Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Second "L" (Logical, Linear, Lean)

Being "linear" means telling the story without getting sidetracked. One of the most difficult things to master is not using something simply because it occurs to you. Not only do such "occurences" have to be pertinent to the plot, they also have to be pertinent at that particular time. An especially brilliant turn of phrase can be just that -- an especially brilliant turn of phrase -- and still not necessary to the story at all. This goes for characters, as well. A character -- any character -- needs to be there for a reason.

Being "linear" also means taking care not to pull the reader out of a hopefully compelling plot with overly creative sentence structures -- like modifying a verb by sticking the adverb where the reader wouldn't normally expect it to be. Strictly speaking, it's not wrong, but it "clanks." By the same token, unusual imagery may also "clank." Yes, one should avoid clich├ęs like the plague, but creating a mental picture that stops a reader short isn't always a good thing. Your job as a writer of readable fiction, is to tell the story, not provoke the reader into constantly saying "Now, wait a minute -- it's a what done how?"

Basically, the idea is that anything that causes readers to stumble and breaks their train of thought, whether it's deliberate or not, is not a good idea. And if you do it enough times, you may lose them.

Which brings us to the bottom line.

Ultimately, being "linear" -- for me -- is respecting the reader enough not to make their enjoyment any more difficult than I have to. I can actually remember the first time I recognized that a writer wanted my reader self to be able to follow the story he was telling. I was reading a complex family saga with many, many characters, and the writer, when he switched to ones who hadn't been on stage for a time, would refresh the reader's memory with a few subtle words that made each one immediately identifiable. I appreciated that courtesy so much, almost as much I admired the skill with which it was done. For me, it was something to aspire to.

I'm also careful of dialogue. I pay attention to the structure of the paragraphs so the reader will know who is speaking. I want them to know and not have to backtrack to figure it out. I don't like backtracking when I read, and I assume nobody else does, either.

So that's it for my idea of being "linear." Unless I think of something else.

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