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Friday, February 12, 2010

The Iceberg Principle

Icebergs and writings you say? That's right, they do go together. Take a look at your typical iceberg. Notice how large it is, yet most is hidden below the surface. And just like what was under the surface sank the Titanic, if we don't know what is under the surface of our stories they may sink too. Some places this applies are:

Characterization: As writers we must know everything possible about our characters. From their favorite food to what he/she does on a quiet evening at home. Is your character afraid of that little yappy dog? Then you need to know why. Maybe it was something that happened in her past and just might be important later in your story. Does your character scoff at the thought of finding his soul mate? Knowing why might give a clue as to why he is so standoffish with the opposite sex. What dreams and goals does your character have? Knowing these will make a difference in how she reacts in certain situations. If your character was raised in several foster homes, that might explain her soft spot for foster kids and her anger at the "system" that shuffled her around. One great way to get all this information is to imagine yourself interviewing your character. Ask as many questions as you can think of and pay attention to the answers. Things such as your character's past, background, likes, dislikes, dreams, and goals are things your reader may never need to know. But the more you know as the writer, the more real your character will seem to the reader.

Setting: No matter where your story is set, you must put your reader in that setting. You do this by showing the reader the things most important to draw them in. As writer we must know the small details and sprinkle them in where appropriate. What smells are in the air? Fresh baked apple pie, flowers in a nearby vase or maybe the smell of the nearby stockyard. When you look around the setting, what do you see? Maybe a hanging basket with a very dry and wilted fern, is tea set out in fine china cups or do dirty dishes cover the counters? If you close your eyes, what will you hear? Crickets and birds chirping outside the window or a train whistle in the distance? When your character turns off Main Street, what will she find? All these are details we need to know as writer. Even if we don't use them, the more we know about our setting, whether it is a small town, big city or somewhere out in the country the more real it is to us. When using a real setting, find photos or maps and stick them on your monitor so you can share the small details with your reader. I created my town so drew an in-depth map of the town square with the street names, the buildings there along with names of stores and other places that populate my world. This doesn't have to be artist quality but sure helps when you need to know what store is next to city hall and which street to turn on to get there.

Research: I love researching for the most part. I like finding interesting bits of information I can slip into my stories that bring them to life. Those details also let the reader know that I know what I'm talking about. But it doesn't take much to turn our reader off and turn the story into a lecture or a stage to show off how much we know. When researching tigers for a mystery, I learned more than I'll ever need to know and used just the bare tip of that knowledge. Your reader probably doesn't need to know all the techy details of reloading shotgun shells but you sure do if your bad guy reloads his own. Historicals are a place where you have to do lots of research...from period clothing to medical options and so many other things. If hoop skirts were the clothing of the day and your character strolls out the door in her slinky black mini skirt, then you have jarred the reader and more than likely lost them. But again, your reader doesn't need to know it all...just enough to firmly grasp the time frame.

Characters, setting and research...three places you can apply the iceberg principle. Can you find others?

4 comments:

V.R. Leavitt said...

Great post. I like the idea of the iceberg too. Very true. Even if you never directly use the information "below the water," if you know it, it comes through in your writing. If the author doesn't know their characters inside and out, at least in their mind, I find that that's when characters feel more flat.

JoElle Martín said...

That research is an interesting thingy.

You need enough to let the readers know that YOU know what you are talking about. But you don't need to give them an education on the subject.

But if you ARE going to write a realistic scene on a subject you don't know, GET IT RIGHT.

I quit reading a novel by a bestselling author when she called a paramedic an 'ambulance driver' and wrote a totally unbelievable conversation between the paramedic and police officer. She had the entire scene wrong.

Hmmm. I'd never imagined iceburgs being part of writing. Now, where did I leave my lifevest?

Sandra said...

This is a marvelous blog, Jean!

It is something I need to start doing for my prospective novel length book ideas.

Thank you!

Sandra

JoElle Martín said...

That research is an interesting thingy.

You need enough to let the readers know that YOU know what you are talking about. But you don't need to give them an education on the subject.

But if you ARE going to write a realistic scene on a subject you don't know, GET IT RIGHT.

I quit reading a novel by a bestselling author when she called a paramedic an 'ambulance driver' and wrote a totally unbelievable conversation between the paramedic and police officer. She had the entire scene wrong.

Hmmm. I'd never imagined iceburgs being part of writing. Now, where did I leave my lifevest?