by Eric Witchey
I read fiction because I love a ride through unexpected twists and turns.
Opening a new book is like settling in under rubber-padded restraints in the fiberglass shell of a tiny capsule shaking under the pull of a chain as it rolls up an inclined rail toward the peak of a hill beyond which lies the unknown. With each word, my adrenaline surges. I anticipate the moment the chain lets go and I hurtle through time and space, pressed and pulled by the ups and downs and twists and turns of human experience molded by the g-forces of plot, sociology, and a cosmology I discover for the first time with each page turned.
It’s my father’s fault, this thrill addiction. He put me on my first ride when he opened a dog-eared copy of A.E. Van Vogt’s “The Silkie” and read to me by the light of a camp fire.
That’s why I read.
I write for the same reason engineers build faster, scarier rides. Somewhere along the path, the fascination with the ride became an obsession, and the obsession led to study and analysis of where each tiny, savored thrill was born. The need to know how fast, how far, how much it took to make a scream erupt from the lips of a rider became a new kind of thrill.
But whose ride is it—the reader’s or the writer’s?
Every writer who has written a first draft has handed their work to someone only to see the tale evoke the same reaction as a ride in a wheel-barrow pushed by a limping man. Of course, a first draft may have moments of scream generating power, but it also invariably has gaps and dead end forks in the track. A reader thrown off the ride offers the writer no second chances.
During revisions, we writers often find the story has lost its emotive power over us. No longer thrilled at the discovery of new hills, new twists, new nuances of character psyche, we may abandon the work or begin new work. Often we assume the reader will feel the same absence of power what we feel, so we begin creating a new ride in which we can find new highs and lows.
This is a moment of truth for a writer. It is the moment at which the writer has to decide to whom the story belongs, for whom the writer is building the ride.
If the ride is for the writer, the ride is over. There are no more surprises—no more thrills to be found in the writing. The emotional power of the images in the writer’s head is complete, fully crystallized and experienced. The writer has ridden the ride to its end, squealed in delight, screamed in fear, cried at the pain of sacrifice and the ecstasy of love born in their dreamer’s soul. The writer is exhausted and ready to head for their favorite watering hole for a drink and a sit in the shade.
On the other hand, if the ride belongs to the reader, then the writer is just starting. The writer knows where the reader should throw up their hands and scream. Will the reader do it? Will the reader cry? Will the reader laugh out loud while sitting in a work place cafeteria turning pages to get to the next dip and the next twist?
About the time the writer is finished developing their own sense of the ride, the reader is only just beginning to be able see framework that suggests the possibility of a ride. Peaks and troughs and twists and spins in the mind of the writer can be a long, flat track up on stilts to the reader. It may be high and long, but it is ultimately boring.
To pour the adrenaline into the blood of the reader, the writer has to decide that it is not enough to ride their own vision. They have to decide to make that vision live in every soul-catching, tear-wrenching, scream-generating detail in the mind of the reader.
To do this, the writer has to come back to the fiction with dual vision: the memory of the ride they have ridden and a self-imposed discipline of innocence that allows the writer to admit to only the images and evocations created by the words on the page. This discipline requires that the writer ruthlessly revise the text to grab and drive the heart of someone who is coming to the story for the first time, someone who is caught in the restraints looking up the track to the peak of the hill and anticipating the best ride of their life.
The writer has to give up ownership of the ride and give it over to the reader so when the chain stops pulling, when the car hovers at the peak in a meta-stable moment of Newtonian decision, the reader looks out over the track unfolding below in hoops and twists and curves and loops, and the reader screams and reaches for the corner of the page to turn it.
We have to go back to the thing we have built and check every scene for rising stakes, to see that each character is affected emotionally by their experience on the page, to strip away words that flatten the peaks and fill in the troughs the reader craves. We have to look past our own memory of intention and see how each word adds a beat to or takes a beat from the heart rate of the reader. When a scene opens on a peak, it has to feed the reader into a trough and bring them to the next rise. When a scene opens in a trough, it has to fly upward and spin and twist and dump the reader, screaming, crying and laughing, into a turn they could never have anticipated.
When every rider screams in delight, when the most stone-faced rider blanches and smiles as he takes a wobbly step away from the car at the end of the ride, then the writer can smile and head for the drink the shade and begin to dream a new ride, a bigger one, a scarier one, one that will set fire to the blood of a child inside the circle of magic light cast by a camp fire.