In Greek mythology, a Titan named Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it to mankind, allowing civilization to blossom. We can do the same for our writing, filching a little of the heat from somebody else to help our own work flourish. The good news is that, unlike Prometheus, we probably won’t end up chained to a rock with an eagle eating our liver every day for eternity.
Occasionally I’m writing a scene that begins to feel like a cheap sock-puppet show (no disrespect to PBS or any puppet-friendly network). The characters may argue or banter, but because they do nothing but speak, the narrative thins out and becomes less palpable. It takes on the one-dimensionality of a fast sketch, rather than the flesh-and-blood tangibility I had been going for. The people become talking heads, or, if they’re alone, they walk through a gray landscape where little of their world assumes a form.
Other times, I may read a book whose world is too tangible. Some authors catalogue every detail in a scene—the woodwork of an office doorway, the names of volumes on a lawyer’s shelf, the thirteen toys in a store window. The relentless listing overwhelms me and jumbles my sense of a scene, as if the characters were lost in a hoarder’s house. I’m guilty of this in my own writing sometimes, too.
The solution is a reasonable balance of description to create the impression of a scene. Here is the strategy that has helped me:
Anthony Otten has published stories in Jabberwock Review, Valparaiso Fiction Review, Wind, Still: The Journal, and others. He has been a finalist for the Hargrove Editors' Prize in Fiction. He lives in Kentucky.
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