As I predicted last week, I’ve been mining some good stuff from Joseph T. Hallinan’s fascinating book Why We Make Mistakes. It’s a collection of popular science that explores human error, perception, memory and behavior. I bought it hoping I might find some handy hints about how to iron out the wrinkles in my writing process. I wasn’t disappointed (more about that next week), but I also picked up some interesting thoughts about how to make my characters and descriptions more memorable.
One snippet that caught my attention was a discussion of what we find it easiest to remember about people, and why. The book cites British research dating back to 1986 (Cohen and Faulkner) in which subjects were asked to study the biographies of fictitious people. Each biography included the fictitious character’s name, the name of a place associated with them such as their hometown, their occupation and their hobby. In subsequent tests:
- The best-remembered detail was the character’s job (69% of the time)
- A close second was the character’s hobby (68 per cent)
- Hometowns weren’t far behind either (62 per cent)
- Names were dead last (only 31% of first names and 30% of last names).
The suggested explanation is that our long-term memory is semantic: what stays with us is meaningful information, not simple labels, and a person’s job or their hobby is semantically richer (more meaningful) than their name.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot, especially as it relates to opening scenes, and I’m wondering whether I should add an item to my revision checklist. Not that I should shoe-horn in my main characters’ hobbies and occupations, but that as far as possible, any information that I want the reader to remember should be meaningful. It’s not enough to mention a detail and expect it to stick.
As an example, awhile ago I got some contest feedback from a published author on the opening scene of Dealing With McKenzie. In that scene things go disastrously wrong for my heroine, Rose. I showed clearly what happened and how Rose reacted (badly), but I did not spell out why it was so important to her until a couple of scenes later. The comment on my marked-up entry said ‘spell the heroine’s stakes out here; don’t hold them secret.’ In other words, make what happened meaningful. I tried adding a couple of sentences to show why it was so important to Rose, and I was amazed how much stronger it made the scene.
Tomorrow, I’ll be revisiting the opening scene of my current WIP (for the hundredth time), as I’ve just realized this may be why it still doesn’t grab me. I’ve put the ‘what’ of Mary’s goal right there, and her sense of urgency, but the ‘why’ of it doesn’t come until the second scene. *Smacks self around head with Moleskine notebook*.
The ‘meaningful’ thing has lots of other implications, and I’m still working through those. Pitching. You have five or ten minutes to create an unforgettable impression of your story. Is it more memorable to open with the heroine’s occupation rather than her name? Titles. Is using a character’s name in a book’s title a useful reminder, or a wasted opportunity? And so on.
What do you think?