As writers, we all face the challenge of giving away too much or not enough when it comes to story and character development. The need to leave some room for the reader’s imagination is real and important. But finding that perfect balance between important details and just liking to hear yourself (or your characters) talk is difficult.
This week, I was reminded of this while getting ready for my son and his fiancés bridal shower. We each had to write down one of our favorite recipes on a 3×5 card to give to the bride. I think this is such a great way to connect with a young couple and help them share the parts of their childhoods that surround favorite foods and celebrations! So, like any good mother-in-law to be, I wanted to choose something that would let my sweet daughter-in-law know that she was now one of us. But I just couldn’t narrow it down to one, so I chose three! Now if that isn’t a sign of a writer, what is?
Anyway, the first recipe I picked was my grandmother’s cheesecake. Simple and delicious, this one has been in our family for a long time. But when it came to writing out the directions, I realized my card was way too small to tell her all the nuances of making this cheesecake come out perfectly every time. There was no space to include a description of the cracks in the top or that just-right color that says, “I’m done!” I had no room to talk about how sometimes I put four eggs instead of three depending on how I’m feeling that day or whether or not I’ve been to the grocery store. And how could I describe the specific moment when the strawberry topping reaches its perfect thickness and glossiness and you just KNOW it’s ready? There aren’t enough 3×5 cards in the world to get that part right. So, I had to let those things go and trust my “reader” to eventually make this recipe her own. Katie is already a wonderful cook, but would she make the cheesecake just like me, or my mom, or my grandmother? I think the better question is, “Does she have to?” And the answer is a definitive, “No!”
In writing (and in recipes), you must be willing to give away something that may never turn out exactly as you had planned. Just like I want to give Katie room to be Katie in everything she brings to our family, my stories must give my readers room to bring their own experiences, nuances and expectations into the world I’ve created. If I tell too much, the story is not theirs. It’s just a cheap representation of something that’s supposed to look like the real thing, but falls terribly short. But that kind of writing takes courage. The kind of courage that knows when not to write everything you’re thinking; to let the Master Storyteller take over and create something beyond what you ever thought possible. Through you, but not necessarily by you. Whew! That’s deep!
Take a close look at what you’re writing today and see if you need to give up some control and cut out a few (or a thousand) words you don’t need. Give your characters their head, and let your margins be just that, margins. Trust me, your readers will fill in the white spaces and each one will be unique and beautiful.
So here’s to recipes…guides rather than roadmaps…and to the best-tasting cheesecakes ever!
Sensibility- We all come into life’s seasons with our own stories. Learn to weave them together to create something special and new.
Sense- Take time to interview the characters in your stories. Write down their responses to important questions as if they were sitting right there in the room with you. This helps you understand the motivations behind their words and actions rather than having to include every detail in dialogue or description.
What are some of your favorite family recipes? How have you changed them to make them your own?