By Kathy Flann
Baltimore, MD, USA

Most beginning writers start banging away on their keyboards quite happily. They’re typing like mad. They’re humming show tunes. They’re wired on coffee and optimism. Eventually, though, the fingers slow. The new writer stares at the words. And stares.
Kathy Flann
And stares. Maybe the main character in the draft is an intern in a dysfunctional office. The twist? The office is on a space station. It should be a winning premise. Why isn’t this working? Why don’t I know what to write next? Skilled writers make this all look easy. So the fledgling writer starts to turn inward, perhaps engages in some good old-fashioned self-doubt. Why isn’t this easy for me? Am I stupid? Am I boring?

Writers typically get started on this whole endeavor because we love books. We love it when a narrative takes an unexpected turn or resolves in an especially satisfying way, and emotions wash over us. The feelings are as real and intense as any we’ve felt. Alone on couches or on trains, we lower our books and stare into middle distance and experience physical reactions, almost like electricity traveling through our bodies. Maybe we let our heads fall back and speak out loud to say, with quiet awe, “Wow.” Or maybe we even realize that we have shed a few tears.

Unable to stop thinking about the transformative experience the book provided, we later wonder, Could I create something that would have an impact on someone I’ve never even met? Is there something universal about my insights or experiences that I could share? Ultimately, there’s an urge to connect with others, even though the actual writing may occur in solitude. We write because we want to create the moments for our readers that other writers have created for us.

But when it all goes wrong, the experience can become almost visceral again, and not in a good way. I hate this story, the writer might say to herself, furious at it for making her feel like such a patsy. Why did you make me think I could do this? she says to the screen. The hatred is deep and hot and might make the writer want to punch the story right in its verbose, bloated gut.

When I meet the students in my introductory fiction writing classes at the college where I teach, they often introduce themselves something like this: “Hi. I’m So-and-So from New Jersey and I’m majoring in Such-and-Such. I’m here because I just want to finish a story. I always start out liking my ideas, but I can’t figure out where to go. So I just give up and start another new story. But then the same thing happens.” Sometimes there are audible sighs of relief when a student shares this particular struggle. It is a revelation to discover that these other people aren’t cranking out perfect, effortless stories, either.

Writing is hard. Fun. But hard.

Most of what I do as a writing coach is to help people slow down. As readers, we focus on the feelings that the books we love instilled in us. “Oh, it was so intense!” When readers become writers, they tend to continue this focus. And that’s where the trouble starts.

Maybe the main character in the space station story, Jordan the intern, notices that the environment in the office is chaotic. However, a line like The office was chaotic is not especially impactful. If we show the chaos rather than use the word chaotic, the story will have more power. Maybe there are pencils floating around everywhere and also mugs that say I Have a Case of the Mondays and they’re all clinking into each other. When we use an emotion word, like chaotic, we are taking a shortcut. This is a concept that students grasp quickly and enthusiastically. Physical description is fun to write, and they don’t need much encouragement to compose more of it. This strategy alone improves their fiction quite a bit. And generally makes them happier with their writing.

Show/Don’t Tell. Great. Easy-Peasy-Lemon-Squeezy. So why are stories so hard then?

They’re hard because physical details alone won’t elicit emotional impact. Even the physical descriptions can be shortcuts for something more fundamental. So we need to slow down even more.

The scenes in which the new writer is especially striving for an emotion prove to be the most challenging. The writer has learned now that it isn’t going to be effective to say, Jordan was so confused. His boss was behaving terribly. So instead she describes the action. There are mugs and pencils flying around and her boss is yelling at everyone and one of his co-workers has floated up to the ceiling to hide in the rafters. That’s a great start.

Sticking to her mandate to Show/Don’t Tell, the writer tries to convey Jordan’s discomfort without using emotion words. She says something like, “His stomach tightened and his hands balled into fists.” This strategy probably has more impact than saying, Jordan was upset, which would be a blatant kind of telling. However, it’s still a shortcut.

If we slow the scene down even more – way, way down – the order in which Jordan arrives at the feelings might happen like this:

1)   Jordan witnesses something through the five senses. (Jordan’s boss, Tony, turned off everyone’s oxygen supply and said, “You won’t get this back unless you submit your monthly expense reports right this minute.”)

2)   Jordan has thoughts about the thing that has happened. (If Tony didn’t turn that air back on in the next two minutes, everyone would die.)

3)   He witnesses more of the thing. (Gladys from Accounting clutched at her throat.)

4)   He has more thoughts. (Gladys had asthma. She would probably die more quickly than everyone else. Jordan had to do something. Could he knock Tony out somehow? If he did, would he get ejected into space and lose his internship?)

5)   Keep alternating. Descriptions, thoughts, descriptions, thoughts. In these microseconds, the observations and thoughts will lead to decisions.

6)   Way down deep, he might notice his face getting warm or his pits sweating. However, this is not his primary concern. If he has the leisure to focus on these things, we don’t have the sense that the action is crucial.

7)   In less fraught circumstances, he might go through the same process but then have thoughts about his flop sweat. (Dear God, could anyone see these wet spots under his pits?)

In reality, under stress, we tend to observe what’s happening in a difficult situation and to have thoughts about what we observe. There’s a rapid-fire tennis match between internal and external. Nervous sweats and nameable emotions are the results of this volley. The character isn’t thinking about those results just yet. The character is just trying to figure out the situation and get through it. 

If the character’s experience can be slowed down enough, readers recognize that their own brains work this way – thus the writing is believable to them. They can picture not only the action but also the inside of the mind experiencing the action. Furthermore, they wonder what the character is going to do, given the situation and the character’s thoughts about it. This suspense is what creates emotional investment.

As readers, we rate the experience of a book based on how quickly we turn the pages. Oh my gosh, is Jordan really going to steal those office supplies? Is he going to Scotch tape Tony to the fuselage? But as writers, we need to think about how to build a Jordan who’s as nuanced and real as anyone we’ve ever met. Otherwise no one will care. It takes patience to compose microseconds of a character’s observations and thoughts. Writing scenes is like creating stop-action animation in some ways.

If we do our jobs well, readers don’t see all of the tiny moments that create the big moment. They simply sigh, lean their heads back, and say, “Wow.”



Kathy Flann is Associate Professor, English (Creative Writing) at Goucher College and an award-winning author. Her latest collection of short stories, Get A Grip, was published in November 2015.

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