Last week I attended a performance of Hilda’s Yard by Norm Foster. The hour and a half drive to get there was horrible — traffic, rain, dark, fog — but the play was a delight. I love live performance, whether it’s a play, a symphony or a ball game. Since I can turn on a device and watch or listen to the best in the world in the comfort of my own home while enjoying a snack, I’m puzzled by why I prefer live performance.
I think it has to do with the immediacy of the event. When I sit in a small theatre and the actor speaks from the stage, he’s speaking directly to me. When something bad happens, my response, along with that of the whole audience, is part of the experience. There is no barrier between me and the story. When I watch television, I know I’m watching a screen. The story may amuse, horrify or annoy me, but it’s just a story and I’m watching from a safe distance. When the story is on stage and I’m in the audience, I’m part of the story.
So, can I use what I’ve learned from going to theatre to add immediacy to my books? Is it possible to engage the reader in the same way the actor engages me?
The answer is no, not exactly. For one thing, a reader has to work a lot harder than an audience member and the words on paper or screen form a barrier. The reader can’t hear or see in the same way. But, the writer can enhance the immediacy of the story by using active voice, strong pacing and deft language. In our age of tweets and images it’s easy to forget the importance of language, but in the play I attended I noticed how the playwright used apt words and phrasing. He wasn’t obvious or “preachy” but the language made the story sing.
Another thing the staged play has going for it is the stage with its scenery and props. No need to labour over “showing” the reader the setting, it’s right there in front of them.
Still, an author of books can convey a scene so vividly the reader “sees” it in her mind’s eye and she can hear and smell and taste and touch too if the author wants her to. Sometimes I’ve read stories that are somehow disembodied and it’s because they’re set on the page and not in a place. Writers can get so caught up on character and plot that we ignore setting. Not a good idea. The setting grounds the reader and allows him/her to identify more completely with the protagonist. In a fantasy, the fantasy world must be so smoothly woven into the text that the reader can “feel” herself there. In a cozy mystery the reader should long for a cup of tea in a dainty china cup.
In an historical we have to “create” the world of the place and time, but we’re also bound by fact. We can’t have a character sign the Treaty of Versailles in London. Writers of historical fiction spend their time immersed in the period trying to get all the little details right. Harder than it seems. History books are full of battles and acts of Parliament, but not much mention of domestic arrangements. When our heroine or our hero gets up the in morning what does she do? How does she dress? How does she wash? What’s involved in cooking in a medieval kitchen? How do you store milk without refrigeration?
I’m writing about late nineteenth century Canada. Even narrowing my time period down to twenty years, leaves lots of room for error. A woman living in a city had amenities someone living on a farm did not. If the railroad had reached the heroine’s town, she had access to books and fashions and tools that someone in a more remote community waited months and months to acquire, if ever. As mentioned in earlier posts on this page, fashion didn’t stand still either. Puffed sleeves went in and out of style. Bustles bounced high and low on a woman’s hips. Although dresses were long, hemlines did change, sometimes skirts brushed the floor, other times they rested at the top of the foot. Not an obvious difference to our eye, but a huge difference to how the wearer moved and worked.
Subtle things can give a story that elusive quality of immediacy. The weather, the layout of a room, the style of dress, manners, patterns of speech. If you’re wondering how to give your story more life, make it more immediate to the reader, try going to live theatre. You may pick up some hints.