Read ROOM by Emma Donoghue a few days ago. The characters and story lingered after I finished the book, but now I find it’s fading fast. I believe the reason is that the way the book is constructed – from the viewpoint of a five year old boy – there’s no space for the narrative to comment on the larger issues of freedom, abuse, or evil. There is the implicit comment, of course, but for a book to really stay with me, it needs to be able to rise and fall further than the confines this narrative allows. It is, however, a good study of conveying more by showing less. The author also does a great job of building tension, especially in buildup before the “After” section. The ending is also well done and a natural place to stop – a place when we can easily imagine continuing, yet satisfied with what’s been told. There are some lapses – the five year old is sometimes too precious, and I didn’t always buy that I was in the mind of a little boy. There are points where the use of language feels gimmicky and the narrative manipulative, but there are many more positives than negatives here. It is an excellent illustration of one way to accomplish what I discussed in the last post of leaving room (pun intended). The reader gets to participate in the story. Instead of having the boy witness the sex or have a narrator show it or shift POV, we have the boy, Jack, in a wardrobe in a dark room counting bed squeaks. Eww. Makes it so much creepier by leaving it in our imagination rather than detailing everything on the page. Donoghue trusts her reader… and has a book on the short list for the Man Booker Prize.
Just took a walk and saw a new house going up. There is no yard. I don’t exaggerate – nothing in the front, nothing in the back. The entire lot is filled with house as close to the property lines as the law allows. Saw the same thing at a huge lot near UCLA. Got me to thinking about the idea of leaving room. In narrative, you need to leave room for the reader to imagine, to breath, sometimes to rest from the action. It’s part of why it’s necessary to vary the way you use language, sentence length and so on.
In his ongoing discussion of first lines, writer Aaron Gansky discusses compound-complex and run on sentences, including Dickens’ epic compound comma splice. There are points there to keep in mind for every sentence.
Beyond playing around with the sentence, it’s the way you present the action and characters and probably most essential, the manner in which you choose to narrate your story. If the narrator is overbearing and must tell the reader everything that’s going on, what is left for the reader to figure out? How can the reader possibly engage when there is nothing left to do? Give them a little space and your reader will do a lot of work for you. Use it to your advantage. Allow them the time and space to use their imaginations and they will love you for it. And love your book. Now get to work and write it.
Laurie Hutzler breaks down characters according to 9 types. She has a free ebook and newsletter on her site. Her emphasis is on film and television, but characters are characters and this is one approach.
Another piece of advice is in the current issue of Poets & Writers magazine. Benjamin Percy discusses the Geometry of Dialogue, specifically giving your characters something to do when they’re talking. You will add layers to both your narrative and your dialogue. It’s worth checking out.