Wednesday, April 9, 2014
Just The Facts, Ma'am
The problem with doing that in fiction is, it's boring. I didn't realize this before. I figured knowledge is power, so the more the reader knows, the better. Makes sense in life, makes sense for fiction, right?
This week I was handed a situation that exemplified why knowing every angle of a story makes it boring.
I live in a small, close-knit neighborhood. I know everyone who lives on my street, as well as what their cars look like. We all have driveways, and there are no sidewalks or curbs. Visitors park in the driveway of whoever they are coming to see. A car on the street is unusual unless there is a party going on.
Yesterday, there was a car parked on the street outside my house, and I didn't recognize it. It was empty, but on my way back from walking my dog, I saw a young man get in the car and drive away. I didn't know where he came from, so I dismissed it. Today, after putting my son on the bus, I started walking my dog again, and the same car pulled down the street past me. It went to the end of the block, turned around and sat facing me, waiting for me to pass my house. It became a game of 'chicken'. I picked up my newspaper, looked at the headline. The car didn't move. I put the newspaper delivery bag into the recycling bin. The car didn't move. I began walking down the block, in the direction of the car. Once I passed the next driveway, the car drove past me and parked outside my house again. The young man in the large-brimmed baseball hat sat in the car, engine off, sipping a large drink from a straw. I couldn't see his face.
I kept walking, calling a friend and my husband for consult. Is this guy casing the neighborhood? Watching for kids getting on and off school buses? Taking notes of who's in what house and which houses are empty? Waiting to make a drug deal? The possibilities were endless. My tension was high.
When I got back from my walk, the car and driver were still there. I memorized the license plate, went into my house and double-locked the door. Upstairs, I began searching for the non-emergency police number which, apparently, is no longer listed in the phone book. (If you have to ask "what's a phone book?" you are too young to appreciate my tension.) Five minutes had passed. The car was still there. After giving up on the phone books and Googling the number, I called police. They took my name, address and the details of the situation. They said they'd send a car. I waited.
The minutes ticked by. I knew another school bus was coming soon and the kids getting on it were young, and often came out alone to go to the bus stop. What if the police didn't come before the kids came out? Should I call the parents and let them know about this strange car? Should I go out myself? Now the stakes were rising.
The kids came out. I watched through the window. A dad drove with one of them to the bus stop and stayed until they got on the bus. The strange car stayed put. Now I was alone in the house, and most of my neighbors had gone to work.
See how intriguing all of this is from just my perspective? I had no details, no police backup yet and no idea what was going to happen next.
If I was reading this story, I'd keep turning the pages.
Sometimes, we get so caught up in story arc, language, voice and plot that we forget our characters need to make the reader feel something as they join them on their journey. That's why readers keep reading: they care about what happens. And the best way to make them care is to keep some of the details from them, raise the tension and make them wonder where they're headed. My goal today will be to keep this fear, tension and excitement in mind as I sit down to work on my writing.
Ultimately, the police showed up. The driver was the relative of my neighbors, and had been living at their house. Why, then, didn't he park in their driveway? He'd been avoiding them. The reasons for that haven't yet become clear, but I'd met this young man once and felt bad that I'd called police on him. Once I had all the information, though, I realized he was not a rapist, drug dealer or pedophile. Just a young man who needs to work out some family issues.
But having all that information up front makes for much less interesting fiction, don't you think?
Posted by Christine Adler