Make the Magic Look Easy
I’m sure we’ve all had the experience. The speaker is not very experienced. She stumbles over the words. And mumbles. She loses her place and looks distressed. Are we taking in her message? No, we’re focused on the speaker. Worrying about and for her, identifying with her unhappy situation.
A comparable situation occurs when writing and that’s what I want to talk about.
Flaubert’s Madame Bovary
In How Fiction Works, its author James Wood discusses Gustave Flaubert’s mastery of fiction, notably in his 1857 novel, Madame Bovary. Wood points out that such was Flaubert’s dexterity that the reader only notices what Flaubert wants her to register without necessarily realizing it. This is part of the magic—the trick only works if nobody sees how it is done.
And it has to look easy. The work put into it isn’t noticed. Rather like a gymnastics star. We thrill at the ease and confidence she displays on the uneven bars. We only imagine the hard work when she fails to complete her routine successfully.
Magic sometimes isn’t that magic
As I have mentioned in other posts, I don’t know how to create writing magic on demand. But I think I know some things that are likely to increase the probability that magic will visit. And they’re not magic at all.
Master your craft. Firstly, don’t emulate the unpracticed speaker. It is essential that you do the background hard work of mastering your craft. Handling complex techniques such as unreliable narrators and weaving subplots which enhance and do not distract from your main story, need to flow effortlessly for your reader no matter how difficult you found it to pull it off.
Sweat the details. Readers are annoyed at spelling mistakes, grammar errors, incorrectly used words, and a general lack of professionalism when it comes to the very basics of communicating, never mind trying to make magic. You can’t transport your reader to exciting realms if she’s thinking, shouldn’t that be ‘affect’ not ‘effect?’
Don’t show off. Like using complex and multi-syllabic words when plain ones will do. Remember what Winston Churchill said about that:
Same thing goes for sentences. If you make your reader toil to unravel intricate and convoluted sentences, that’s where the attention will be rather than on the marvelous story you’ve created.
Naturally, and as always with writing, there are certainly exceptions to this dictum. If the intent of your writing is primarily to showcase the beauty of the language and your mastery of it, you may be okay.
Sometimes it’s worth it but otherwise it’s just showing off of the I’m-smarter-than-you variety.
Is that all there is?
I know, I know, fairly pedestrian answer. I imagine that you were hoping I had some guaranteed way to ensure magic. And easy magic to boot.