Writing to immerse the reader
I recently edited a manuscript that dealt with a sensitive subject and subjected the characters to extreme violence. It left me unmoved, and not just because I'm a cold-hearted bitch.
The story's execution failed. Through telling, the author put distance between the reader and the characters. The omission of sensory detail reinforced that distance. Weird similes popped the reader from the narrative and seemed out of place.
I'm pretty sure I know what the author was trying to do. Unfortunately, the effort wasn't up to the task.
I ended up rewriting a good bit of the story. (Don't fret: I use "Track Changes" so the author can accept, reject, or act in some other manner each recommended change.)
The problematic execution of the story went beyond this author's usual grammatical disaster. Perhaps that happened because the author extended his work beyond his comfort zone or simply beyond his experience. Some writers are like actors. That statement, of course, reminds me of an anecdote I heard in an interview long ago with, I believe, Dustin Hoffman.
Dustin Hoffman is a talented actor--a method actor. He prepares for his roles by immersing himself into the persona he will assume for the play or movie. That includes experiencing things as the character would experience them, which can sometimes result in self-harm.
The full-character immersion of method acting puzzled Alec Guinness who, upon seeing the physical toll preparing for a role took upon Hoffman, said something along the lines of, "My God, man, why don't you just act?"
And that, of course, brings me to another anecdote. Long ago when I was in college, one of my friends did her senior presentation on Oscar Wilde and the necessity of experiencing something to write about it. It fell under the oft-repeated admonition to write what you know. Her presentation perturbed one professor who took her aside after the presentation to ask her whether she truly believed a writer needed to do evil in order to understand it. She reassured him that she'd made that argument--effectively--only for the sake of the presentation. Later she confessed to me that she agreed with Wilde's assertion: one must do evil to understand it and write about it.
Write what you know.
I disagree. Write what you can imagine is better. I don't need to lay my palm against a hot burner to know that it's going to hurt. A lot. I can imagine it and extrapolate from other, smaller pains and injuries sustained over my lifetime.
When writing scenes of intense emotion or physical feeling, it's imperative for the author immerse the reader in those sensations. Immersion brings the reader into an intimate relationship with a character such that the reader gladly accompanies the character through the trials, tribulations, and, perhaps, the triumphs of the story.
Every word counts.
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