It's been a while since I've written a writing-related post ... or posted much at all, really ... so bear with me as I become particularly long-winded.
It seems that certain stories make their way around the Church, and everyone has to share them in their talks or lessons. In the eighties, the story of choice went something as follows:
A man went to a job fair to look for a young man to hire to work on his farm. He went down the line of applicants and asked each of them for their qualifications. One boy said, "I can sleep when the wind blows." This perplexed the man, and he passed the boy over.
Well, the worker he chose didn't fit, so he came back the following week to see who else was available. The same unusual young man was there, and responded, "I can sleep when the wind blows." That didn't make any sense to the farmer, so again, he hired someone else, and that someone else also didn't do well at the job.
The third time (ever notice how these stories always go in threes?), upon hearing the strange answer, the man decided to go ahead and give the boy a try. He took him back to the farm, showed him his tasks, and showed him his bedroom in the loft.
That night (what a coincidence!) a horrible storm came up. The farmer leaped out of bed and ran around the barn to check all the doors and windows and latches, and found that they were secure. His worker was still asleep in his bed, and the farmer finally understood what he meant and was glad that he'd hired him.
So, that's how I heard the story told all through my childhood, and it never made sense. Why was the farmer so impressed that the boy was still asleep? It sounded downright lazy to me. It wasn't until I was in my late teens that I finally heard the story told in a way that made sense, and you know what? It only took one clarifying sentence, which went as follows:
Because the young man had made sure that the barn was secure before he went to bed, when the storm arose, he didn't need to run around in a panic because the work had already been done, and he could sleep peacefully.
Whoa! Did you see that? One little sentence clarified that whole story for me. Now I understood why everyone nodded and agreed with how wise it was when they heard it. Now I could apply it to my own life and really get the lesson I was being taught.
One of the biggest questions I ask my clients when I edit their books is, "Why?" Why did the character pull that face? Why did she react that way? Why did she sigh? Why did she start digging through her purse? Why, why, why?
It might be totally obvious to the author why the character is doing that thing or saying that thing, but if it's not obvious to the reader, the entire point will be lost. I have come up with a saying to help us all remember this principle, and you may quote me, but it's so awesome that if you do quote me, be sure to use my name:
If you don't understand how she feels, you'll never understand what she does. - Tristi Pinkston
See? Cool, huh? If you don't understand that your character is angry, you won't understand why he's suddenly speaking through his teeth. A quick flash of thought will go a long way there.
It's all about connecting the dots. You give the reader this plot point and this character and this setting, and then you connect them together to make a complete image. You throw in those clarifying sentences (like, the kid had already locked everything, so he was at peace) and you show why that other character from the other example is angry (her words reminded him of what she'd said the night she left, and all those hurt feelings came rushing back, blinding him). That's how you create a whole picture, a whole experience for the reader so they can be immersed in your world and want to come back again and again - which is the whole goal. Take a reader and make them a repeat reader, do that over and over again, and you will have a career.