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Harnessing the Power of What You Don’t Say

A photo sent to Peter Nevland from a business watching his writing workshop in Sheffield, England

“True writing power comes when you have the audacity to leave out more than you include…”

They’re watching…
It freaks me out when I see my face on a computer screen…
in Sheffield, England…
surrounded by attentive people…
in the dark.

 

The realities of YouTube don’t really sink in until you find out that people across the ocean pay attention to what you have to say.  When they do what your recorded video asks them to, it’s exciting, and a little bit scary.  Now that I’ve admitted the butterflies poking my stomach, here’s what you can learn from it to transform your own writing.

 

Great Opening Material

Check out what “Andrew,” in Sheffield, England, emailed me after he watched the intro video on the front page of this website.  (He’s also the guy closest to the screen in the picture)

 

“The paris night fell on him like an early tide. His footsteps quickened along with his prickling anxiety. Cursing as he noticed the time he accelerated along the busy sidewalk, splashing pedestrians with both frustrated grunts and their shoes with water from the scattered puddles. His mind was so wrapped up in lateness and frustration that he rushed straight into superman, who was naked.” 

 

Wow.  Raise your hand if you want to hear more of that story.  It drips verbs, spews image-producing nouns, only uses adjectives when it needs to and tops it all off with an unexpected twist.  The video told him to use the words “Paris,” “puddles,” “Superman” and “naked.”  Look what he added to it to put you in the scene.  I’ve highlighted the verbs in green, the nouns in blue and the adjectives in red.

 

“The paris night fell on him like an early tide. His footsteps quickened along with his prickling anxiety. Cursing as he noticed the time he accelerated along the busy sidewalk, splashing pedestrians with both frustrated grunts and their shoes with water from the scattered puddles. His mind was so wrapped up in lateness and frustration that he rushed straight into superman, who was naked.” 

 

You can smell the streets of Paris after the rain.  You can feel this guy’s heart pulsing faster and faster.  He’s so caught up in his own frustration he never sees it coming, and neither do we.  A naked Superman stands in his way.  I hope Andrew finishes the story so we get to hear more one day.

 

I count nine verbs to six adjectives, along with a ton of great nouns.  The power of his writing lives in the verbs and nouns… and something else…

 

How to Make it Better

Just to be picky I want to show you how he could make this story even more powerful, and how he’s already begun to harness this technique in his opening.  I suppose he could clean up the line about “splashing the pedestrians with both frustrated grunts and their shoes with water” to make the image a bit cleaner, but that’s a minor change that he would catch when he goes back over it to edit.  Look at the phrase, “along with his prickling anxiety.”  Remove it from the writing.  You’ll discover that it’s not only unnecessary, it dulls the sense of his character’s rising panic. 

 

“…His footsteps quickened.  Cursing as he noticed the time he accelerated along the busy sidewalk, splashing pedestrians…”

 

Don’t tell me it was anxiety.  You don’t need to.  It already makes me feel how he accelerated, splashed pedestrians, knocked over girl scouts and their cookies, paid no attention to the screams of angry mothers, the whistles of policemen.  When it’s undefined, my brain tingles with anxiety; no, fear; no, panic!

 

Knowing what to include and what to leave out is the biggest battle you’ll fight for your audience’s imagination.  True writing power comes when you have the audacity to leave out more than you include and trust the audience to fill in the rest.

 

I suspect that Andrew didn’t have in mind what made his character late, his name, whether he was villain, victim, hero or some combination of the three, or why Superman stood on a sidewalk in Paris without clothes.  Because he leaves them out, our imaginations flood with those questions.

 

Good writers realize which questions an audience is dying to know and quickly construct a plan either to answer them or take the audience to a scene where they feel that they will get an answer.  If the author provides the answer, it relieves the tension of that question.  If the question remains unanswered, tension builds, and the audience will begin to imagine that the answer must be really important.

 

Either method can result in powerful storytelling.  Answering an audience’s question can create just as much tension, as long as the author raises an even deeper question along with the answer.  If you want a good example of this, read Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles.  The first chapter tells about a day when winter suddenly became summer.  After a couple paragraphs you find out it was because of a rocket.  But then you want to know how big the rocket is and where it will go.  To answer that question you have to read the next chapter. 

 

For a book that leaves one singular question unanswered, pick a mystery, any mystery.  The best writers know when to answer a question, when to let it linger, and how to combine both techniques to leave their readers on the edge of their seat, giddy with the deep satisfaction of entertaining reading.

 

Do It a Lot

The only way to master what to include and what to leave out, is practice, lots and lots of practice.  So start writing.  Andrew, finish your incredible story.  Everyone else, write something.  And then write another, and another.  Let your imagination soar.  Fill up your rocket with the most explosive verbs, nouns and adjectives and light the fuse.  Then leave the best parts for the audience’s brain to fill in.

 

They’re watching…  I guarantee it.

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