I met John Olson at a Christian writing conference in 1996. Both of us were unpublished novelists with a background in science.
I soon learned that John had a yen to write novels based on the vampire mythos and an uncommon ability to write spooky stuff. John soon learned that I like scary fiction.
That weekend, we forged a friendship that’s lasted for over thirteen years. We’ve coauthored two books together. We’ve climbed corporate ladders and abandoned them. We’ve held each accountable as we pursued our dreams. I’ve learned boatloads about the art of writing fiction from John, and also a bunch about the art of living, and I hope I’ve paid him back by teaching him a thing or two also.
A bit more than a year ago, I sat in on a major track John taught at a writing conference on the subject, “Writing in the Shadows.” I enjoyed his talk tremendously and kept thinking, “Darn! Why didn’t I think of that?”
John’s latest novel, POWERS, is just now hitting the bookshelves. I got my copy last week and am reading it now. It’s a prime example of “writing in the shadows.”
I’ve asked John for an interview so I could introduce you to his ideas. Here’s the result:
RI: I really enjoyed your lecture series last year on “Writing in the Shadows.” In a nutshell, what is “writing in the shadows” and why would an author want to do that?
JO: You’ve heard of reading between the lines, right? Well, writing in the shadows is writing between the lines. It’s a set of techniques for creating mood and evoking an emotional response in such a way that readers aren’t consciously aware of why they are responding the way they do. The words on your page all have shadows. Once you learn how to harness these shadows for your own purposes, you can use these techniques to add creepiness to dark scenes, dread to action scenes, joy to celebration scenes or chemistry to relational scenes.
RI: Editors often tell us to “show, don’t tell,” but they rarely show us what they mean by that. What does “show, don’t tell” mean to you?
JO: It’s pretty easy. It means to… uh, show and er… not tell. Okay, maybe it isn’t so easy to explain. Let me give you some examples. As a novelist I’m often tempted to write something telling such as:
Hailey was scared.
But if I do this, I don’t give the reader a chance to experience that fear emotionally along with Hailey. Readers know intelectually Hailey is afraid, because I told them she was (and foolish readers that they are, they trust me), but they don’t get to experience the fear along with her unless I actually show Hailey being afraid:
Hailey froze. The vampire’s teeth were only inches away from her neck. She held her breath and tried to think, but her pulse throbbed like kettle drums in her ears. She had to make her stupid heart slow down. It was only encouraging him.
See? I never once told you Hailey was afraid, but you probably figured it out anyway. That’s showing.
Okay… I know what you’re thinking. I totally cheated. Of course Hailey’s going to be scared with the sharp end of a vampire pointed at her neck. But what if your story doesn’t have any conveniently located vampires? What if you need to show fear, and the reader doesn’t even have a reason to be afraid yet?
That’s where writing in the shadows comes in. It’s possible to write a scene in such a way that your readers will pick up on the fear without knowing the reasons behind it.
Your POV character doesn’t even have to realize she’s afraid. In fact it’s often better if she doesn’t. If she knew she should be afraid, she might not walk into that dark basement we need her to walk into. We see this technique used all the time in movies. Our clueless heroine walks into the dark basement and suddenly the background music changes. We know right away what’s going to happen, and we start yelling at her, telling her to turn her flashlight on, but she doesn’t seem to hear us. It can’t be because the background music is too loud, because if she could hear the music, she’d know the vampire was hiding behind the artificial Christmas tree waiting to jump out at her and make us wet our pants.
Stupid heroines. If only our novels had soundtracks to go along with them, showing in the shadows would be so easy! But if you think about it, our novels do have background music. It’s hidden in the shadows of the words. Sentences have flow and rhythm and cadence. Words have connotations that evoke mood and emotion and tone. Characters have autonomic responses that happen whether they’re aware of them or not. We have all kinds of tools to work with. We can go beyond showing and show in the shadows like this:
The door closed behind her with a sigh. Hailey shivered as a chill brushed across her mind, leaving behind the aftertaste of decay and wet rat. She hurried toward the elevators, fighting the urge to break into a run. Hollow footsteps echoed loud and lonely in the empty marble hallway. Stepping into a waiting elevator, she punched the ninth floor button and leaned back against the wall. The door shut with a clank, sealing her in.
See? Words like “sigh” and “aftertaste of decay and wet rat” and “sealing her in” create an emotional subtext that shows the reader what to feel without telling them why we want them to feel it. That’s showing in the shadows.
RI: You’re a strong proponent of giving readers “partial information.” What do you mean by that, and what have you got against giving readers the full scoop on things?
JO: Giving the full scoop ruins all the fun — at least it does if we’re talking about novels. Ice cream is a completely different subject. Imagine a murder mystery where the author tells us who the murderer is the second we’re introduced to him. Or imagine a romance where the author tells us all about the couple’s future life together as soon as the male lead is introduced. It kind of spoils the fun, doesn’t it?
Well, that’s what we do any time we give the reader too much information. We take away the mystery and anticipation. So if Dash Totallyripped McMoneybags throws up the second he sees our heroine, don’t tell us why. Let it be a mystery we can look forward to solving. And if Sydney Hottiepants is in love with Dash, don’t ruin the romance by telling us. Let us interpret what she’s feeling by the way she agonizes over her decision of which flavor of lip gloss to wear.
Remember, when we meet people in real life, they don’t come with fact sheets pinned to their shirts. We have to “figure them out” by interpreting their words and actions.
Let’s face it. We humans are really good at interpreting things. It’s one of the things we do best. By giving our readers too much information, we deny our readers the pleasure of interpreting and figuring things out for themselves. Not only does it take away from the fun, but it feels shallow and contrived. Why? Because that’s not how reality works.
We may think that giving ten pages of backstory on the history of Sydney’s attraction to losers is going to make her seem more real, but it will actually have the opposite effect. In reality we never have access to all the information. We have to interpret the clues we’re given and figure things out for ourselves. It’s more fun that way — even if we get everything wrong.
RI: Pace is a critical element in modern fiction which is rarely taught. Can you give us your top three tips on pace?
JO: Sure… Tip 1) Slow. Tip 2) Medium. Tip 3) Fast.
How’s that for a fast-paced response? Of course I could have picked up the pace by writing “Slow, medium, & fast.” Or I could have slowed it down by using a plethora of multisyllabic adjectives and obscure, seventeenth century, Latin-derived inkhornisms — which brings me to my fourth point.
Readers subconsciously assume that reading time is proportional to the timing of the events they’re reading about. If a writer takes time to describe the wildflowers beside the trail, the readers will infer a leisurely pace. If the story gives a quick succession of vague impressions, the readers will assume a rapid pace — like the POV character is moving too fast to process all the visual information streaming past her eyes.
That’s why you should never describe the wildflowers while a vampire is chasing your heroine through the woods. That’s also why words like quickly and rapidly should be avoided. Not only are they evil “telling” Ðly adverbs, but they also work against what they’re trying to convey. Inserting them into a sentence actually slows down the sentence (which slows down the action in the reader’s mind even though it’s supposed to make the reader think the action is speeding up). The word slowly, on the other hand, doesn’t work against itself, and is much more acceptable even if it is also an evil “telling” Ðly adverb.
Pacing is tricky. There are hundreds of ways to inadvertently slow down a fast-paced scene. One of the worst culprits is what I call “order out of” which is when the author presents information to the reader in the wrong order. Take, for example, the following sentence:
A gloved hand burst through the wall and clawed at Dash’s face.
On the surface this looks like a perfectly good sentence, but if you look at what’s going on in the reader’s mind, you’ll see why it slows the action down. When readers read the words “a gloved hand,” they picture the gloved hand in their mind. Then, when they read further and read that the hand bursts through the wall and claws at Dash’s beautiful face, they get confused and have to readjust the pictures in their minds.
Their first impression of the gloved hand was on the wrong side of the wall. They could see it in their minds, so they automatically put it in Dash’s view, because he’s the POV character through whose eyes they are viewing the action. But when it bursts through the wall and claws our hero on the face, they have to back up and readjust the picture so that the hand is on the other side of the wall. These kinds of readjustments break the flow of the narrative and slow the pace down — usually at times when we’re trying to speed the pace up.
RI: One of the things you and I have always agreed on is that fiction is about giving the reader a “powerful emotional experience.” What are the main emotional drivers that propel a story forward?
JO: Besides the inherent pleasure we all get from reading beautiful, well-written prose, I think there are five main drivers that make our readers want to keep turning the pages. I could tell you what they are, but that would spoil all the fun. Instead, I’ll give you a hint. They’re so central to fiction that they’re written on the shelves of most book stores. That’s right. They’re the genre labels. See if you can figure it out. What emotional driver is central to each of these groups of genres?
- Thrillers, Suspense and Horror
- Historicals, Science Fiction and Fantasy
RI: Any question I should have asked and didn’t?
JO: I never know how to answer this question. I suppose it’s because I always think through all the questions I know the answers to and then reject those questions, because they’re too easy. And I avoid all the questions I don’t know the answers to because, well… I don’t want to look stupid. Which means I always end up looking stupid — whether I’m stupid or not.
Okay, here’s a question you should have asked me:
Q: Who is the best author and writing instructor you’ve ever cowritten a book with?
A: The answer can also be found on book store shelves. (Hint: Search for the word “DUMMIES” written in big bold letters.)
RI: Thanks for the plug, John, but it may be a wee bit superfluous. I already mentioned my new book, WRITING FICTION FOR DUMMIES, about 5000 times last month, and I’m going to mention it again another few thousand times. But it never hurts to have you mention it too.
Thanks for your thoughts on Writing in the Shadows!
PS: John Olson has a new audio course, “Writing in the Shadows,” which will go on sale on my Web site soon. Before that, though, we’ll give you a chance to get it free — if you buy John’s latest book POWERS, which happens to highlight all of John’s ideas for writing in those pesky shadows.
Why would we give away a two-and-a-half-hour-plus audio course to you just for buying a book? For the answer to that, see the article in this month’s e-zine, “How to Run a Book Rush.”