How To Make The Unlikable More Digestible

What I Learned About Life & Writing From . . . Zucchini

How many kids actually like zucchini? For that matter, how many adults like it? It’s one of those healthy green vegetables that doesn’t have a whole lot of taste, and the texture is somewhat stiff and dry—except when it’s over-cooked and turns mushy and slippery.

Usually, zucchini grows so fast, you can’t keep up with giving it away. But not for us this year. We didn’t get a single one in our tiny plot. Fortunately, I have a dear friend who grows an enormous garden, and she took pity on me and gave me fresh produce—including zucchini.

My kids looked at the dark green squash on the counter and said, “Ewww.”

"But what about all the yummy things I’ve made in the past?" I asked. "Breads, muffins, and cake?"

My oldest just shrugged. "I still don’t like zucchini.”

One night when they were all gone swimming, I decided I really needed to do something with the zucchini before it turned moldy. So, I whipped up a couple loaves of good ol’ zucchini bread. When the kids returned from the pool, the sweet aroma of cinnamon and nutmeg greeted them.

Of course they all rushed into the kitchen, saw the loaves cooling on the counter, and clamored for slices. With a smile, I cut steaming pieces for each of them. And my smile grew only bigger as they tasted their bread and oohed and aahed through each bite.

“I thought you didn’t like zucchini.” I teased my oldest as he stuffed the last of his piece into his mouth.

He grinned. “I still don’t. But I guess the bread’s alright.”

Sometimes we’re better able to digest unlikable things when they’re mixed with other more pleasant ingredients. Or when they’re shredded up and nearly invisible. We get a dose of the healthy without even realizing it.

Isn’t that true in life? Criticism or discipline or difficult feedback is much more palatable when it’s served with a mixture of the positive. It’s easier to swallow and digest the hard things life brings when it’s stirred together with encouragement and love.

And isn’t the same principle true on so many levels with writing? My critique partner is a model example of how to give affirming feedback. Her smiley faces and compliments make the tough comments easier to take.

Even within our stories, we’re wise to shred up the less digestible aspects: primarily the back-story and narration. As our plots unfold, we’re tempted to drop in chunks of information or large glaring paragraphs that explain our characters' motivations or past history.

Yes, we need to get the explanations in somewhere or the story won’t make sense and the characters won’t be as well-rounded. But how can we slip in the information without it being noticeable? In other words, how do we mix in the zucchini aspects of our stories so that the reader will hardly see or taste it?

First we need to know how much “zucchini” we really need. Our readers don’t need as much as we think they do. The large majority of back-story is for us, the writers. It helps us shape our characters into living and breathing beings. We only need to give readers enough to keep them from being confused. In fact, don't you think readers like to piece the story together like a puzzle, coming to a wonderful ah-hah moment, rather than having us hand everything to them all nice and neat?

Second, we need to add in the “zucchini” aspects of the story slowly and smoothly. For the most part we should try not to stop the flow of the story to explain things. This includes scenes where our characters sit in front of a mirror or window and contemplate their lives. Usually such scenes are static with the purpose of filling in the reader. And we risk bringing the story to a halt.

Instead, we have to write the story—the present story. If we look for ways to shred up the narration and back-story and blend it in, often the reader will hardly know it’s there. A sentence here, a small paragraph there. Sometimes insinuations through dialog and in the way our characters act can tell much more about them than words. After all, actions speak louder than words.

What about you? How are you serving your zucchini? Are you learning how to mix criticism within the sweet taste of the positive? And are you careful how much back-story and narration you’re slipping into your stories so that your reader will hardly know it’s there?

P.S. The winner of this week's The Preacher's Bride giveaway is: Beth Sorensen. Congratulations!! I'll be doing ONE more giveaway next week during the final countdown to the official RELEASE DATE! So come back to play again!

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