Friday, June 15, 2012

Don't be

One of the things I love about writing is how big a difference can be made by something small. It's as if a cathedral were made up not only of a dreamed design in the architect's mind, not only of the terror and grandeur of those tall spaces to a peasant, not only in that distant rigid shape on a blue horizon, but also the tiny details: the texture and smell of stone, the motes in the sunbeams, the mouse tracks across the dust of ages.

For example, take two characters. One feels some emotion -- any emotion -- toward the other, and utters one of the following remarks:

Don't. (Abrupt ... maybe uncertain)
Don't be an ass. (Dismissive, almost patronizing)
Don't be a little beast (1930s British literature)
Don't be cross (Ditto; you can tell my reading habits from my examples.)
Don't be stupid.
Please don't.
Don't. Please.
Don't you dare.
Don't do it.
Don't do that.
Don't, don't, don't!

Now, apart from the strange but not unexpected effect of having writing "don't" so many times that it's lost all meaning, you can see how every one of these phrases reveals not just something about the tenor of the situation (tense? nervous? playful?) but also lets the speaker's character come through. Where one character might say "Don't. You. Dare," another might say, "Oh, don't be an idiot." Huge difference.

And all these details add up to the momentum of a good book; each of them is a spot where you as the writer can add (or, clumsily, detract) from the life of the book, of the chapter, or even of the paragraph or sentence.

Don't be a bore!