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Sunday, August 8, 2010

Microtension adds a FACElift to your writing - Part 3

I've been discussing the elusive concept of microtension--making every word enticing, every phrase evocative. Microtension makes your novel stand out among a crowd of well-written but mostly prosaic construction. How many times have you read a book that is structured well, has pretty interesting characters, a compelling plot--yet reads flat and same-old same-old? It happens to me weekly. In fact, nine out of ten novels I read I have a hard time finishing, even if all the right elements are in place--just because the writing is mundane, boring, or predictable.

In the first two blogs on the topic, we looked at the F in FACElift--fresh. One component of beautiful microtension line by line in a book is trying to make each sentence fresh, new, different, giving a glimpse of the world through your character's eyes that's just a bit different. I liked Donald Maass's explanation in his workshop of how you can have a character relate to her setting in a special way. Have her see something differently than anyone else would, even subtle things like the quality of light, or notice an object that seems insignificant but has great symbolism to her.

Today we're looking at the A in FACElift--authentic. I originally thought artistic would be a better choice, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized authenticity is what really clinches the relationship between reader and author. Authenticity is all about being real--having characters that have an honest, revealing look at life and themselves. And it's also a quality of the writing itself, which is not easily explained. Instead of talking at the reader, telling them what is happening, how someone is feeling, great microtension is shown in an authentic presentation of information. It comes across often raw, poignant, bare, void of pretentiousness.

There's a great moment in Lisa Samson's book Quaker Summer, where her protagonist, a rich, sheltered Christian woman, has volunteered to help paint an urban kitchen, her first attempt at volunteering to help those less fortunate. She's wearing expensive clothes and so the director of the facility shows her a box of clean, used clothes in which she can find something to wear to paint in. The thoughts that go through this woman's head are simple, but so raw and honest, they have stuck with me for over a year after reading the book. She fingers the clothes, knowing they are clean, yet she senses their contamination. They've been worn by dirty people. Poor people. Black people. At this realization, her character is struck by her own bigotry and hypocrisy. It's a tremendously powerful moment and all written in very short simple sentences. Yet, the moment is empowered with microtension through this authenticity.

I just finished reading a terrific best seller: The Art of Racing in the Rain. What makes this book so rightly deserving of acclaim is the great authenticity of the character's voice and the author's writing style. Enzo is one of the most real human voices I've read--honest, humble, spontaneous. And this is a strange thing to be saying because Enzo is a dog. Yes, a dog tells this story about his master, Denny, whose life completely goes to ruin around him and yet conquers through adversity--all with Enzo at his side. There are such fantastic moments in the writing, where we sense Enzo's honesty--his self-denigration ("Sometimes I hate what I am so much"), his frustration at not having opposable thumbs so he can get out of the house and not starve from neglect (not Denny's fault), and his utter joy in the thrill of running. I cried so much at the end of this book, not because I'm sentimental about dogs (I am), but because Enzo's humanness and authenticity struck at my heart, showing me the beauty and pain of being human on this earth.

If we writers can capture that kind of honest authenticity in our writing--through our characters' thoughts and through narration--our writing will shine. Look at your work and examine the quality of authenticity. See where you can rewrite to be more human. If Garth Stein can do it with a dog, then it can certainly be done with actual human characters.

Next month we'll look at C for clever and how to make your sentences clever without being corny.

1 comment:

  1. Your article is challenging and I like that. Microtension is fresh and I love the use of it. Randy