Bill and I are about as different as two people can be when it comes to the methods used to get from one place to another. In conversation, I often make intuitive leaps that allow me to bypass chasms and still make it safely to the other side. In contrast, Bill painstakingly builds a sturdy, safe bridge one section at a time. When he’s finished, an unbroken line of elephants, linked to one another trunk-to-tail in chain-like fashion, could cross it.
While judges and juries appreciate the detailed maps lawyers, through the efforts of investigators such as police detectives and seasoned FBI agents like Bill, lay out for them – neatly, logically, all loose ends accounted for and in their rightful places – lovers of stories don’t necessarily relish being led around by trunk or tail. Lovers of stories like the guesswork, enjoy the challenge, and most importantly, look forward to figuring things out as they go along picking up clues from one chapter to the next.
But no one wants surprises in the courtroom. So Bill prefers what’s always worked for him, the methodical, detailed thinking and writing that will aid lawyers in getting a panel of jurors where they need to go when the time comes. The method that provides as much evidence as possible in the form of objective details placed on a linear timeline with close attention to the most minute, but relevant, details – one…at…a…time. This approach has garnered him accolades for tracking and apprehending armed bank robbers, fugitives, and kidnappers. Proof that it works.
But that’s not how I work. In fact, my career in stamping out crime and bringing “perps” of another kind to justice comes as a result of my long-standing membership in the grammar police. At least that’s what my children keep telling me.
The plodding investigator goes from one thing to the next in a logical and progressive order. The doll house that took so long to construct won’t fit well or hold together if the
necessary steps were bypassed when you went from step D to step F thinking E didn’t matter all that much. Besides, it was taking too long and while the cost of another doll house might not set you back too much, shortcutting the installation of a new appliance could cost mega-bucks in repairs and equipment. Some nonfiction works this way, too. If you fail to perform the outlined steps in order, or if you miss one, the doll house – like the court case – could fall apart.
Whenever possible, plodding investigators deliver the end result with the lovely bow intact, the gift card neatly printed, the exquisite wrapping paper perfectly folded by his perfectionist’s steady hand.
Here. This is for you. Open it.
The only time I plod along is when I’m trying to grasp a difficult concept or attempting a complex recipe which requires careful reading, and where pinpoint focus is essential. Serious plodding is necessary. Vital, in fact.
But not all nonfiction works like this. Those who make intuitive leaps know where something is heading without having to ask. They trust the resolution will come.
Lovers of stories have little affection for the plodding investigator’s approach to writing. They just want to get there. To jump, not walk. To take a back alley, looking for clues to piece together on their own. They’d rather fly than go by train. They cross to the other side of the street not one slow step at a time but beating the traffic by dodging cars, finding another way around, through.
Instead of predictable and boring, readers are rewarded with surprising and interesting.
An investigator worthy of his credentials collects evidence and pieces it together like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. That big mess on the table doesn’t make much sense at first and they use various approaches in the beginning – some start constructing the border, others use color, landscape, sky, trees, water, or people in the scene to guide them. Investigators engage in “what-iffing” turning the crime over, viewing it from different angles, looking for missing links, isolating the connective elements. Investigators are always looking for the piece that completes the broken line.
And so are readers of stories.
There are different prisms through which both crimes and stories can be viewed, but in the end, the investigator builds a case that follows a linear and chronological path to conviction, a case that paints a clear picture of the crime scene for a jury and has been successfully made – what happened, when, to whom, how, and why – the unbroken line along its border complete.
A good writer does the same, but does so by leading his reader/witness with subliminal suggestions and clues. If the job is done well, a writer need only point the reader in the right direction and he’ll find his way and make that intuitive leap. He’ll be challenged, engaged, subsumed by the text.
The desired response to both evidence and story: “Oh, I get it. Now it all makes sense.”
Either build that bridge to cross the chasm or have faith enough to make the leap over it. Both investigators and readers must be alert to everything. And if the writer has done his job, the answers will make themselves known gradually over the course of the story, building a reader’s anticipation, excitement, or anxiety. The denouement of both is reached in the “Aha, gotcha” moment.