How To “Write in the Shadows” by John Olson
We’ve all heard of “reading between the lines”… well how do you “write between the lines” to evoke emotional responses from readers on the sly?
Well, I just read some of the most fantastic writing advice in Randy Ingermanson’s monthly e-zine that explains just how to do this. He interviews John Olson about “Writing In The Shadows”, which is something I do, but had never heard it explained this way.
Thankfully, Randy lets people re-publish articles from his e-zine as long as you include the following two paragraphs:
Award-winning novelist Randy Ingermanson, “the Snowflake Guy,” publishes the Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine, with more than 18,000 readers, every month. If you want to learn the craft and marketing of fiction, AND make your writing more valuable to editors, AND have FUN doing it, visit:
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So, on to this EXCELLENT Advice:
Creating: Writing in the Shadows
I [Randy Ingermanson] met John Olson at a Christian writing conference in 1996. Both of us were unpublished novelists with a background in science.
I soon learned that John had a yen to write novels based on the vampire mythos and an uncommon ability to write spooky stuff. John soon learned that I like scary fiction.
That weekend, we forged a friendship that’s lasted for over thirteen years. We’ve coauthored two books together. We’ve climbed corporate ladders and abandoned them. We’ve held each accountable as we pursued our dreams. I’ve learned boatloads about the art of writing fiction from John, and also a bunch about the art of living, and I hope I’ve paid him back by teaching him a thing or two also.
A bit more than a year ago, I sat in on a major track John taught at a writing conference on the subject, “Writing in the Shadows.” I enjoyed his talk tremendously and kept thinking, “Darn! Why didn’t I think of that?”
John’s latest novel, POWERS, is just now hitting the bookshelves. I got my copy last week and am reading it now. It’s a prime example of “writing in the shadows.”
I’ve asked John for an interview so I could introduce you to his ideas. Here’s the result:
RI: I really enjoyed your lecture series last year on “Writing in the Shadows.” In a nutshell, what is “writing in the shadows” and why would an author want
to do that?
JO: You’ve heard of reading between the lines, right? Well, writing in the shadows is writing between the lines. It’s a set of techniques for creating mood and evoking an emotional response in such a way that readers aren’t consciously aware of why they are responding the way they do. The words on your page all have shadows. Once you learn how to harness these shadows for your own purposes, you can use these techniques to add creepiness to dark scenes, dread to action scenes, joy to celebration scenes or chemistry to relational scenes.
RI: Editor often tell us to “show, don’t tell,” but they rarely show us what they mean by that. What does “show, don’t tell” mean to you?
JO: It’s pretty easy. It means to… uh, show and er… not tell. Okay, maybe it isn’t so easy to explain. Let me give you some examples. As a novelist I’m often tempted to write something telling such as:
Hailey was scared.
But if I do this, I don’t give the reader a chance to experience that fear emotionally along with Hailey. Readers know intellectually Hailey is afraid, because I told them she was (and foolish readers that they are, they trust me), but they don’t get to experience the fear along with her unless I actually show Hailey being afraid:
Hailey froze. The vampire’s teeth were only inches away from her neck. She held her breath and tried to think, but her pulse throbbed like kettle drums in her ears. She had to make her stupid heart slow down. It was only encouraging him.
See? I never once told you Hailey was afraid, but you probably figured it out anyway. That’s showing.
Okay… I know what you’re thinking. I totally cheated. Of course Hailey’s going to be scared with the sharp end of a vampire pointed at her neck. But what if your story doesn’t have any conveniently located vampires? What if you need to show fear, and the reader doesn’t even have a reason to be afraid yet?
That’s where writing in the shadows comes in. It’s possible to write a scene in such a way that your readers will pick up on the fear without knowing the reasons behind it.
Your POV character doesn’t even have to realize she’s afraid. In fact it’s often better if she doesn’t. If she knew she should be afraid, she might not walk into that dark basement we need her to walk into. We see this technique used all the time in movies. Our clueless heroine walks into the dark basement and suddenly the background music changes. We know right away what’s going to happen, and we start yelling at her, telling her to turn her flashlight on, but she doesn’t seem to hear us. It can’t be because the background music is too loud, because if she could hear the music, she’d know the vampire was hiding behind the artificial Christmas tree waiting to jump out at her and make us wet our pants.
Stupid heroines. If only our novels had soundtracks to go along with them, showing in the shadows would be so easy! But if you think about it, our novels do have background music. It’s hidden in the shadows of the words. Sentences have flow and rhythm and cadence. Words have connotations that evoke mood and emotion and tone. Characters have autonomic responses that happen whether they’re aware of them or not. We have all kinds of tools to work with. We can go beyond showing and show in the shadows like this:
The door closed behind her with a sigh. Hailey shivered as a chill brushed across her mind, leaving behind the aftertaste of decay and wet rat. She hurried toward the elevators, fighting the urge to break into a run. Hollow footsteps echoed loud and lonely in the empty marble hallway. Stepping into a waiting elevator, she punched the ninth floor button and leaned back against the wall. The door shut with a clank, sealing her in.
See? Words like “sigh” and “aftertaste of decay and wet rat” and “sealing her in” create an emotional subtext that shows the reader what to feel without telling them why we want them to feel it. That’s showing in the shadows.
RI: You’re a strong proponent of giving readers “partial information.” What do you mean by that, and what have you got against giving readers the full scoop on things?
JO: Giving the full scoop ruins all the fun — at least it does if we’re talking about novels. Ice cream is a completely different subject. Imagine a murder mystery where the author tells us who the murderer is the second we’re introduced to him. Or imagine a romance where the author tells us all about the couple’s future life together as soon as the male lead is introduced. It kind of spoils the fun, doesn’t it?
Well, that’s what we do any time we give the reader too much information. We take away the mystery and anticipation. So if Dash Totallyripped McMoneybags throws up the second he sees our heroine, don’t tell us why. Let it be a mystery we can look forward to solving. And if Sydney Hottiepants is in love with Dash, don’t ruin the romance by telling us. Let us interpret what she’s feeling by the way she agonizes over her decision of which flavor of lip gloss to wear.
Remember, when we meet people in real life, they don’t come with fact sheets pinned to their shirts. We have to “figure them out” by interpreting their words and actions.
Let’s face it. We humans are really good at interpreting things. It’s one of the things we do best. By giving our readers too much information, we deny our readers the pleasure of interpreting and figuring things out for themselves. Not only does it take away from the fun, but it feels shallow and contrived. Why? Because that’s not how reality works.
We may think that giving ten pages of backstory on the history of Sydney’s attraction to losers is going to make her seem more real, but it will actually have the opposite effect. In reality we never have access to all the information. We have to interpret the clues we’re given and figure things out for ourselves. It’s more fun that way — even if we get everything wrong.
PS: John Olson has a new audio course, “Writing in the Shadows,” which will go on sale on [Randy’s] Web site soon. Before that, though, we’ll give you a chance to get it free — if you buy John’s latest book POWERS, which happens to highlight all of John’s ideas for writing in those pesky shadows.
During the course of the next week or so, [Randy will] be doing a book rush for:
- The novel will be John Olson’s book POWERS. The incentives will include a free copy of an audio lecture that John recently recorded on “Writing in the Shadows” plus a 24-page full-color PDF file of the POWERS comic book. [Randy will] throw in a 50% discount coupon on all electronic products in my store.
- The nonfiction book will be [Randy’s] book WRITING FICTION FOR DUMMIES. The incentives will include an audio lecture on “Strategic Self-Editing” along with several other useful goodies from a number of my friends who’ve written books on writing. Again, [Randy will] throw in a 50% discount on all electronic products in my store.
Note from Robert: Randy JUST OPENED UP the promotion for John’s book … get it by clicking here!
4 thoughts on “How To “Write in the Shadows” by John Olson”
I like the writing in shadows demonstration. Using those phrases and words that give a deeper ambiance and conjure up particular images.
I thought the demonstration was spot on. It is so easy as an author to take the easy way out and skip “writing in the shadows”, but I think it really pays off.
I really enjoyed this. Thanks for sharing, Robert! This is what I have been striving to learn recently. I do not want to throw telling out the window, since that is a powerful tool that the old masters used with great effect, But I need to have showing in my right hand, calling forth the primary emotions.
Very true, Jay.
There is a proper place for telling, if done effectively and in small doses. But we definitely cannot ignore writing in the shadows to communicate emotion unobtrusively.
I like your right hand/left hand analogy.
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