Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Wonder-Full Stories 3 - An approach to creating awe for readers

Go to the right place. Wait. Listen. Welcome. Develop. Tune. Set. This is one process for including wonder in your stories. It isn’t the only process. And it isn’t guaranteed. But, with enough attempts, it will succeed (on occasion) and create the potential for rich experiences in your stories. When it doesn’t succeed, even when every word of your wonder-full scene gets cut, the process will still make you a better writer.

So let’s go through these steps, one by one.

Go to the right place. In real life, this can mean experiencing great art. (Put me in front of a Vermeer.) Or Nature (Grand Canyon or backyard garden.) Or being present during a positive life event (birth, first steps, first love). Caution: If you are operating a video camera during any of these, wonder won’t show up for you.
All of the life experiences make wonder in stories possible and more probable. But, for me, wonder often happens as I’m writing. I smile for no reason. A chill goes down my back. And then?
Wait. Often, wonder is preceded by quiet, even boredom. I feel like I need to let myself synchronize with something bigger. Is there a door opening?
Listen. The Old Testament refers to “a still small voice.” (And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice. ) That makes sense to me. Wonder does not seem to declare itself with cannons, though it can seem to fill the senses as it progresses. It is easy to miss. Which is why distractions are such a pain.
Welcome. Look up “amazement” in the thesaurus, and you’ll see shock, horror, and fear. Wonder is uncontained and uncontrolled. It is humbling. It is uncomfortable in a profound sense. The way to experience it is to let go.
Develop. Wonder is expressed poetically. In fiction, it chooses its own first draft. But once it is recorded, it needs to be imagined in a way that can reach an audience. The dream needs to be reshaped for others, without losing its dreamlike quality. This is delicate stuff. I see the first draft as being a poem written in a different language that I’m obliged to translate faithfully.
Tune. The expression of wonder now needs to be looked over objectively. I remove (or repair) in this order distractions, confusion, and ego. Then I test each word. Is it the right word? Does it need to be there?
Set. This consists of three things: 1) Make sure this wonder belongs in the longer story. If it is not thematic, find it another home. 2) Create a gentle segue. What comes before wonder needs to be grounded in the familiar world and quiet. In the film of The Wizard of Oz, the black and white farm house lands with a jolt. The background music stops. Dorothy says, “Oh.” Then, except the sounds a basket being picked up and a door opening, there’s quiet. Until she opens the door to Oz. What follows is music, color, and wonder. 3) End the scene (or better yet, the chapter). Let it resonate.

The goal of wonder is to open the door to uncountable, unexpected possibilities for your readers. Ideally, the theme explored in the rest of the story supports this experience without putting barriers around it.

Why not go directly to great themes of life and literature and build scenes around them? In my experience, that’s unlikely to work. Maybe wonder is contrary. Maybe it is too evanescent. My suspicion is that, like happiness, it’s best not to pursue it directly because it is the product of many good choices. But, if you must, give it a try.

Also, it’s worth learning to recognize wonder even when it comes to you without any process. Surprise is one of its features (both in writing and in life). When you experience wonder, appreciate the moment and respond. Capture and learn. Then it might be valuable to go back and explore it’s origins. You may come up with a better approach than the one I’ve laid out here.

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