Monday, August 27, 2007

The Art of Sketching

When I was young, my brother started playing this new game with his friends, called Dungeons and Dragons. Bro was obsessed; he talked about the game all the time, and what he had to say was riveting to my prying little-sister ears. Dragons? Elves? Orcs and dungeons? Hoo-yeah! That sounded great! What kind of a board did this game have? What kind of pieces?

I was mad to try it, but y'know - being a little sister and all, I wasn't exactly welcome among a crowd of twelve-year-old lads. Regardless, when my brother finally hosted a D&D party at our house, I crept downstairs, desperate to see this game in action.

What I saw was a bunch of boys sitting around a card table with pieces of paper in front of them, talking to one another. Hey! Where were the dragons? Where were the stinkin' elves?

My mom explained that the game took place inside their imaginations. That was a new concept at the time; D&D was the first role-playing game to become that popular. I remained disappointed, but even at that age, I recognised that the game was probably waaaaaaay better when played in the imagination than it ever could have been with cardboard pictures or plastic figurines.

In a previous post, I discussed the power of "showing" rather than "telling" in writing. It boils down to you forcing your reader to actively imagine what's happening in your novel.

Just like in D&D, you couldn't possibly describe the scene any better than the reader could imagine it unassisted. Thus, your task as the writer is to sketch in just enough detail for the reader's imagination to get excited, jump in, and finish the job.

An interesting twist on this idea occurred to me today. Some of the most charismatic characters I've come across are the ones where I didn't have enough detail for my imagination to finish the job. I had enough hints for it to get started, but that was all.

The result was that my imagination scurried wildly, trying to sort that character out. I became hooked, obsessed. I was desperate to find out more.

That's a good state to get a reader into; it keeps the pages turning. The tension caused by having too many viable possibilities to decide which one is correct is quite delicious.

Obviously, the reader is going to want some satisfaction by the time the book ends, but you can leave that to the last page. You can also leave the reader with only a likely hunch, not a definitive understanding of the character. That will keep the reader tortured thinking about your character long after they close the book.

I think this technique works best with villains, who are a bit removed from your protagonist's world-view (and thus the reader's), but it could also be applied to an unreliable narrator .

What characters have you run across in books/movies/television/games that drove you wild with curiosity? Which ones had you pondering their mysteries long after the story ended?

And what sorts of hinted backstory got you fascinated in the first place? Repressed pain? Hidden gentleness? Unrequited love? Concealed malevolence?

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