Striking the Balance


Apart from spelling, what’s the MAIN reason why the writer/reader relationship is disturbed?

If there is an overriding error writers make, it is shifting attention within the same paragraph or scene, rather than continuing to develop the same idea they began with.

A paragraph is a discrete unit of thought that expands one specific idea, not three or four. If you find yourself shifting gears to start a new topic, begin a new paragraph instead. For creative writers, this might not be a paragraph but a “scene” -that little part of a chapter which translates across to drama or cinema as a scene. Shifting attention too swiftly disrupts the rhythm which, by now, you’ve worked so hard to build up.

Beginning a new paragraph or scene is like a new beat; if it’s not in rhythm, the reader has to re-orient their attention. Scenes and paragraphs should change logically and not too suddenly, unless you’re trying to disorient your reader, which is tricky to do successfully.

Think about the trilogy of Bourne movies: The Bourne Identity, The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum. Most noticeably in the last two films, a “shaky camera” technique was used to supposedly increase the viewers’ sense of reality or of actually being there in the scene. For many viewers, myself included, this took some getting used to -the constantly shifting angles and perspectives created a sense of vertigo and dizziness which continually threw me out of the film. It was a new rhythm, which it took a while to get used to- and it paid off, but it’s not an easy technique to master, and risks ejecting the readers or viewers straight out of the work you’ve slaved so long to involve them in.

In essays, it’s a good idea to begin each paragraph with a topic sentence describing the claim or point of the paragraph, thus orienting the reader to the purpose of the paragraph. A cinema director uses markers or landmarks to keep the viewer anchored; essay writers have to explicitly state these key points.

Using topic sentences to signal your meaning will orientate the reader and help him or her follow comfortably along your path of thought

If you do this, your reader will invariably find it easier to follow your thoughts and argument -and stay with the rhythm. You will discover that you can skim through the entire essay and still understand the main points. The next time you read a long essay, try reading only the first one or two sentences of each paragraph and you’ll see what I mean.

But there’s more to this -why do writers accidentally throw readers’ attention around?

Invariably when you shift things around and lose focus within your paragraphs or scenes it’s because you don’t know how to develop your ideas.

You usually know the paragraph or scene needs to be longer, but you don't know how to expand an idea to fill that length. Indeed a paragraph or scene should often be half a page long, but usually no more than one page. How, then, if you don't have enough to say, do you fill that space? Try implementing these tips:

• For essays, ilustrate your idea with examples. In stories, give a relevant detail -like your hero bending down to pick up a leaf or gazing at a bird in the sky. This action or visual moment draws the reader more deeply into the rhythm.

• Give an authoritative quotation, for an essay; expand your dialogue appropriately, if it’s a story.

• For an essay, anticipate and respond to counter arguments; for a story, try to spot some additional “tension between opposites” in the scene (you’ll be amazed what you can do with this!)

• In an essay, back up your ideas with more evidence; in a story, add some key description.

• Essay writers can offer another perspective to the idea; story writers can perhaps give another character’s views.

• Brainstorm more insights about the idea, in an essay; look for a deeper subtext, in a story.

All right, let's say your writing is coming along in leaps and bounds, you’re holding your readers’ attention with all kinds of rhythm and not particularly throwing any barriers in the way. If your work is particularly long and complex, perhaps sometimes even difficult to follow, as you approach the end it’s a good idea to re-state your theme or basic argument, just as in a symphony a musical theme is occasionally repeated. You want your readers to understand the message you intended to communicate from the beginning. You can do this subtly, without being too obvious about it. The main thing is to always keep your readers in mind.

Strike a balance according to what you feel your readers need.

It's not enough, though, just to restate your main premise -you risk a final disappointment after all your hard work. Try to leave a memorable impression: Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird finishes with Scout standing fearlessly where she’s been terrified to stand throughout the story; Tolstoy’s War and Peace wraps up all the apparently unresolveable political and personal issues with a new vision; Priestley’s An Inspector Calls leaves the audience with an unresolved problem which dramatically underpins the social message of the play.

If you can’t think of a final impression, try these tips:

• End an essay with a powerful quotation

• Paint an unforgettable visual image

• Explain what needs to happen next

• Give an interesting new view (without setting off on a new journey!)

Keep endings short, probably ten lines or less. Avoid waffle. You're just trying to make a clever exit, and presumably you’ve made all your really important points earlier.

The rewards for you of having all these principles in place and a readership which sticks with you to the end of the work (and perhaps eagerly buys your next!) have been stated earlier. If you have applied all these principles, you WILL have readers who want more of what you write, simply because you’ll be giving them exactly what they want.

That doesn’t mean that you can never challenge them, stretch them or even break their conventional ways of thinking -it just means that you will have the skills as a writer to do whatever you want with your writing and have readers follow you and be loyal to your writings.

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