Writing is like magic. Tremendous power that can only be harnessed through the tricks and tactics of the system.
Some of us (the truly ancient magicians) have many of these powerful tricks memorized by now.
But for the younger generation of trainees, most of us have yet to even discover them.
Fellow magicians, gather round.
Some of you may already have seen this, as it was originally a guest post on Hope Ann’s blog a few months back, but for those of you who haven’t… I’m going to share one of the most powerful tactics I’ve learned in my own training. The one. The only. The INFAMOUS. INSIDE. JOKE.
*cue ominous drums*
Okay, that may have been slightly overdone.
Seriously though, this is one of my favorite tricks, because it’s so incredibly simple but wields a ton of power at the same time.
The first thing any writer needs to understand about their craft when it comes to writing a book that engages the reader is that half of any story is always written in the reader’s heart. Without a reader, your story is just strings of words on a page, and every person brings a different perspective to it.
Your job is not to force them to see everything as you see it in every detail, but to guide the eyes of their heart in the direction of what you saw and trust them to put the pieces together as they belong.
Inside jokes are one of the best ways to do that. Essentially, the I.J.T consists of parallels. Create an association, and then repeat the outer characteristics of that association elsewhere to evoke the same emotions.
Think of it as an ordinary object that you fill with magic to use later. You find a stone, endow it with the ability to give light, and then the next time you want light all you have to do is pull out the stone.
For instance, what if your hero is a brooding, emotionally unstable assassin who spends his days in hiding and his nights on assassinations. We open with him perched atop the very highest pinnacle of his dark tower, staring down over the city and half-playfully daring himself to jump and discover what ‘too late’ feels like.
But then, say his life takes a turn for the better. He falls in love with a woman he was sent to assassinate, and goes on a quest to remake his life and become worthy of her so he can ask her hand in marriage. He goes to the pinnacle of his tower less and less often. He takes to wearing brighter colored cloaks over his black clothes, and stops playing with his knives in public.
Finally he gets to the point where he feels he can approach her, and with high expectations he slips into her palace and obtains an audience… only to find her surrounded by maids of honor and decked out in flowers and a white dress, in preparation for her wedding with one of the highest men in the city… that’s happening in precisely twenty minutes.
The assassin’s life is shattered.
We could go to great lengths to describe his agony; send him all over the city on a wild killing spree and spend chapters worth of anguish taking him all the way back to the place he started.
But we don’t really need to. All we have to do is take our magic stone and whisper ‘let there be light’… and we find him back on the very pinnacle of his tower as he was in the beginning, with his bright cloak in tatters and his black clothes showing through as though it never changed.
This works on every level of storytelling, from prose to subtext to character arcs to theme. Parallels are amazing tools, and the I.J.T. is only a very small part of a very large and powerful collection of spells.
So? What are you waiting for? Your reader wants to be trusted with piecing the story together; they want to invest in it by catching your hints and responding to your subtle pokes. It becomes their story as much as it is yours, and that can only be a good thing.
Not to mention, casting these kinds of spells is just plain old fun for you. What’s holding you back, aspiring magicians? Go forth and conquer!