Here is a quote I present each semester to my Creative Writing students for discussion:
Robert Frost: "No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader."
I believe Frost has encapsulated some great writing advice and practices here, and I hope they will help you ponder some important writing issues and excite you about trying the related techniques out in your own work.
I am going to refer primarily to fiction, since that's what I teach and write, but I think these techniques will work well for nonfiction and poetry, too.
Frost has, very economically, given us 2 important precepts here.
A) "No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader."
It is important to feel the power of whatever issue we are writing about. The best way to do this, for me, is to feel the characters and be moved by their sorrows and concerned about their situation. Also, be excited with them, afraid with them, happy with them. In other words, get inside their head and have them become real to us. Otherwise they will become wooden mouthpieces for our ideas, and the reader cannot respond to that except with exasperation.
make this happen, I have to visually imagine a character going through a
situation, (I use my other senses, too). For instance, in my novel One Amazing
Thing, a group of characters are trapped in the basement of the building by a
As I wrote that section, I really tried to feel their panic. I closed my eyes and placed myself in a dark, claustrophobic space. I tried to feel the cold, dank water rising to my ankles. When I was writing the section where they are running out of food, I wrote on an empty stomach so I could find the right descriptions for the hunger and the panic they are experiencing.
B) "No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader."
This is a more complicated piece of advice. I take it to mean that the work, as we are writing it, has to develop in some kind of unexpected way. It is important to let the work (short story, novel, etc.) unfold organically so that this can happen. Often we plan the work--the scenes, the chapters, the rising action, the climax, etc. very meticulously. There's nothing wrong with that. I believe we have to do that to a certain extent if we are not going to get lost. As creators and architects, we need to have a plan or vision in mind. But we need to also allow the work itself manifest its power, to allow characters to do unexpected things, to approach the fictional world we are creating with a sense of child-like wonder, to be ready to see what might happen. It is a matter of balancing the two sides of our brain. Things come up out of our subconscious when we write. We have to give them space to be born. We have to trust that this will happen. Sometimes this means not knowing the end until we get there, and being okay with that.
E.L. Doctorow puts it perfectly: "Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way."
those unexpected moments when shapes loom up out of the dark as we're driving
through unknown territory turn out to be the richest in our writing. When this process
works, it creates a powerful moment of discovery in the reader, echoing the
discovery we felt as we were writing.
In my children's
novel The Conch Bearer, I knew early on that the young hero Anand would be
faced with a major choice at the end of his quest to return a magical conch to
its home in the Himalayas.
He would have to decide whether to remain with the conch and the brotherhood of healers who were its guardians in the idyllic Silver Valley, or to return to his family in the city of Kolkata. Though I was tempted to figure out what Anand would do midway through the novel, I held off. I went back to the first part of what Frost suggested and tried to feel the boy's dilemma, his desire to be in both places at once, to balance the different loves and commitments in his life. It took me a while to discover what Anand would do. It was frustrating as I wrote and rewrote portions. When the decision finally became clear to me, both Anand and I were surprised by it. Readers have told me they were, too, and that this surprise made the ending powerful for them. Had I forced a shape on the ending of the novel, I know it would have been far inferior to what I finally managed to get.
I hope this post has been helpful and perhaps given you some techniques to try in your work. I would love to hear your thoughts, examples or questions on this or related topics.