Characters Loom Large Behind a Veil of Smoke

by Sharleen Jonsson

Last week, my husband and I drove through the interior of British Columbia. There were over two hundred forest fires raging in my home province and we traveled awfully close to a lot of them. Along a fairly deserted highway, we saw thick smoke ahead. What was around the bend? I felt alarm, forgetting for a moment that this highway would be closed (surely?) if it was dangerous. I soon got used to the murk and for the next eight hours, as visibility ranged from one to five kilometers, I amused myself from the passenger seat by taking pictures of smoky landscapes. And it occurred to me, as we passed through one familiar valley, that I’d never given such close attention to the wooded mountains across the river or to the horses in the pastures. Not being able to see something clearly made me focus intensely on it.

I was reminded of that smoky journey when I read a post on Writer Unboxed by literary agent Donald Maass. Maass writes about the power of what’s not there. He’s speaking of characters who aren’t present (as opposed to clouded mountains and horses) and the point of his post is to give writers tips on how to conjure an unmet character, one of them being to show the reader evidence of that character’s existence. One thing Maass doesn’t mention is that the “presence” of a character can be more powerful because they aren’t there.

Just as I was far more aware of the surrounding country because much of it was hidden, a reader may attend more to a character when that character is not wholly in view. The trick, I think, is to make sure there’s just enough revealed to capture the imagination. If, for example, I had been unable to make out the outlines and muted colors of horses and mountains, there would not now be a hundred pictures of that drive through the Cariboo in my digital camera.

The same principle can be applied to writing. I’ve got a character who’s missing (ie., dead) at the beginning of my story, and I’ve decided that if I give the reader a hint of her “color” and the general shape of her character, she will be increasingly intriguing. Well, that’s the plan. Sometimes writing can seem like heading out on a long journey with limited visibility and you gotta keep goin’ even when the smoke gets in your eyes…

Okay, enough with the smoke metaphor. But as I sit, red-eyed, at my computer, there’s a winding, gauzy highway in my mind.

More: Donald Maass on Writer Unboxed.

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Slow Reader August 25, 2010 at 6:34 pm

This is a great point, Sharleen!
The analogy to the veil of smoke is very appropriate.
Though I am sorry that your lovely landscape is burning …
I just read a couple days ago, in a writing craft book, how what is not said
by characters is as important as what is said. I wish I could remember which
book it was, so I could give proper attribution.
I am struggling with this concept in my own (master’s thesis) project — I
have a tendency to blather all over the page … spilling out too much
information …
What might be some writing exercises to work on this? as you suggest — “a
reader may attend more to a character when that character is not wholly in
view. The trick, I think, is to make sure there’s just enough revealed to
capture the imagination.”


sharleenjonsson August 26, 2010 at 10:24 pm

Thanks for this comment, Slow Reader. I
remember reading (a very long time ago) one of Hemingway’s short stories
(can’t think of the name) and a woman is in a tent, and her husband walks
in, and they say nothing or at least very little, and one of them walks out.
The point is that they don’t say the sort of things you’d expect spouses to
say to each other, so you know right away something is amiss but you don’t
know what — and therefore you pay more attention to their next exchange.

Or something like that.

I don’t know of any writing exercises, but I suppose you could experiment
with cutting different things from your writing and see what effect that
has. You could cut something that would make your reader pay attention more
to an important point (like Hemingway).


Slow Reader September 1, 2010 at 10:46 am

I like that idea, Sharleen, taking a piece of
my prose and cutting out different sentences or phrases to see the effect.

I like the idea of writing “exercises” in general — experimenting with
different ideas and looking at the result. One important thing I learned
from my graduate school professors is that “experimenting” is a good
thing — it gives me new and fresh ways of looking at a section of prose —
I may end up tossing the product of the experiment (as I do with most of my
adventures in cooking, though my three dogs are usually happy to eat any
less than successful outputs …)


sharleenjonsson September 1, 2010 at 2:07 pm

I think the important thing (if you want a
“veil of smoke”) is not just to cut certain phrases but to cut information.
That is, if your draft informs your reader that character X left the party
early and shows us who she then met and where they went and why, consider
cutting some of that information. I guess the trick is to figure how much
you need to reveal enough to intrigue but not so little that the reader gets
frustrated and puts the book down. It’s always good to have a little
mystery, I think, even if what you’re writing is not within the mystery


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