I love New York City. I should. I lived here my entire life and I have to tell you, I've seen every corner of my beloved metropolis. Being from Brooklyn I had the opportunity to delve into the more seedier sides of the city. Her dark ports, her dim bars, her shadowy nightclubs and I loved every second of it. The real thing is that when I wrote Cover of Darkness, I wanted to move though the city, through it's denizens and to do so with an economy of words. I'm growing to be a minimalist in my writing, describing things briefly and allowing my reader to fill in the blanks. Now is this fair?
If I don't describe a city down to it's basic elements, missing nothing in my observations, wouldn't I be more of a benefit to my reader who would like to know everything there is to know about the city? Is that what I wanted? And is this what I wanted for my second book, Edge of Darkness?
I explained in great detail how I wrote the book Cover of Darkness in September 2014, where I think I vented a spleen. I wanted to try out my new style so badly that I wrote a series of books to get the feeling of how I wanted to write. But New York, to serve her properly, should be described down to its minutest detail, no?
Well how about this: let's take things apart and look at it and we can then see what's more important. Let's take a nightclub. A simple building. That's basically what it is. Do you want to describe it's plain looking features, brick walls, arched doorways, gruff and burly doormen dressed in black suits and white shirts? You can, but are you putting anything interesting down on paper? Isn't that why we write every sentence, every scene? Don't we want to put something interesting before our reader so that they'll turn the next page with baited breath?
Instead of describing the building with it's awning and/or the location of the club, such as in the Flatiron district or the village, with some deep explanation of the neighborhood, I would much rather focus on the people. I would much rather focus on the people crowding the front of the building. Is there a crowd? It must be a happening place. How are the people dressed? In trendy, hip clothing? In casual wear? In formal wear? You can see the questions being answered without words in the mind of your protagonist approaching the club, and most likely in the mind of the reader. They can deduce the club, it's type and feel, it's clientele and have an inkling of what's going on inside. To me, that's interesting.
I would then, after setting the atmosphere outside without an explanation of what it looks like, would quickly go inside. Hey, it looks like a building, end of story.
But picking out what's interesting is the job of the author. He/she is to pick out what facets of a scene make the most sense, what are the most fascinating bits of data that paint a picture without words. A simple fight breaking out in the line of people waiting to enter goes to show the reader that inside are most likely a bunch of roughnecks. Let the reader come to that conclusion, don't tell them that the protagonist read in the papers how rugged the club was, or a police blotter of how many arrests occurred over the past month. This is planting information, not showing information.
But then I go to my original questions: isn't a minimalist description of the city a cheat to the reader? Aren't I shortchanging my readers with the description of New York? No. Not in the least. I am so confident in the first book that I moved the venue of the next book to Vermont to cast my minimalistic eyes on a small town, the exact opposite of the big city. Wait! Isn't my aim to talk about New York, to open up the city and expose its bones? What am I doing moving my protagonist to a rural setting? Am I abandoning the city? My City? Oh no. I'm hungry to use my new style, with as little exposition as possible, in another setting. Is this good? Is this safe yanking my readers from the city that they no doubt were enjoying to the countryside? In Edge of Darkness I do just that. I want to be versatile. I want to move around and I desperately needed to delve into the life of the protagonist, which, in fact, I didn't do in the first book. I got right into the story and skipped all of the back story. I wanted to know how that felt and more importantly, could it be done without tearing the reader from the novel because of having too many unanswered questions.
The fact is, you'll never tear a reader away because of unanswered questions. The reader reads on for answers, and if the question is a tough one, they'll hang on just to get the answer. Well, do you have to give it to them at the end of the book? Of course not. Especially if there is another book. It gives the reader a vacuum to fall into. That's why I fearlessly changed the setting from New York to Vermont for the second one.
I left many unanswered questions for my reader which the second book answers, but instead of going through the torturous back story, thereby telling my reader about my protagonist, I go to the protagonist's home and interview their family and friends. If I need any back story, I'll have the characters relate it. I introduce friends who are shifty, sketchy, protective. I introduce family relations that are strained and the reasons why. I open up the life of my protagonist just as if I am walking next to them, learning about them by being with them. If it takes flying my character to Vermont to answer these questions without useless exposition then that's even better.
I'm bringing the series back to the gritty city in my third book, Pale of Darkness, but until then I'm not afraid to go where the answers are. Give your book dimension. Don't spend unless pages explaining what the protagonist's life was like in Vermont, and their relationship with friends and family there. Why not have the protagonist go to Vermont and deal with them? Or, if you just HAVE to keep your story in it's original setting, such as New York, then why not bring the relatives or friends to the city to help relate the back story that your character desperately needs.
But don't be afraid to change settings and move around in foreign locales. And don't feel the need to explain everything in this new locale down to the history of the place as well as the design and construction of the buildings in the town or city. Stay with what is interesting in your story, and you'll have to agree, 9 times out of 10 the most intriguing thing about your novel are the people in it. People are indeed multifaceted beings that you can make more intriguing than an explanation of a building, street, neighborhood, town or city.
Don't be afraid to move about and go about. And don't feel the need to bog the reader down with tiring prose that only goes to show that you did your homework but does nothing to move the story.
That's all that I have to say. Maybe the next time I'll talk about the city more and how I handled it in greater detail in another post.
Or maybe, even more importantly how characters can paint incredible pictures of their surroundings better than you can describe them. Trust me.
Show. Don't explain.