Premature Explanation

Anticipation fosters satisfaction: a cold drink at the end of a hot workday; the next episode in a series you enjoy; the aroma of fresh coffee brewing, or your favorite meal sizzling on the grill. Meeting a loved one at the airport; attending a wedding of close friends; a first kiss or new adventure. Often the pleasure is heightened because we have to wait, and during that waiting period, our imagination is aroused, engendering it’s own type of pleasure.

The same process applies when I open a book that promises to please me, perhaps because it’s an author I admire, or a subject that intrigues. I want to be drawn in slowly–call it literary foreplay–and have time to savor the plot as it unfolds. I want to gradually get to know the characters, understand the conflicts, and discover details of the setting. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always happen.

There is an author and producer whose work I admire. This person created one of the most memorable television mini-series of the last twenty years (my opinion). Throw in a brilliant actor, a skilled director, and you have the quintessential unbeatable combination.

I brought home several of her novels, expecting to be entertained. I also wanted to learn from this accomplished individual. I was disappointed; the first book didn’t engage me like I’d hoped it would. But why? The characters were believable; the plot was plausible; the setting was authentic; the editing was reasonable; the resolution was sound. Still, something was off.

I opened the second book and read the first thirty pages, then realized why the first one hadn’t made the grade with me. Because, in spite of the good things about it, it had seemed overlong and overworked. The anticipation was lacking. I had been “told” too much, too soon.

Most writer’s have heard a dozen times, “Show, don’t tell.” Most of us try to follow that, but it isn’t easy. Perhaps because we live in a world where so much communication is misunderstood and criticized, we are on guard. Maybe because we forget the written word is different from the visual media. For whatever reason, we tend to sometimes over-explain, rather than trusting the reader’s intuition.

Reading is an active endeavor in which readers must supply details from their own imagination. For example, a character has long blonde hair. What you see in your mind can be 180 out from what I see. Straight and stringy or full and wavy? Natural or bleached? Clean and fragrant or dirty and tangled? Depending on what we visualize from hints the author has planted about the character, we draw a conclusion about that character’s attitude and personality: angelic or bawdy; meticulous or slovenly; conservative or nonconforming.

When the author feeds us information slowly, throughout the book, the characters emerge along with the plot. If we are a little unsure at the beginning of just who they are, and how they will react, then the author has created anticipatory anxiety. The “Oh my god, she isn’t really going to let them into her house, is she?” kind of nail-biting tension that moves a story along and builds toward the climax and resolution.

On the other hand, when we are told, prematurely, exactly who the characters are, what their relationship is to others, and what they are thinking, there’s not much left for our imaginations to supply. Action and dialogue become inevitable because we know how the characters will react. They have been individually stereotyped and locked into predictable patterns.

As writers, when we create a character, we usually have imagined the character’s background, values, and temperament. We want the reader to know our characters as well as we do. Memorable characters, are, after all, why many readers follow an author and look forward to a sequel or series. However, in trying to accomplish this, sometimes we rush it and reveal too much, too quickly, and negate the element of surprise.

It helps to remember that, as readers, we form pictures in our mind: we visualize the characters; we see the setting; we experience the atmosphere; we find our emotions sparked by both action and dialogue. We cringe, cheer, laugh or mourn. We hold our breath, or exhale in relief. We are able to do this because our own emotions and experiences have supplied the cinematographic details. We see the characters and, by extension, ourselves in the fictional world.

Much like a treasure hunt, uncovering clues to the characters and the plot, as one turns the pages, heightens anticipation. And, sometimes, anticipation is the best part.