The truth, the whole truth and…

I’ve been thinking hard about telling the truth in my writing. I make up stories, so they are fictional, but I know that the essence of a story has to be true, or the readers will know, and back off. Emotions give a story heart. Without heart, I stop reading, because I don’t care what happens to the characters. It’s irrelevant whether or not the character is a ‘goodie’ or a ‘baddie’ as long as their emotional responses ring true.

So then I thought, how do I do that without going totally over the top with the adjectives? How do I peel away the layers separating a character from a reader, and lay him or her bare? How do I make the character give up the truth of their feelings?

I attended a very good on-line Writers’ Workshop course on Self-editing a Novel last year. One of the most powerful weeks was when we got to try ways of getting closer to the feelings of a character, and further away, and examined the differences that style and word choice made to the power and depth of our writing. From a distant, disinterested level 1, suitable for a meeting, to the emotional turmoil of extreme close up at level 5. The tutor that week was Emma Darwin, and you can find a more detailed analysis of ‘psychic’ or narrative distance on her brilliant blog ‘This Itch of Writing’. She drew on the work of John Gardner in his standard text ‘The Art of Fiction’- and condensed it into a readable, immensely helpful post.

How does it work? Well, one of the things we all do is to censor what we write. Even in a personal diary, we are aware of a potential audience, and censor our words- just in case. I think I rarely write the truth of a feeling, especially if it’s a powerful or upsetting one. (Poets, of course, aim to do this all the time). The most helpful way to demonstrate this burrowing into the emotional dark places is to show you a ‘before and after’ extract from my own novel, ‘Breathe’.

Preamble: Jamie is falling apart as he waits to talk to the police about the death of his girlfriend. In the first version, approximately level 3 out of 5, there is a sense of his pain, but I think it really gets there in the second, level 5 version where I attempt to get to the truth about his feelings.

Level 2/3
He’d only been trying to get her to stop talking to Westlake, but when he’d smashed the phone it made her so mad she’d fought back, and before he knew it he’d knocked her onto the bed and was choking her. He only wanted to stop her, not kill her, but she’d made him so angry. You could fight other lads and not kill them. He looked at a scratch on his arm and rubbed it raw, wanting the pain.

Level 5
He could still feel his arm round her throat- squeezing and squeezing. I’m strong now, strong now, Carly. Squeezing and squeezing, kneeling on her back, bending her head back- give in, give in, give in. So angry. Bitch bitch bitch. Until she stopped fighting. Just one slow dragging breath. And she just lay there, still. He hadn’t meant to kill her. A boy wouldn’t have died so easy. He choked back snot, blood and tears and found the scratch. He bit where the scratch burned, sucking at the blood. She was in the scratch, taunting him, and he had to rub, to rub, to scrub at it until she was gone, until she left him alone, until the pain stopped.

Better? You need to be selective with level 5 writing- but it does help you get to the truth.


One thought on “The truth, the whole truth and…

  1. Carol Hedges says:

    A very thoughtful post. Your comparisons of the two paragraphs was revealing. I think level 5 stuff is more getting our own feelings out – level 2/3 is more for the reader to read and add their own ‘level 5’ – hopefully from what we have revealed to them. Some writers base a lot of their work at a Level 5. It leaves nothing for the reader to imagine and nowhere for them to go.
    Personally, I just run it like a film script and write it down.

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