Their's not to make reply,
Their's not to reason why,
Their's but to do and die:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
--Alfred, Lord Tennyson, "The Charge of the Light Brigade"
This weekend marks the one-hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary of one of the most notorious blunders in military history. Terry Brighton, author of Hell's Riders: The True Story of the Charge of the Light Brigade, talks about it on NPR... along with a recording of Tennyson reading his famous poem, and a recording of a Light Brigade bugler. Tennyson, I must say, sounds rather as you'd expect.
We're a pattern-sensing species. This is both the bane and the blessing of the writer--the bane, because when the patterns we're attempting to manipulate are delicate things, and because readers will sense patterns we didn't mean for them to pick out--and the blessing, because once you get the rhythm of the thing, you can manipulate the reader's emotions with remarkable accuracy--depending, of course, on whatever baggage the reader himself comes with.
And make no mistake--what we do as fiction writers is manipulate people: no two ways about it. Some of us are more or less cack-handed about it, and get caught--this the reader complaint that "I could see the strings." Some readers, being less sophisticated, need slightly more unsubtle manipulation than those whose naiveté has been cracked, and who have defenses in place against that manipulation.
That latter group of readers must be seduced. They don't walk in and hand you their suspension of disbelief; it has to be earned, teased out of them. They have to give it up willingly. It can't be taken.
This is another example of how the basic idiot-proof writing advice becomes more and more subtle and complex as one gets deeper into what one is doing, as a writer. For example, what I'm talking about here is really "Show, don't tell."
But in the coarse screening, show don't tell applies to action, and then to motivation, and then to description--until you've got it down to the ultra-fine grit, the stuff I'm talking about here--which involves showing the reader a pattern, and letting him interpret it and draw his own conclusions, rather than explaining to him what you intend it to mean. This ties into another familiar exhortation to writers: trust the reader.
For example, does it seem that I was drawing a parallel with current world situations with the Tennyson quote and the bit of history above? Depending on one's political leanings, it might seem a viable analogy, or it might seem transparent manipulation.
Or I could just have been caught by the date, and--being a Tennyson fan (and I am a Tennyson fan, although I know he's terribly out of fashion these days--the rhythm of his language is astoundingly powerful, to my ear, and I'm a sucker for doomed heroism), I might have taken the opportunity to link a bit of poetry.
That's the reader's 50% we talk about, in action.
It's all about patterns.
It's like magic. But it's not. It's all just sleight of mind.
I shall go
Up and down
In my gown.
Boned and stayed.
And the softness of my body will be guarded from embrace
By each button, hook, and lace.
For the man who should loose me is dead,
Fighting with the Duke in Flanders,
In a pattern called a war.
Christ! What are patterns for?
--Amy Lowell, "Patterns"