Sometimes you can get attention by going big. Writer Harlan Ellison rented a billboard. Other times, going small works. Robert Walser wrote his fiction in nearly microscopic text, and not because he lacked paper. In fact, he cut down larger sheets to do his work. By going small — so small the words were nearly indecipherable — there was revived interest in his stories decades after he was dead.
The power of going big — billboards and shouting and stunts and gross-outs — is obvious. But you can stand out by going small, too. One of my favorite Bible stories has the prophet Elijah waiting for the Lord.
… a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.
When it works, going small really works.
With Elijah, the contrast and reversal of expectations make the whisper impressive. (The expectations you work with can be the character’s or the audience’s or both.) Note also that the moment is given space. When an incident or a comment or a gesture is small, it can be missed and that can cause it to lose its impact or even reduce the clarity of the story. I slipped a subtle gesture into a story on the last page and only came to know my mistake when an editor lamented that she loved the story, but didn’t like the ending (which she thought was the opposite of what I intended). The first sentences and the last ones can be small with little risk (because readers are focussed on the stories at those points), but whispers need to be set up and attention needs to be directed in other parts of the story.
One way to get readers to lean in and notice the moment is to have the character hesitate.
Because fiction tends to be more condensed than life, writers sometimes rush to get to the point. Often, that’s a good idea, but it often provides an opportunity to get readers involved by making a different choice. This is especially true when the action or comment (even when it seems to be minor) demands more emotionally. Let a profession of affection come after false starts. Let criticizing a powerful person follow a series of compliments. Let a scene build for disappointment as surely as it would for an explosion of anger.
One element of reversing expectations that gives it power is surprise, but there are other ways to catch readers off guard.
Non-sequiturs can be useful, especially in humor. Having a taciturn character speak can make a seemingly small insight more important. Wisdom from fools, foolishness from the wise, and innocence from cynics can all create moments without clanging cymbals.
I remember when I was watching a comedy with one of the most hardened men I knew, a guy who had few rules or boundaries in his life. There was a quiet, somewhat risqué moment of physical humor. I laughed. He missed it entirely. That was decades ago, and I still remember it.
Mystery and thriller writers use whispers to plant clues and foreshadow.
They want readers to remember these, but not to give them importance at the moment. Think of all the subtle work M. Night Shyamalan does to create the story’s payoff in The Sixth Sense. That film is filled with big moments, but it is the quiet ones that matter most and make that film memorable.
Going big may be obvious. It’s also more difficult to do successfully than it appears, especially when readers are bombarded with over-the-top scenes in books and films. But going small is a good balance and a valuable alternative. It risks being lost to the reader, but it can be achieved with some of the approaches above. And it’s a technique worth mastering. It should be in every writer’s toolkit.
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