Capturing your reader the Michael Connelly way. The Authors Collection.
October 3, 2013
In the busyness my life has become, I often find myself reading only a few pages at a time, snatched from between acts of meal preparation, or 15 minutes in the tub or a short break between one job and the next. But in so doing, I made an interesting discovery about writing. I was reading Michael Connelly, not a genre I’d normally choose. What hit me was no matter how long since I’d last read some pages, I could slip back into the story without a moment’s hesitation, while the other two books I was reading at the same time, required me to review pages or even, in some cases, restart the chapter in order to recall who the characters were or what was happening. So when I had this experience with The Black Ice, the second book in Connelly’s Harry Bosch series, I was struck. “Why?” I asked myself and others. “What is he doing in his writing that keeps everything so top of mind—the plot, the characters, the immediate circumstances?”
The response that came back was—detail, yet I’d read other books with as much or more detail and still had recall problems. I looked closer to see what was going on. He is definitely a show don’t tell writer, which gives the reader a job— to develop a sense of the person or situation in question rather than catalog characteristics. Let’s see how he frames the character Roland Edson from Black Ice. Roland is an entomologist Bosch visits to assist him in identifying a homicide victim. We first get a brief physical description which I felt myself discarding as I read. But when Connelly summed up by saying the man looked like the fruit flies he studied, I knew something that mattered—Roland was unattractive, maybe even odd looking. That, my mind could hang on to. When Connelly had Roland correct Bosch’s improper Latin pluralization of insect developmental stages, I had something more—a man who sought respect for his knowledge not his looks. The capper occurred when Connelly suggested him as someone who probably calls out the answers to Jeopardy even when no one else is around. That pegged Roland Edson. I then knew the man, what to expect from him and why.
Connelly’s description of buildings was a new experience. I normally would skim such, but Connelly used them to set a tone, and it fascinated me. Let’s face it, Roland had to work somewhere so why not get some mileage from the building as well. It was a one time-state mental institution that later served as a set for “a slasher movie about a haunted nut-house” (is your image of this place filling out?) and later a temporary morgue during one of California’s earthquake disasters, where the bodies were housed in refrigerated trucks, one of which bore big blue letters on its side: Live Maine Lobsters. Without saying a gloomy institutional setting, uninspired and utilitarian, I saw it. Then there was the sign on the suite door, the capper this time: No Unescorted Patients. Can you see it? Gold letters on the glass panels, probably Times Roman, chilling yet incongruous in its present day setting. You almost laugh, but not quite. Does the building warrant that level of reader involvement? Most definitely, yes, for this reason.
Our job as writers is to capture the attention of the reader, in a non-formulaic way, and hold it with the tenacity of lint on Velcro. Connelly has one of the more clever ways of engaging the reader that I’ve seen for a while, as evidenced by how it remains in my memory from one reading to the next. It lives for me, not because I’ve been shocked by gore or frightened by monsters or left hanging, but because his description selects the bits that capture attention while implying significance. The reader gets to supply the meaning and becomes hooked into the story. I’m not talking gimmicky. It must be worth the reader’s involvement.
With the level of distraction offered by these times, a writer must be more attentive to lines or paragraphs that encourage readers to skip or skim making it easier to lose their train of thought thus harder to recall what they’ve just read. Do you find many modern novels easy to forget? See if Michael Connelly gives you a different experience. I’m going to keep reading him until I learn what he knows.
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