What Authority Looks Like on the Page

One of the things I find myself exhorting writers to do over and over and over again is to OWN their story, to take control of it, to write as if they are in charge of it – in other words, to have authority over it. It is not an accident that the word authority contains the word “author.” The Latin meaning of author is “enlarger, founder, master, leader.” You need to be the master of your story, the leader of your readers, and it’s not an easy thing to do. For one thing, there are all kinds of doubts you have to overcome before you take on the task –Is my story good enough, am I good enough, do I have the right to take control, am I worthy of leading my readers? For another thing – which is what I’m writing about today – you have to know what you’re aiming towards, what authority looks and sounds like on the page. In the opening 70 pages of Donna Tartt’s new novel, The Goldfinch, she’s basically teaching a masterclass. I imagine most of you have not read it, but if you want to read a quick synopsis, go here.) If you want to read a chunk of the pages I am discussing, go here.) Here are 5 things Tartt does to lead her readers with authority:
 
1. Indicate the lay of the land. In the section of the book I am talking about, Tartt is writing in the voice of a man whose mother died. On page 7, which is only the third page of text, Tartt writes this line:
 
“Things would have turned out better if she had lived. As it was, she died when I was a kid; and though everything that’s happened to me since then is thoroughly my own fault, still when I lost her I lost sight of any landmark that might have led me someplace happier, to some more popular or congenial life.” 
 
Can’t you feel the authority behind those words? This is a writer who knows precisely where in time her character is standing as he tales his tale (he is a man who is no longer a kid), what precisely the tale is about on a psychological level (the guy does not have a happy life) as well as on a plot level  (the mother died and after that, bad things happened as a result of poor choices he made.) In five lines, the writer gives us everything we need to know about the world we are in. We know the lay of the land. We are not left to guess what this story is about.
 
New writers often make the mistake of thinking they have to withhold information from the reader so as to incite mystery or curiosity. Unless you are actually writing a mystery, this doesn’t often work. Sometimes the best way forward is to come right out and tell the reader what the story is, and then let them have the pleasure of watching it unfold from the comfort of that knowledge.
 

2. Zoom in on specific emotions. Having given us the lay of the land, on the next page (page 8), Tartt zooms into a particular emotionally resonant piece of the story:
 
“Her death was my fault. Other people have always been a little too quick to assure me that it wasn’t; and yes,only a kid, who could have known, terrible accident, rotten luck, could have happened to anyone, it’s all perfectly true and I don’t believe a word of it.
 
It happened in New York.”
 
From this moment onward, the reader is waiting to learn about the mother’s death. Why are we waiting? Because, again, she TOLD us it happened, but also because she raised a lot of questions that our brain is now trying to unravel: WAS it the boy’s fault? If not, why does he believe it? COULD it have happened to anyone? And what the heck happened anyway? 
 
Our curiosity was sparked by the gap between what the narrator heard people saying and what he believed. He lets us into that gap when he says, “I don’t believe a word of it.” (Note the present tense there. He STILL doesn’t believe a word of it. )
 
If the author had merely said, “Her death was my fault. It happened in New York,” that would be telling. By adding in the emotion of what the narrator felt about it then and what he feels about it still, she lets us into the story. She gives us room to think and wonder. That’s what showing really is -- showing us why it matters to that kid and therefore letting us wonder why it might matter to us.
 
And guess what? The only way to be able to build in this kind of emotion is to know what your story is really about – to have authority. You can’t write a line like, “I don’t believe a word of it,” unless you know your story inside and out.
 
3.Make use of the rhythm. With the previously quoted lines, Tartt buys herself some time. We are now dying to know what happened, and if it was the boy’s fault, and Tartt willfully makes us wait. Why? Because she can. She knows she has us. And she knows that we WILL wait. It’s a rhythmic thing, a musical thing, the writing of someone wholly in charge. There was a big set- up in those last lines, a rush of story and emotion, and now there can be a slowing down. Tartt uses this “lull” to deepen the story.  She spends 11 pages telling us some things about this boy and his mom and their life. We get some descriptions of where they live, of the doorman at the building, of the things that happened the morning of the day in questions, and of the mom herself (which slays us because they are lovely and she is dead…)
 
Would we spend 11 pages reading about a doorman and a building and a mom without that set up? Probably not. I probably would have been done with the book. I don’t have time for 11 pages that don’t mean something. But 11 pages that Tartt thought I had to know now that I know the narrator STILL doesn’t believe it wasn’t his fault and that it happened in New York? Yes, definitely, bring it on.
 
She ends the lull by yanking us straight back into the drama. She writes this line on p 19:
 
“And there was something festive and happy about the two of us, hurrying up the steps beneath the flimsy candy-striped umbrella, quick, quick, quick, for all the world as if we were escaping something terrible instead of running right into it.”
 
That line is what wholly sold me on the story, by the way. Now I’m not going to stop until I get to page 771. Why? It’s a gorgeously written line – I mean, can’t you see the candy-striped umbrella? Can’t you feel the quick, quick, quick ? --But more than that, in my own life, I live and breathe that tension Tartt is talking about. I am constantly wondering if, despite the way things look to all the world, I’m not actually running straight into something terrible. And here is a character for whom that happened.
 
So Tartt has me in the palm of her hand, both on a plot level –what happened? How did the mom die? And was it the kid’s fault? And on an emotional level – what happens when you believe you are escaping something terrible and instead  run straight into it?
 
It’s the combination, wrapped in the rhythms of story, that does it.


4. Leave clues for the reader.  From page 19 to 31, the boy and his mom are in the Metropolitan Museum of Art looking at paintings. (This isn’t a spoiler. This is all on the book jacket.) Again, would I read 12 pages about a boy and his mom wandering through the museum if I didn’t know something terrible was coming? No, probably not. But I’m hanging on every word. Here, for example, the mother is talking breathlessly about her favorite painting to her son who is hungry and who doesn’t really want to be there and who is more interested in the red-haired girl about his age who has a peculiar face:
 
“People die, sure,” my mother was saying, “But it’s so heartbreaking and unnecessary how we lost things. From pure carelessness. Fires, wars, The Parthenon, used as a munitions storehouse. I guess that anything we manage to save from history is a miracle.”
 
I read that line three times when I first encountered it because its clear from everything that has gone before that these words are critically important to the bigger story. Tartt is not just using this dialogue to let us now how much the mother knows about art and history. She is not just trying to show us how a mother can drone on in a boy’s eyes. She is speaking to us, the reader. She is leaving us clues. I was myself breathlessly trying to figure out what those lines really meant – as if I wanted to be the star student. I get it! I see what you’re doing! I follow you! I win! That’s the pleasure of reading, right there. This was possible only because of Tartt’s mastery over the material. I know the mother is about to die. I know that the mother believes that saving things from history is a miraculous act. I know the boy is going to remember these words. I suspect that they are going to have something to do with the bad choices he goes on to make.
 
So all this is piling up in my mind, and all the while I am still waiting to find out how it happens – how the mom dies.
 
New writers sometimes forget that dialogue and setting and description are all tools – that everything counts in a story, that the reader is literally paying attention to every word as if it is the key that will unlock the whole thing. Don’t think anything is a throwaway. Make everything count.


5. Let it breathe. If you’ve done all the work to set things up, take the time to let them unfold. Don’t rush through just to get to the next thing. The reader wants to rest in the story. On page 31, a bomb goes off (not a spoiler. It’s on the jacket.) From page 31 to 70, time slows to a horrifying crawl. We are with the boy, who is himself alone, in darkness, in pain. It’s a horror movie. We can taste it, smell it, see it, feel it. Tartt spares no detail of this harrowing scene. It’s incredibly writing. It folds all over itself in terms of time – the boy remembers moments from his childhood, zooms out to the future when he is sure he will see his mom, thinks about the morning, the rest of the day that has been interrupted, the emergency plan his family made so many years ago, but it feels absolutely the way that life feels. We know that this is exactly what happens when all hell breaks loose even if we have never experienced it, even if we know that Tartt has never experienced it. THAT is authority. Things that are not logical before are logical here, and we feel that in our bones.  And it goes on for FORTY PAGES. Pretty much one scene. It’s a bold decision, but Tartt pulls it off. She needs all that time and space to let this moment breathe, to let us be in it, as immersed in the horror as the boy.
 
We are so with the boy that even though we know the mom dies, we hold our breath waiting for the possibility that maybe she DIDN’T die. In the slow unfolding, we share his hope. It ends when two strangers show up at the door, and he knows before they even speak that his mother is dead.
 
What’s fascinating about all this is that I just pulled out approximately 15 lines from 70 pages of text. It’s those 15 lines that are the glue, the anchor, the thread that makes it all work. It’s those 15 lines that lure me in. It’s not MUCH. But does your work have it?

It might be useful to take the chapter you are writing are read it over, looking for the places where you are taking control of your story (and this is as true of non-fiction as it is of fiction.) Where are you leading your reader into deeper territory? Where are you leaving clues and breadcrumbs? Where are you making promises, and giving payoffs and zooming in, and taking control, and paying attention to the ups and downs of rhythm? If the answer is, “I’m not. I’m just telling a story,” you know what you might need to work on next.
 
I Think in Books
 
I just saw notice that Anne Tyler has a new novel coming out in 2015. She is one of the writers who made me want to become a writer. I haven’t read all her books, but whenever I hear she has written a new one, it makes me happy. There’s Anne Tyler, still doing that thing she was doing when I was a young woman wondering if I could be a writer, too.