Every once in a while I'll read a piece of fiction and recognize in it a writer's technique that I didn't (couldn't?) recognize before.
Recently, I decided to read through a collection of short stories by Anton Chekhov, mostly due to this guy, and pay more attention to what makes Chekhov so influential.
As I read, I asked myself what made him different from other writers I admired and how his stories were different from my own. Several characteristics came up, including his impressively large portfolio of well-rendered and diverse characters and his wide range of endings with different emotional impacts and twists.
Another thing I noticed was how much character information Chekhov puts up front. In the last couple of days, I've read about a dozen of his stories, and in all of them the opening paragraphs are almost entirely focused on characterization. Many of the stories start with a character's name and go on to describe who he or she is. The stories may well start in the middle of action, but Chekhov slows the action down to get all of this information in.
This technique accomplishes a few things.
First, I think this creates more excitement for readers, as they have more information on which to see potential outcomes. They have more data and can guess at the results. I think this engages their imaginations and can create a different form of suspence.
Second, I think readers may have more of an emotional investment in the character because they know the character. It's the difference between seeing a friend versus a stranger getting hit by a car.
Third, this technique creates something that I think of as momentum. The confrontation of character to conflict is presented up front, and now the rest of the story just has to unfold. This is different from a situation where the character is still being revealed, in which case the journey of the story is a combination of both information gathering and outcome. When a character is slowly revealed, the tension comes in the form of questions about the character. When the character is revealed more quickly, the tension comes in the form of "How does life unfold?"
I don't know yet if I like this style of writing more than other styles, but it's an intriguing one. And I think I'll be rewriting some of my stories with this in mind to see how that changes the reading experience.
What's Peanut eating? Salmon and carrots.