How to Direct the Reader’s Gaze

15 Sep
Steve Adams' essay, "Waiting Till the Wait Is Over," is a meditation on hunting and writing and the surprising connection between the two.

Steve Adams’ essay, “Waiting Till the Wait Is Over,” is a meditation on hunting and writing and the surprising connection between the two.


 

If anything defines great writing, it’s the ability to control chronology and time. Inexperienced writers will start a chapter or story with an alarm clock and end the piece when the character goes to bed or passes out. In other words, their structure is driven by time and consciousness. A few weeks ago, I wrote about creating pockets of narrative as a way to avoid the chronology trap: the tendency to kill tension by narrating a story blow-by-blow, one thing after another. But that’s only one method for corralling time. Another great strategy is to step outside of chronology to point the reader toward what is important.

This strategy is put to excellent use in Steve Adams’ essay, “Waiting Till the Wait Is Over,” which was published in Notre Dame Magazine, where you can read it now.

How the Essay Works

The essay begins as a story about learning to hunt: “The greatest gift my father may have ever given me came as a byproduct of a wish — he wanted me to be a hunter.” The first paragraph ends with a condensed history of his education as a hunter:

I was fishing with him as early as age 3; at 7 carrying a BB gun as we skirted a cornfield for doves; by 9 crouching in a duck blind with my pint-sized 410 shotgun at the ready; and at 11 sitting next to him up high in a tree blind as we hunted deer.

The essay then elaborates on this brief chronology with several paragraphs of specific details:

  • “at 3 I could be quiet and still in a boat”
  • “By first grade I knew how to scan a trail for snakes, for copperheads and rattlers.”
  • “In the third grade I was carrying a firearm that could kill my father.”
  • “When I was 11 my father drove us from our home in Grand Prairie, one of the suburbs of Dallas-Fort Worth, down to his lease in the Texas hill country.”
  • “A few years later he bought me a rifle small enough to manage, a Winchester lever-action 30-30.”

The chronology of how Adams learned to hunt is now firmly established in the reader’s mind. Now, watch what he does next:

But I’ve jumped ahead. I want to go back to age 5. Or 6 or 7. To consider the hours I spent fishing in the boat with my father, walking beside him hunting doves, hunkered in the duck blind waiting for the birds to fly in. I sat beside him in the tree blind and never saw him shoot, or shoot at, a deer.

Story matters. As readers and viewers, we often demand an ending. I’ve heard many people say that once they start a book, they rarely quit before reaching the end. At movie theaters, you almost never see people walk out, even when them films turns out to be terrible. We are, it seems, genetically obligated to follow a story until the very end. Adams accounts for this, twice telling us the basic sequence of events that mark his becoming a hunter. But that chronology isn’t what he really wants to write about. And so, once he’s charted the story, he points us toward what he feels is truly important. He’s not subtle about it: “But I’ve jumped ahead. I want to go back to age 5. Or 6 or 7. To consider…”

I often say this in classes, but subtlety isn’t always a virtue. In workshop, students often use the word authority, and for a long time, when I was a student, that term had a fuzzy meaning. How did one gain authority? What made prose confident? The answer, I’ve come to believe, is that stating things clearly when clarity is called for. Adams writes, essentially, “That’s the outline of the story, but, now, look here. Pay attention to this.” He steps outside of the forward momentum of chronology and focuses on a particular idea, a particular moment—the aboutness of the story, the reason he’s telling it in the first place.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s step outside of chronology and direct the reader’s attention using “Waiting Till the Wait Is Over” by Steve Adams as a model:

  1. State what will happen in the story. Adams does this with his first line: his father wanted him to be a hunter. The suggestion is that this is exactly what happened. How can you state the chronological end of your story in the same way? You can use Adams’ template: “My ____ wanted me to _____.” The understanding behind such a statement is that you, the writer (or your character), either did or did not do what was desired. You can also cut the second party and make the statement personal: “I wanted to _____.” The word wanted can also be replaced with words like loved, feared, hated, or obsessed over.
  2. Give the basic chronology of the story. Adams’ father wanted him to become a hunter, and over the course of 14 years, that’s exactly what happened. Adams highlights moments along the way that stand out to him. Almost any narrative can be broken down this way: I was headed here, and along the way, this and this and this happened. You’re basically giving the short version of your story.
  3. Redirect the reader toward what’s important. Most stories are not, ultimately, about the ending of their plot. Instead, they’re about the meaning or unexpected consequences of that plot. Even The Lord of the Rings is not really a story about a hobbit tossing a ring into a mountain of fire; it’s about the passing of magic from the world, and Tolkien repeatedly directs our attention toward this consequence of the plot. So, consider a moment along your narrative arc that seems worth of considered attention. Put another way, what part of the story does your mind return to, over and over? What moment have you analyzed from every possible direction? Something is happening in that moment, and after you’ve laid out the basic chronology, you can go back and examine what it is. Try using Adams’ model: “But I’ve jumped ahead. I want to go back to ____.”
  4. Dig into that moment. Adams doesn’t stop telling his story, he just slows down. What details can you give about the moment you’ve returned to? What did you think about at the time? What do you think about now, when remembering it? When I was a kid, there was a TV show in which a girl could touch two fingers together and stop time in its tracks. In going back, you’ve created a similar moment. Time has stopped, and in that pause, what do you see?

Good luck.

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One Response to “How to Direct the Reader’s Gaze”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. An Interview with Steve Adams | Read to Write Stories - September 17, 2015

    […] To read Adams’ essay, “Waiting Till the Wait Is Over” and an exercise on directing the reader’s gaze, click here. […]

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