it was glowing red, we ran it toward the Cyclops like a battering ram, aiming it for his eye and driving it deep. The thing sizzled like hot metal dropped in water while I twisted it like an auger.

Polyphemus came awake with a roar, tore the spike from his eye and began groping for us in his blindness. His screams of frustration and rage brought the neighboring Cyclopes to the mouth of the cave.

– Homer’s “The Odyssey,” Book Nine

Graphic, right? The cyclops had his eye gouged by a large stick! By telling this particular part of his story in such a graphic manner, Homer succeeds in thrilling the reader in spite of (or perhaps because of) the nasty details. The imagery was not the point–Odysseus’ escape was the point (no pun intended)–yet the imagery served the passage well.

Euripides’ Medea approaches violence differently. Though Euripides describes the murder of King Creon and his daughter in graphic detail earlier in the play, he handles Medea’s murder of her own young children with more restraint. Here is how that particular act of violence is portrayed. Note, I’ve heavily trimmed the passage in the interest of giving you the essential pieces (breaks indicated by ellipsis).

MEDEA
I’ve made up my mind, my friends. I’ll do it—kill my children now, without delay,
and flee this land…

…[Exit MEDEA into the house]

….CHILD [from inside the house]
Help me . . .

CHORUS
Did you hear that?
Did you hear the children cry?
That wretched, evil woman!…

CHILD [from within]
What do I do? How can I escape
my mother’s hands?

SECOND CHILD
I don’t know, dear brother.
It’s over for us . .

CHORUS [shouting in response]
Should I go in the house?
I’m sure I must prevent this murder.

CHILD
Yes—for the love of gods, stop this! And hurry!

SECOND CHILD
The sword has almost got us—like a snare!

…CHORUS [to JASON]
Open the doors and you will see them,
your slaughtered children.

…[JASON shakes the doors of the house, which remain closed. MEDEA appears in a winged chariot, rising above the house. The bodies of the two CHILDREN are visible in the chariot]

-Euripides, Medea, selections from lines 1456-1625

This psychotic lady butchers her two children, puts them in a chariot, and flies the chariot past her husband to show him what she did to his children. That’s a sick case of extreme violence. Interestingly, the act is far more heinous than the eye-gouging carried out by Odysseus, and yet Euripides does not provide the reader with even a hint of gruesome detail regarding what transpired inside. We presume the children were slain by knife, but Euripides does not describe the killing or the state of the corpses as bloody or otherwise maimed. Does this lack of detail minimize the implication of violence in this context?Absolutely not. The violent action spoke for itself, whether it was detailed or not.

The same tactic is flawlessly executed in Khaled Hosseini’s Kite Runner. Hosseini describes the violation of Hassan in the most minimal of details, yet the reader feels no lack of sympathy or horror.

Evidently, there are clear instances where writers have included violence within their stories and simultaneously succeeded in communicating the consequences of such violence while avoiding graphic detail. In other words, graphic detail is not essential to communicate the weight of violence. However, as is displayed through the passage from Homer’s Odyssey, graphic detail can work wonders to supplement action and paint a vivid picture. Thus, in my view, there is no single correct way to go about violence so much as there is an incorrect way.

My standard for violence in writing is this: So long as consequences are conveyed in wake of the violence, any and all violence is fair game. This doesn’t mean I need to see the perpetrator locked up for his or her transgressions, but violence needs to instigate some kind of effect. Somebody has to mourn. Somebody has to be worse off, whether it be the victim, the perpetrator, or a bystander. Violence should not just be.

Whether or not you write violence in a detailed manner is irrelevant. So long as you give me a consequence, I’m sold.

Robert Jordan expertly meets this standard in Lord of Chaos. At the climax of the story, Jordan describes a series of cataclysmic, violent acts with extreme, graphic detail. Once the carnage ceases, however, he focuses on the tremendous emotional impact the event has on all characters present. The repercussions carry over to the next book, even. Jordan did not treat violence lightly. Neither should you or I.

My final thoughts are as follows: Fellow writers, describe all of the blood and guts you want, but don’t treat the details as fireworks intended to please the eye. Instead, treat them as casualties to rattle the mind. Your work will be better for it. After all, channeling reality often makes for better fiction.

(This post was inspired by Dave Astor’s “Novels are Read. Violence, It Grew” and A.Z. Anthony’s “Fight Scenes: How and Why?”)

How do you feel about this topic? Whether you’re a reader or a writer: is there a line? How should violence be handled by writers?

As always, stay classy.

~J.J. Azar