By Pam Webber
A couple of years ago while gathering research for my Southern novel, The Wiregrass, I ate supper at a small diner in an unknown town on an unknown road in South Alabama. On the paper placemat was the saying “Some folks never exaggerate . . . they just remember big.” Finding this unexpected wisdom in this unlikely place struck a writer’s cord with me.
Isn’t this exactly what most fiction authors do? Don’t we exaggerate characters, settings, and themes to create entertaining and tension-filled storylines? Aren’t we remembering big the unique sights, sounds, places, and feelings that help us create and enhance meaningful stories? Can you imagine what the story of Tom Sawyer would be like if Mark Twain had not exaggerated the characters of Huckleberry Finn and Injun Joe and remembered big the sights and sounds along the Mississippi River?
Would To Kill a Mockingbird have become an American classic if Harper Lee had not exaggerated characters like Scout Finch and Boo Radley and remembered big the issue of social injustice? Remembering big allows writers to bring lovable and unlovable characters to life while taking their readers on a roller coaster ride of emotions, from laugh out loud funny to soul crushing sadness. In the process, they create stories that stay with us for a lifetime.
So how do we go about remembering big the settings and characters in our novels? While there are no formal guidelines, the following suggestions may help.
First, give the story’s setting the same degree of attention you give the major characters. Can you imagine Tom Sawyer without the details of the Mississippi River or To Kill A Mockingbird without the suspense associated with Boo Radley’s house? Rich, detailed settings support and surround the story, engage the reader, and advance the story line, and they do it in a way the characters can’t.
Second, climb into your character’s head and stay there. Singularity in point of view is important to the internal consistency of a story and is what connects with readers. See what the character sees, think what he thinks, feel what he feels. It was the single point of view that allowed us to see Becky Thatcher through Tom Sawyer’s eyes and Boo Radley through Scout Finch’s, and it is an important element of successful stories.
Third, pull back the curtain on what moves your character. Readers connect with a story because it has meaning to them, and the only way to capture that level of meaningfulness is through the unbridled emotions of the author. If you’re not laughing and crying when your characters are then perhaps your story is more mechanical than meaningful.
In writing The Wiregrass, I remembered big the sights, sounds, and feelings of a magical time in an ordinary place, filled with extraordinary people, wrapped it all in a lot of imagination and faith, and prayed for the grace of a good story. I hope as you write you remember big too.
Pam Webber is a nationally certified nurse practitioner and award-winning university-level nursing educator. She has published numerous articles and co-authored four editions of a nursing textbook. Pam resides in Virginia’s Northern Shenandoah Valley with her husband. The Wiregrass is her first novel. Find Pam at Facebook https://www.facebook.com/authorpamwebber
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