July 30, 2013

Write Where the Juice Is

eagle-focus rBeginning writers generally write stories like they write email, telling what happened, skimming the tips of the waves. For example, “We camped at Yosemite and saw Half Dome. It was spectacular, but the the place was mobbed. Somebody left food out and a bear knocked over their cooler during the night.”

If a friend sent me an email with that message, I’d assume she wrote it in a hurry, and make a mental note to ask about the intriguingly juicy bear story later.

That friend can be excused for the email. After all, she is on vacation, and I hope she’s immersed in the moment, soaking it all in, so she’ll return home renewed and refreshed. But if she goes on to write stories about that vacation, I hope she’ll wring the juice from that bear. I want to hear things like:

  • Did they hear the bear and know it was there?
  • If so, how scared were they? What did that feel like?
  • If not, how did they find out about it? What was going on around the campground as word spread?
  • How close did it come to their campsite?
  • Were they in a tent or camper?
  • What precautions did they take to minimize bear risk themselves?

Of course you don’t write these details in a vacuum. At a minimum, readers need to know details included in the email to give context to the bear details.

Another example of focus is illustrated by the eagle picture above. The email version of this story is “We spent the afternoon in Canon Beach and had a great time, as always. I got an amazing shot of an eagle.”

Snapping that picture of the eagle was the juice of my day. But if you saw only the enlarged inset of that eagle, you’d think Ah, yes. An eagle. Nice shot! and move on. The larger picture shows the eagle atop a tree in the distance.

But even the larger picture doesn’t tell you that I shot that picture in mid-June, 2012 atop the seaside bluff in Canon Beach, Oregon, and that I was delighted with the performance of the new camera I was using. You don’t know what a delightful day it was, or how far we walked, or how mesmerizing the entire afternoon was.

For me, that eagle is a metaphor for the afternoon. Writing about it in story form, I may include snippets of conversation and my own reflections to anchor it in context:

As we strolled along the top of the bluff, alternately gazing out to sea, and scanning vistas of the town, a moving speck caught my husband’s eye.

“Look! An eagle!”

“Where?”

“It just landed in that tree! See? Right on top.”

Before he finished that sentence, I was zooming out to the limit. Would this new camera hold steady at that zoom? I began slowly breathing out to relax and steady my shot. The eagle was in no hurry. I got four more shots, then took time to marvel at seeing this rare bird through the zoom of my camera display. I marveled at the white head, the regal bearing, the powerful swoop of its wings when it finally soared off. Magnificent! This treat caps the perfect day, I thought. It doesn’t get any better than this.

In our room that evening, I downloaded the day’s pictures. “Look at this shot!” I squealed with pleasure. “With all those pixels, I can zoom in with Photoshop and almost see the feathers.”

On its own, that picture is unremarkable. Without more detail, hearing that I saw it and took the picture is no less so. I need more scene to anchor the relevance of this anecdote within the larger trip report.

Write now: look through an old story and find a juicy detail you told about and glossed over, “e-mail style.” Write a short scene to flesh out that detail and add meat to the bones of that story.

7 comments :

Sherrey Meyer said...

Just telling that story won't get the job done, will it? Thanks for a great post, Shirley.

Sharon said...

Thanks Sherrey. Although beginning writers understand the concept of scene, or "showing," finding the "hooks" in their narrative "telling" stories is one of the most challenging transitions most face.

Susan G. Weidener said...

Sharon,
This is an excellent reminder to writers to go for the details and then build on that with metaphor. It's not a sneaker, it's an Air Jordan. Build on that the idea of flight . . .
I, too, have noticed that new writers compose "email" style when they first begin the journey that is writing. I will share this with our Women's Writing Circle. Thank you.

Sharon said...

Air Jordan. Yes! Thanks for that, Susan. BTW, I often encourage new writers to start with emails or handwritten "letters" if they are having trouble getting thoughts on the page. They do provide a foundation for building.

Ainaa khan said...

Amazing post and very interesting stuff you got here! I definitely learned a lot from reading through some of your earlier posts as well and decided to drop a comment on this one!
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Wayne Groner said...

Great tip, Sharon. May I have permission to print your bear narrative for handout to students in my memoir-writing class? It is an excellent example of show-don't-tell. Thanks.

Sharon said...

I'm glad you found it helpful Wayne. Of course you can use it, and thanks for asking.

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