Brace yourself because I’m about to lay a brilliant analogy on you.
(Or am I?)
I’m not a master poker player by any means, but while reading through the first draft of my latest novel, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Friday night card games from my high school days. Let me explain.
When a writer first tries his hand at fiction, he’s like the eager newcomer to the poker table. He has his pile of chips, a dopey smile, and the unwavering belief that he is going to score big time. He’s playing mostly for fun, but he knows the rules (or, at least, the basics) and thinks that given enough time, he’ll become the master of the table, impressing his opponents and the audience as well. (Did I mention this was the World Series of Poker?)
But, really, he is quite clueless. Just like a dabbler in the literary arts. When a beginner writer takes his first stab at setting a scene, developing characters, or composing convincing dialogue, he has that same misplaced self-confidence that every sentence is the equivalent to a full house; every paragraph, a royal flush.
However, the amateur author has no finesse. He has—or believes he has—a winning hand, and oh, he wants to flaunt it. He doesn’t hold anything back. Everyone knows what’s in his hand, not only because of body language, but because he’s so darn eager to show off those pocket aces.
There’s a reason why beginners are repeatedly told to show, not tell.
Over time, a writer learns a some lessons, usually the hard way. Exposition has its place, but many details can be conveyed through characterization, conversation and choice verbs. Subtlety, effective surprises, and deeper strategies become part of the game.
At the end of the day, it comes down to managing the flow of information, manipulating readers into knowing what you want them to know when you want them to think they know they know it. Poker and writing—the two biggest mind games in town.
But what happens when the easy mark becomes the card sharp?
While reading through my novel, I realize that I’ve become the proverbial poker master. I keep my cards so close to the vest that nobody knows what I’m gonna lay down next. I play to win, bluffing when you least expect it and triumphantly revealing the winning hand in the final moments. No one ever sees it coming.
Which is a problem.
Because unlike poker, writing isn’t about proving yourself superior to everybody else. Think of it this way: If you played cards with your buddies every week and took the pot every single hand, how long before you wouldn’t be invited back? The reader wants to be teased, not tricked; astounded, not dumbfounded.
Sadly, I’ve been in this position before. The first draft of my last novel was something of a train wreck, with too many revelations hoarded for the last chapters. Rather than be too obvious (or even straightforward) at any point, I err on the side of enigmatic every time. I suppose that any round of editing requires an honest appraisal of what information belongs where. For some reason, I insist on making my manuscript challenging for the reader, which in turn makes it very challenging for me to edit.
In poker, there’s generally only one winner. In fiction, every reader wants to win. And if the reader appreciates all of the agonizing decisions the writer must make to produce a compelling, suspenseful, and ultimately rewarding piece of fiction, then the writer also wins.
As to whether all the hard work will be worth the effort in the end, well, that’s the greatest gamble of all.
I am in a quandary of late. I cannot watch the third episode of most of the new TV shows.
Why? Because they want to tease the hell out of you, and lure you into the next episode.
However, if it becomes too hard for an old fart like me to understand what is going on, I say screw it. And go back to MASH reruns.
My point? Suspense is not the only ace in the game. Clarity IS.
So tell/show, whatever. But make it easy enough for the reader to follow along.
Yes, I’m perhaps approaching the brain-dead zone.
So it goes. When you’re over the hill, perhaps you should just dribble your oatmeal.
Again: Make it easy for the reader to follow along. But teasing is self destructive.
The kitty cannot see the yarn if you’ve pulled around the corner.
Do you think I’ve made my point.
Your old dementor.
Good points, Tom. I don’t necessarily agree that teasing is self-destructive, but I adore the analogy you made about the cat and the string. I do think there is an audience that craves suspense and mystery (otherwise the TV shows you alluded to wouldn’t exist), and those elements do tend to turn up the tension a notch or two.
But, yes, suspense cannot be achieved at the expense of clarity…a lesson I’m learning all too well while reading through the first draft of my latest MS.