I wrote this piece for Joel Friedlander's Book Designer blog this week. It's the third in a little series I am writing over there about how to take your first chapter from good to great. I think this piece does a particularly good job of showing how to fix something that plagues a lot of writers, so I'm sharing it here, too.
If you are starting your story in the right place, and you have yanked your reader into the story with a great opening line, the next thing you need to pay attention to in your opening chapter is whether or not you are actually putting the story on the page.
Many writers don’t. The story stays locked in their head – a rich tapestry of depth and meaning – and what ends up on the page is just a shadow of the real thing.
Writers don’t mean to do this. The problem is that they know their story, inside and out, and they can’t un-know it. We, the reader, on the other hand, don’t know anything about their story or their philosophy or the world they are building, and we are desperate for inside intelligence. Inside intelligence is, in fact, exactly what we read for, and if the writer doesn’t give it to us, we will feel left out, and we will read something else instead – or nap.
The Burden of Knowledge
Psychologists refer to the phenomenon of not being able to “un-know” things as the “curse of knowledge.” Chip Heath, who is a professor of organizational behavior at Stanford Business School, and his brother, Dan Heath, a new media business consultant, wrote a book called Made to Stick, which is about how businesses can make their messages more “sticky.” It’s also a great book for writers. They talk a lot about the curse of knowledge and in this Harvard Business Review piece, they give a shortened explanation of it:
“In 1990, a Stanford University graduate student in psychology named Elizabeth Newton illustrated the curse of knowledge by studying a simple game in which she assigned people to one of two roles: “tapper” or “listener.” Each tapper was asked to pick a well-known song, such as “Happy Birthday,” and tap out the rhythm on a table. The listener’s job was to guess the song.
Over the course of Newton’s experiment, 120 songs were tapped out. Listeners guessed only three of the songs correctly: a success ratio of 2.5%. But before they guessed, Newton asked the tappers to predict the probability that listeners would guess correctly. They predicted 50%. The tappers got their message across one time in 40, but they thought they would get it across one time in two. Why?
When a tapper taps, it is impossible for her to avoid hearing the tune playing along to her taps. Meanwhile, all the listener can hear is a kind of bizarre Morse code. Yet the tappers were flabbergasted by how hard the listeners had to work to pick up the tune. The problem is that once we know something—say, the melody of a song—we find it hard to imagine not knowing it. Our knowledge has “cursed” us. We have difficulty sharing it with others, because we can’t readily re-create their state of mind.”
This is a giant problem for writers, of course, because we are in the business of trying to communicate. Our entire purpose is to make clear something that we thought up or made up or lived – and it’s as hard as getting someone to guess the song we are tapping.
One of the most frequent critiques I make on a piece of writing is, “It’s not on the page.” What I mean by this is that the story or argument may well be crystal clear in the writer’s head, but it has lost something – usually a lot – in translation.
A Work in Progress
Here is such a scene, from a work in progress by a debut novelist. It suffers from this exact problem. It’s very well written, but as you read it, see if you can identify the places where it falls flat, or forces you to question what’s going on – and not in a good “Ohh wonder what will happen next?” way but in a “Huh? What is going on here?” way:
“You may already know this, but your uncles were killed at Chemin des Dames.”
“Their names are on the plaque in the church,” said Marc-Pierre. “And on the memorial in the square. They were heroes of France.”
“Yes, they were. They are also dead. And I promise you that they both wish they were alive. This is what I want you both to understand: There is no glory in having your name carved on a stone.”
“You have no right to say that about Henri and Hugo,” said my father. He slammed his fist and leaned over the table. “No right.”
“I have every right, Alain. They were my family too.”
“You gave up that right when you left your family. When you left France with that arrogant…vainglorious ass.”
“I admit that Claude is vain, but he is not arrogant and he is not an ass.”
The air in the dining room felt very heavy. I could breathe, but I really didn’t want to. I found myself studying the lace edging of the tablecloth, how the threads wove in and around each other, then split off in their own directions to weave together with other patterns.
When I peeked up, my father was glaring at Aunt Louise. It was like the table between them was No-Man’s Land and they were in separate trenches and my father was about to go over the top. Papa was being unfair, they were Aunt Louise’s brothers too, even if she hadn’t been at Chemin des Dames when everyone died. But I didn’t want to be perceived as taking sides, so I kept my eyes on the lace, only once more peeking up, this time at Aunt Louise, who was looking at papa with a very calm, but unrelenting, expression. My mother slipped her hands over papa’s fist. Slowly, almost like he was deflating, he eased back into his chair. His face turned back to stone and his eyes never left Louise.
“Isabelle, sit up,” said my mother. “You’re halfway under the table.”
As the reader, we sense that something important is going on here – we can feel the urgency and the passion — but we can’t quite grasp it. We ask ourselves:
- What exactly is the father in this scene upset about?
- What is the specific point the aunt is trying to make about her dead brothers?
- Why exactly doesn’t the narrator want to take sides?
- Why is the narrator spending so much time to tell us all this? What exactly is she worried about? Yes, she’s uncomfortable that the adults are at odds, but any child would be uncomfortable, so why is this child different from any other child? Why is this moment different?
- What does any of it mean?
Those are the kinds of comments I often make as an editor. I am trying to get the writer to see that what THEY see – the beautiful story in all its rich detail — is not yet on the page.
The writers often fight back: “What do you mean? It is so right there on the page!” The words they have written ring with meaning for them, because they know everything about this story. It’s clear as day to them. They are the tappers. But we, sadly, have no idea what song they are singing.
Exchange with the Author
I had the good fortune to capture an argument like this with the author of the above lines, and he had the graciousness to let me use them.
Here is our exchange about just one tiny piece of the above scene. Notice the depth and detail and passion in his responses:
Jennie: “Why doesn’t Isabelle want to take sides? Or be perceived as taking sides?”
Author: “Isabelle thinks her father is wrong (“Papa was being unfair, they were Aunt Louise’s brothers too.”) Also, this is the first time she’s met her aunt and she wants to like her, and wants her aunt to like her back, because she’s attracted to the idea of the glamorous life she perceives her aunt leads, and she doesn’t want to keep living on a farm.
“But she’s also loyal to her father — he’s her dad, right? — who is not normally so irritable and abrasive as he is here. So she feels like she’s caught in the middle, but thinks one side is right in this case and the other is wrong.
As far as perception, her father’s reaction is a bit intimidating to her. It’s not something she’s used to seeing, so she doesn’t want to be perceived as being on Team Louise by her father (although that happens a bit later in the same scene).”
Jennie: “Okay so see there is so much here that is not on the page in that scene, but you still haven’t gotten down to the heart of it. So her dad is normally calm, but his action here is intimidating. And she’s not used to it. And she is drawn to her Aunt who is so glamorous. So when her dad “goes up against” the aunt, that calls into question Isabelle’s attraction to the glamor of the Aunt, right?
“What I want to see and to know is what that feels like to this girl — to have her loyalty so divided. That is likely a very new experience and part of growing up. When we see our parent as not all-knowing or all-powerful. When we see them in a new light. So what does that mean to her specifically? To have her own thoughts, and thoughts that might go against her dad’s?”
Author: “Ah, fair enough. I had not considered what the impact of the feeling of divided loyalty would have in Isabelle at the moment that it occurs. That makes sense. I’m a little more on the fence about Isabelle’s attraction to the glamor of her aunt being called into question simply because she’s already worked through that conflict to a certain extent shortly after she found out her aunt was coming to visit, which happens earlier in the book. A telegram arrives announcing the visit, Alain (the father) reacts negatively and makes remarks about Louise’s wealth and how she thinks the farm is too shabby now and that she had to leave to live her rich-person life. That outburst rocked Isabelle’s world, causing her to doubt her contentment on the farm, and now that she is aware another kind of existence exists, to perhaps long for it. So this scene here is not the first time she’s had this conflict, but it is the first time she’s seen it so viscerally and close up.”
Jennie: “Right! It’s the first time she’s seen it so viscerally, so let us FEEL it and see it, too. How does it hit her? How does she change as a result?”
Do you see how much the author knew about that scene that he failed to convey to us?
Do you see how much richness was left out?
We had these kind of exchanges about almost every line in the scene and then the author said this:
“So I think what you’re saying is that for every action, Isabelle needs to in some way say (not literally of course) `What do I think about what just happened’ and react to it verbally (dialog), with an action, or with a thought/emotion. So basically for every action, Isabelle must have a reaction, and that reaction needs to be aligned with the filter through which Isabelle views the world. Sound about right?”
Right!!!! The author re-wrote the scene, working to put all the newfound knowledge on the page. You can see below that the result is fantastically alive and engaging. It lets the reader in, gives us that inside intelligence we crave, and lets us feel what this moment means to this character. That allows us to care about her and want to keep reading:
“You may already know this, but your uncles were killed at Chemin des Dames.”
“I know,” said Marc-Pierre. “Their names are on the plaque in the church. And on the memorial in the square. Everyone knows they were heroes of France.”
“Yes, they were,” Aunt Louise said, “They are also dead. And I promise you that if they had the chance, they would both prefer to be alive.” She took one of our hands in each of her own—slender, manicured fingers enclosing a rough farm girl’s hand that longed to be smooth and soft—“This is what I want both of you to understand: There is no glory in dying and having your name carved on a stone.”
My father leaned forward from his chair and glared at Louise. “You have no right to say that about Henri and Hugo.” He slammed his fist on the table. The plates and utensils clattered; I jumped and yanked my hand back to my lap. The piano player botched a note, then played on. “No right!” he shouted.
I bit my lips and shot my mother a worried look. Was papa going to fall apart like when he had the shellshock episode? But maman didn’t see me. She was watching papa, studying him.
“I have every right, Alain.” My aunt’s voice was steady and strong, like deep running water. “They were my family, too.”
Until that moment, I hadn’t actually thought of my uncles as real, as flesh and blood people who wished for things, who did things…who escaped down the tree outside Marc-Pierre’s window like we had when we snuck out to hunt ghosts in Rémy’s cellar, or played Captain Blood by the pond under Old Grandfather’s branches, or pelted each other with apples in the orchard. My father never talked about them and I’d never met them—they were killed before I was born. Until now, they’d only been names on the wall of the church and on the memorial. Until now, when Aunt Louise brought them to life, my uncles had existed as ghosts. I wove my fingers between my aunt’s, as if tying myself to her would save me from being a ghost too.
“You gave up rights to my family when you left my family,” my father said, “When you left France with that arrogant…vainglorious ass.”
Papa had been on the edge about seeing Louise ever since the telegram arrived announcing her visit, and now he was just getting worse. The air in the dining room felt very heavy. I could breathe, but I almost didn’t dare— I wanted to be invisible, to disappear before papa focused his wrath on me for some reason. He wasn’t himself and it scared me.
For a moment my aunt’s eyes flashed, but just as quickly they calmed. “I admit that Claude is vain,” she said with a little smirk. “But he is not arrogant and he is not an ass.”
I was pleased that Aunt Louise stood up to papa. In my mind, papa was being unfair. They were Aunt Louise’s brothers too, even if she hadn’t been at Chemin des Dames when everyone died. But I didn’t want to be perceived as taking sides and causing someone to be mad at me, so I studied the lace edging of the tablecloth, how the threads wove in and around each other, then split off in their own directions to weave together with another pattern.
When I finally peeked up, papa was glaring at Aunt Louise. It was like the table between them was No-Man’s Land and they were in separate trenches and my father was about to go over the top. Aunt Louise was ready for him, though. She returned his look with a calm, unrelenting gaze.
Without speaking a word, or even looking up, my mother slipped her hand over papa’s fist. As always, she was his safe harbor, and slowly, almost like he was deflating, he eased back into his chair. I realized then that very strong people, even a bear like my papa, can break. I was terrified by the thought. How could I ever be strong if papa couldn’t?
Before she died of tuberculosis, Madame Marchand taught us in school that an ostrich thinks if it can’t see danger then there is no danger, so it sticks its head in the sand. ‘What a stupid bird,’ I remembered thinking. But now I understood. Papa’s rage, and now his furious silence, frightened me. The tension in my chest strained like an overtightened cord ready to snap and shred. I wanted to slide under the table, to block out the danger, to hide until everything went back to normal. But even as I slumped down, I was afraid there was no normal anymore.
Avoiding the Curse of Knowledge
So how can you avoid the curse of knowledge in your own work?
- First, be aware of your particular curses. What do you know about your story, your characters, your field of expertise, your culture, your world? What is in your bones? Be aware of it, and be aware that your reader doesn’t know any of it.
- Next, read through the work looking for places where you have left things out. Be like a dog on a hunt, sniffing out omissions and places where you failed to give the reader the information they need. Err on the side of giving them too much. More writers make the mistake of being stingy than they do the mistake of being generous – and it’s far easier to cut out too much detail than it is to build up something that is too thin.
- Remember that readers aren’t interested in physical details or actions unless they mean something. Always let us know what those details and actions mean to the main character. Why is she noticing them? What do they say about what she really thinks about a situation?
- If an editor or critique partner says that your work is a little flat or not quite clear or not quite on the page, write down your arguments the way the author did, above, and see how much of what you think is not on the page is really there. If something is missing, put it on the page.
- Remember that if you make readers guess too much or fill in the blanks too often, they will end up telling a different story in their minds than the one you intended. That is a recipe for losing your reader. They want to be led. They want you to write with authority. They want to lose themselves in your story – not skim along on the surface struggling to figure out what’sreally going on.
As a writer do you think you have suffered from the curse of knowledge? Let us know about your experience in the comments.
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