Mar 30 2012

Narrative arc: What the heck is it?

Have you ever had an agent, editor, or a reviewer say something like this about your novel?

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“This story has a weak (or non-existent) narrative arc.”
“While the characters are strong, the narrative arc did not maintain my interest.”
“The writing is solid, but the narrative arc is unclear and inconsistent.”

I have. And on many occasions, I’ve had to be the editor to say something along that line.

It’s easy to say that a story doesn’t have a strong narrative arc. It isn’t so easy to define and describe a narrative arc. It’s even harder to write a story with a strong narrative arc. I know how difficult it can be from my own experience as a writer.

Think of narrative arc as a bell curve. It starts at a point on the lower left hand side of a graph, rises in a curve to a peak, and then drops back down again. The standard narrative arc is often referred to in terms of the three-act play: a beginning, a middle, and an end.

Act one, the beginning, introduces the characters and sets the stage—the current situation. Then an inciting event sets the story into motion.

In act two, the main character must try to overcome the conflict presented by the inciting event. The character wants something, has a goal in mind. The conflict and tension of the story rise, and obstacles are thrown in the path of the character to prevent her from achieving her goal. The character faces these obstacles on her way to overcoming the conflict. The obstacles get bigger, more difficult, and the character may be on the verge of defeat or surrender. At this point, the character must make a critical decision or a moral choice that changes the direction of the story.

That decision leads to act three and results in two things: the climax to the story (the peak of the curve), and the character is profoundly changed in some way. The character finds the strength within and a method to overcome the conflict. The story questions are resolved and the character has changed from the person she was at the beginning of the story. Or, the character is defeated, fails to accomplish the goal, dies, or some other tragic ending, but even then, the character has changed is some way, for the better or worse.

A slightly more complex outline is the eight-point narrative arc, described by Nigel Watts in his book, Write a Novel and Get It Published. Merging these eight points with the three-act play formula would look something like this:

ACT ONE
1. Stasis – the current situation and characters in everyday life
2. Trigger – the inciting event that sets the plot in motion

ACT TWO
3. The quest – the trigger results in the character needing to accomplish some goal
4. Surprise – a series of events presents obstacles that make achieving the goal more difficult
5. Critical choice – the character must choose a particular path to confront the obstacles
6. Climax – the critical choice results in the climax of the story, the highest peak of tension

ACT THREE
7. Reversal – the consequences of the critical choice changes the status of the character
8. Resolution – the story ends at a new point of stasis, and the character is changed is some way

Note that the ‘typical’ three-act play structure in a novel does not usually break down neatly into equal sections of one-third each. Act one may be a single chapter or two. It can be longer, of course, but it may be contained in the first few pages. Likewise, act three might be fully contained in one or two chapters at the end.

Act two is the giant middle in which the story takes place. This is the toughest slog for any writer to execute, and this is where the narrative arc can fall apart. Does each scene add to the story: raise the stakes, increase tension, create obstacles, or show the character overcoming (or failing to overcome) an obstacle? Does the scene further a sub-plot that is inextricably tied to the main plot (a love interest, a personal or family issue that the character must deal with while also trying to save the world from aliens or her family farm from the tax collectors)?

Or, are new sub-plot elements created, new obstacles raised, or new characters introduced that have nothing to do with the main storyline? Does the main plot disappear for chapters at a time? Does the character go here and do something, go there and do something else, then go somewhere else and something completely different happens? Do all these events create a disjointed storyline that bounces hither and yon with no coherent narrative arc?

Each scene should lead to the next in a logical, coherent manner that advances the story. This proceeds until the obstacles and the conflict are overwhelming and it appears the character may fail unless she makes the right choice in her critical decision. Instead of ‘this happens, then that happens, then something else happens,’ the narrative arc will look like ‘this happens, which leads to that happening, which causes something else to happen.’

This doesn’t mean every scene has to be more dramatic than the one before it. Pacing in a novel is important. Readers need a slower, more sedate scene periodically to catch their breath. The character needs time between obstacles to review her journey and think about how to proceed, time for romantic interludes, times where things seem to be going right for the character just before BAM the next big thing happens. If you chart the scenes in a novel, it might look like a rising stock market over a period of time with a series of ups and downs, but on an overall rising path until the climax and the slow curve down during resolution and denouement.

If you think (or have been told) that your narrative arc is weak, try writing out a scene-by-scene outline of your current draft. See if the outline makes sense, if each scene advances the story in a logical way, or if there are scenes that veer off course and distract from the main storyline.

Your narrative arc should look like a bell curve, not a map of a suburban neighborhood full of circle drives, cul-de-sacs, and dead end roads.

For more resources:

Nigel Watt’s book, Write a Novel and Get It Published

Alan Rinzler, a renowned book editor, blogs about narrative arc.

The late, great Kurt Vonnegut Jr. talks about the shapes of stories here in a wonderful four-minute video.


Mar 11 2012

Never use an adverb!

If you’ve been writing fiction for more than a day, and have ever read a writers’ magazine, visited a writing website or blog, attended a writing critique group, or taken a college course in creative writing, you’ve probably heard this rule.

Here’s a good piece of advice: Anytime someone says ‘Always do this’ or ‘Never do that’ when it comes to writing, that’s a good time to tune them out. The only hard and fast rule to writing fiction: Never bore your reader.

But like many of these alleged rules and regulations for writers, there is a kernel of truth packed away underneath the prose fascist’s pronouncement.

Most of the time, these never-rules have morphed over time through misinterpretation, like the children’s game of gossip or telephone. What started as good advice to help keep novice writers from falling into the most common novice writer mistakes has transformed into dictatorial fiat by the literazis.

Adverbs are an easy place for novice, or even more experienced, writers to slip into lazy writing habits.

The problem is obvious in many beginning writers’ manuscripts. The problem isn’t that they’ve used an adverb. The problem is that they’ve never met an adverb they didn’t like. If a sentence feels flat—add an adverb! If one adverb is good, two must be better! There’s no adverb in this sentence—get one!

Adverbs aren’t wrong. They’re just weak. There is usually a better verb that conveys the image the writer wants to show, a verb that doesn’t need an adverb tacked on in an attempt to make a boring verb interesting. It’s like dressing a Chihuahua in doll clothes. Just get a more interesting dog, like a Basset hound or a Siberian husky or an Australian shepherd.

“I quickly ran home.”

Boring. Maybe “I sprinted home.” Or “I dashed home.” You’ve got dozens of choices more interesting than ‘ran’ that don’t need to be shoved into an adverb like Panchita into a Cabbage Patch dress.

One of the most common offenders of the ugly adverb syndrome is the dialog tag (he pontificated wisely). Dialog tags will be the subject of a blog post all to themselves in the near future, but if you’re adding an adverb onto your ‘said’ or ‘asked’ more than, oh, let’s say twice in a 100,000-word novel, you’re probably overdoing it. It sounds amateurish. Really, it does. Get over it.

“Wh-wh-what do you mean by that?” he stammered haltingly.

Is there any other way to stammer other than haltingly? In fact, why do you need to say ‘stammered’ since the dialog clearly shows th-th-the character stammering? You don’t. Lose it.

So when can you use an adverb? That’s easy.

When it’s right. When the adverbly verbed combination says exactly what you want to say, you’ve got the adverb in the right place for the right emphasis, and you’ve used them sparingly throughout your story. Adverbs, like adjectives, are a pungent spice. A little goes a long way. You can use them more than never, but less than distractingly, irritatingly, obnoxiously frequent.

And now a quick note on adverb placement for when you do use them—say, zero to twenty times per novel (okay, twenty-five if you’re writing an epic historical saga trilogy, or ninety-seven if you’re writing category romance or erotica). As a general rule, place the adverb closest to the word it modifies. This is especially true if it’s a complex sentence with two or more verbs or a prepositional phrase. Otherwise, you can change the meaning of the sentence. Consider these two sentences:

I nearly lost all of my money.

I lost nearly all of my money.

Example number one, nearly modifies lost. Something happened in which I came very close to losing all of my money, but thank goodness I didn’t lose it. I still have all of my money.

Example number two, nearly modifies all. Something happened in which I lost most, but not all, of my money.

Does the adverb go before or after the verb? Unless it changes the meaning, it doesn’t matter. Go with the one that sounds best. Putting the adverb first can change the emphasis of the sentence to the adverb.

Go boldly where no man has gone before.

Boldly go where no man has gone before.

Same meaning, different emphasis.

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It is acceptable to occasionally split infinitives.

It is occasionally acceptable to split infinitives.

The first one is the split infinitive, in case you were wondering, because the adverb comes between the two-word verb phrase ‘to split’.

So the next time someone tells you, “Never use an adverb,” remind them that ‘never’ is an adverb and they just used one.


Sep 27 2011

Genre and market categories

As I research agents, I’ve encountered a lot of terminology that is obscure at best: upmarket, mainstream, literary vs. commercial, character-driven vs. plot-driven, high fantasy, steampunk, etc. One agent says she is looking for “upmarket contemporary mainstream” and the “next crossover novel,” while another agent says she does not accept “cross-genre.” What’s the difference between crossover and cross-genre? Can you shed some light on these terms? Chris Karim, New York

A work of fiction can be described and categorized by different sets of terminology. There are genres, sub-genres, market audience definitions, and style or setting descriptions. Sometimes the same term can be used in different ways. Often a style and market term may be added to the genre category to more narrowly define a work.

So yeah, this can be confusing.

Genre includes the standard categories such as science-fiction, fantasy, romance, historical, young adult, horror, thriller/suspense, crime, mystery, erotica, women’s fiction, commercial, and literary. Then there are sub-genres within genres, e.g., sci-fi space opera, paranormal romance, high fantasy, and chick-lit. Steampunk is a sub-genre that combines historical, sci-fi, and fantasy in unique, anachronistic ways, such as a story set in the Victorian age with high-tech gadgets powered by steam engines.

For a more detailed list and description of genres, go here.

The difference between commercial and literary fiction is a longstanding debate, and I’ll save that discussion for another day. In a very broad-brush stereotype, literary fiction may be more focused on the quality and the art of the writing itself. Literary fiction is often more character-driven, while commercial fiction is usually more plot-driven. And yes, there are thousands of exceptions to any attempt to delineate the two. I’ll also tackle the character- vs. plot-driven story in the later post on literary vs. commercial.

As a genre, commercial fiction (sometimes called general or mainstream) might have a wide appeal and sell to a larger audience, and it doesn’t fall into one of the more narrowly defined genres which appeal to a specific group of readers with a particular interest. Think Dan Brown (The Da Vinci Code) for commercial fiction, although Da Vinci could also be categorized in the thriller/suspense genre. So ‘commercial’ might be the genre description, or it can be used to describe a different genre book that appeals to a wider audience.

Beyond categorizing a book by genre, there are market categories and descriptions. This is where the term ‘upmarket’ has come into play in recent years.

From an audience perspective, upmarket means fiction that will appeal to readers who are educated, highly read, and prefer books with substantive quality writing and stronger stories/themes. Upmarket describes commercial fiction that bumps up against literary fiction, or literary fiction that holds a wider appeal, or a work straddles the two genres.

Upmarket fiction has been described as literary appeal with commercial potential. For examples of upmarket fiction, think John Irving, Jodi Picoult, Amy Tan, Sarah Gruen, Arthur Golden, and Ian McEwan.

Mass market (as opposed to upmarket) usually means those small paperbacks lining the shelves in the grocery store. These might be crime, thriller, romance, detective, or general fiction, but these are the books some readers devour at a rate of one or more a week, or buy a stack to take to the beach on vacation.

Other market categories include Christian, ethnic or multi-cultural, and LGBT (lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender).

So you can now categorize your book by genre, by sub-genre, and by market audience. On top of that, you can describe it in more detail by the time and place setting.

Contemporary fiction means the story is set in today’s real world, as opposed to historical fiction (e.g., set in England during the Victorian era or in the American Civil War), or the fictional worlds of sci-fi and fantasy (Starship Enterprise or Middle Earth).

‘Crossover’ means a book that, while neatly labeled with one genre or market category (such as women’s fiction), also appeals to other readers (such as men). Or middle-grade/YA (such as Harry Potter) that appeals to adults as well as teens/kids.

‘Cross-genre’ is completely different from crossover. Cross-genre books are a mix of two or more specific genres. When a particular cross-genre gains popularity and has enough books written in that category, it might become its own sub-genre. A romance novel set in the Victorian era falls in the sub-genre/cross-genre of historical romance. A vampire novel aimed at teens might be labeled YA paranormal fantasy, which might be considered a cross-genre, or a sub-genre (paranormal fantasy) aimed at the YA market, or its own sub-genre.

A cross-genre novel can be a difficult sale because, instead of appealing to the two separate audiences, it might disappoint both sets of readers. A sci-fi/romance novel, for example, might not be sci-fi enough for hard-core fans, while the sci-fi aspects turn off romance readers.

The Twilight series is a good example of several of these genre and market descriptions. It’s cross-genre (YA/paranormal fantasy/romance). Its tremendous commercial success is due to the great crossover appeal to adults, primarily women. It would also be described as contemporary because it’s set in today’s real world (other than things like vampires and werewolves, which are the paranormal fantasy part of its genre mix). It probably wouldn’t be described as ‘upmarket’ because it wasn’t written with that intention, and it wasn’t necessarily aimed at an upmarket readership group, even though it appealed to many upmarket readers. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone describe Twilight as literary, but I do know some literary writers who became engrossed in the story even if they groused and quibbled over the quality of the writing.

So Twilight – a YA contemporary paranormal fantasy cross-genre crossover commercial blockbuster success – is the pinnacle of good things that can happen with cross-genre and crossover novels. It appealed to huge audiences – teens, adult women, paranormal fantasy fans, romance readers, etc. That perfect confluence of appeal to various market segments is what causes books like Twilight and Harry Potter to take off into stratospheric sales.

Many more writers have tried blending genres and markets, and wound up with no agent, no publishing contract, or very low sales. Perhaps the story wasn’t strong enough, or the writing wasn’t good enough, or no one knew quite how to market it. Maybe the mishmash of genres appealed to no one. So be careful of trying to straddle or combine genres, and make sure it will appeal to a combined audience rather than alienate both sets of potential readers. Mainly, be sure you have a compelling story, engaging characters, and quality writing.

So what does any of this mean to writers? Everything or nothing at all.

Do you write the book you want to write, the story inside you that has to come out, and deal with the marketing and categorization and ‘shelf-spot’ later? Do you let your agent or someone else deal with that messy stuff? Do you write in a specific genre with a specific target audience in mind? Do you want to expand your potential audience to readers who don’t normally read that genre? Do you intentionally set out to create a story that will appeal to specific market segments so you know how to pitch the novel to agents, editors, publishers, and publicists?

Maybe you’ve decided to write a Christian YA contemporary literary high fantasy detective paranormal romance with crossover appeal to upmarket multi-cultural women and MG boys who love steampunk. Let me know how that works out for you.


Sep 20 2011

That word clutter

Instead of someone writing in with a question today, let’s look at an excellent editing tip sent in from Alexander McNabb. Alexander suggested this topic and graciously allowed me to use a few examples from his novel, Olives, pre- and post-editing.

Do you need to tighten up your writing? Need to cut a thousand words from your manuscript and can’t find a single scene you’re willing to eliminate? Maybe you only need to trim 14 words from your short story so it will qualify for a flash fiction contest with a maximum word count, but every single word of your snappy dialog is brilliant. 

That’s how many thats that you can delete

The word ‘that’ is a funny little word. Sometimes you can use it. Sometimes you can’t. Sometimes it’s optional, and the sentence means exactly the same thing and is grammatically correct either way.

An example from Alexander:

He’s tied into the family that you’re so buddy-buddy with.

In this sentence, the word ‘that’ introduces the relative clause ‘you’re so buddy-buddy with.’ It refers to, or is related to, the first part of the sentence – ‘the family.’ This is a restrictive clause because it describes and defines a specific family to the exclusion of any other families. Which family? That family.

But rewrite the sentence without the word ‘that’:

He’s tied into the family you’re so buddy-buddy with.

That sentence (Which sentence? That sentence!) is perfectly grammatical with or without ‘that.’ ‘That’ is optional.

NOTE: Do not use a comma before ‘that’ in this sentence structure.

Open up your manuscript. Do a search/highlight for the word ‘that.’ Often it can be deleted outright just like Alexander did in the example above.

The key is to see if the sentence is still clear without ‘that.’ Does it read smoothly? Does it maintain the right reading rhythm? If you excise ‘that’ and the sentence is no longer clear and precise, or it sounds awkward without it, then put ‘that’ back. If the word is used in dialog, and it feels more natural to a particular character’s voice to use ‘that,’ by all means keep it. But you may be surprised how many you can eliminate.

You’re probably wondering why you should go to all that effort to get rid of a few optional ‘thats.’

I checked a novel manuscript from one of my clients, a very good writer, as an example. The original, unedited manuscript contains slightly more than 100,000 words. The word ‘that’ appears 1,074 times. Deleting fewer than half of the ‘thats’ eliminated 500 words, about two full pages from a 400-page manuscript. You might be able to get your manuscript down below the 100K threshold an agent or publisher requested without having to eliminate a single riveting scene, breathtakingly vivid description of the sky at dawn, or even one line of your brilliant, pithy dialog. And no one will ever miss those 500 ‘thats.’

Sometimes you can’t just drop the word ‘that,’ but you can make other minor revisions to vary the sentence structure and not rely on ‘that’ so frequently. Even if it doesn’t reduce the word count, it helps reduce what can be an irritating repetition of the same sentence structure.

Here are a few more examples from Alexander:

Did you mean ‘that’ or ‘who’?

It’s a problem for Her Majesty’s Government precisely because we don’t like terrorists or the people that fund them.

It’s a problem for Her Majesty’s Government precisely because we don’t like terrorists or the people who fund them.

Generally speaking, use ‘who’ instead of ‘that’ when referring to people. Use ‘that’ for animals and inanimate objects.

Check your verb tense 

I had a sudden urge to flee, to strike out at him, to take any action that would affirm my right to a choice.

I had a sudden urge to flee, to strike out at him, to take any action to affirm my right to a choice.

Both of these are grammatically correct. The second version is more direct, which fits the tone of the sentence better. It also tightens the sentence by one word. Don’t think tightening a sentence by one word helps? How many sentences in your novel? Take one unnecessary word out of 25 percent of your sentences and see what happens.

General word clutter

‘Does there have to be another woman for you to rationalise the fact that it’s over?’

‘Does there have to be another woman for you to rationalise it’s over?’

I had a recent client whose writing tic was the phrase ‘the fact of the matter was that.’ Writing tics are those little quirks all writers have, and this one stood out because it was used in both narration and dialog, and by every single character. Repeatedly.

Check for passive sentences

Some of the most sophisticated deep geophysical mapping systems in the world, systems that were developed to explore for oil and gas …

Some of the most sophisticated deep geophysical mapping systems in the world, systems developed to explore for oil and gas …

If you’ve got the word ‘that’ in a sentence where ‘that’ requires a ‘to be’ verb to go along with it, BONUS! You get to cut two words from your formerly bloated manuscript.

Why bother?

Another writer/client asked me, “Why spend hours doing all this editing to eliminate a single word when readers won’t even notice the difference?”

My response, regardless of the word: “If readers won’t notice it’s missing, what better reason to get rid of it? Why was it there to start with? Don’t waste your readers’ time making them read clutter. Make every word count.”

So that’s that – one easy tip in your search and destroy mission on word clutter. Tighten your manuscript and you might save one of your favorite scenes from the editing room floor when you have to trim a few hundred words from your novel. Edit one or two of your manuscripts for the word ‘that,’ and soon you’ll start catching it in your first draft writing. Eventually, it becomes an ingrained good writing habit and automatically disappears from your writing when it’s not needed.

Th-th-th-that’s all folks.


Sep 2 2011

A surprising announcement!

And now, I’m going to tell you something very interesting and dramatic. It will be sudden and surprising. Ready? Okay, it’s coming up next: 

That opening paragraph is an announcement of what I, the writer, am about to tell you. Of course, it better be interesting and surprising or you, the reader, are going to be disappointed, or think that I’m being a bit overly dramatic.

Wouldn’t it be better if I just told you something, and you found it interesting and surprising?

It works that way in fiction too. Do you announce to your readers when a big scene or moment is coming?

Here are some actual examples from manuscripts I’ve edited (I’ve made some changes in the sentences so no one should recognize your work, if I borrowed from you).

And then, just when I least expected it, something exciting happened.

What happened next made her scream in terror.

Things got even worse after that.

So here’s what he decided to do.

The rest of the night went like this.

Later that day, something very strange happened.

For the rest of the trip, we had one stroke of bad luck after another.

Wrongly assuming it was my wife, I opened the door.

It was a calm day with bright sunshine and blue skies, not the kind of day they expected something horrible to happen later that afternoon.

Today things were good between us, but tomorrow, they would go terribly wrong.

I’ve heard these called announcement sentences or thesis statements. They can be useful—if you’re writing a thesis or an essay or a news story. They probably don’t belong in your fiction, at least not to announce to readers that something important is coming up.

An announcement tells readers in advance, ‘Hey, I know this section has been boring, but keep reading, something dramatic is about to happen.’

Why not just let something dramatic happen? Why ruin the surprise and the enjoyment for readers?

Especially in first-person stories, these announcements distort the narrative perspective. It puts the character into the future and looking back on events, telling the whole story in flashback mode. If the narrator knows something dramatic is about to happen, the narrator isn’t experiencing the story first-hand as it happens, and neither are readers.

There are also announcement words that can easily be eliminated most of the time:

Suddenly …

Now …

Began …

Started to …

Next …

These are only a few of the more common examples. Obviously there are times when you need those words. But when one of these words announces the next moment, see if you can drop the word or rewrite the sentence to avoid it. Don’t tell readers ‘Suddenly , this happens …’. Just let it happen, written in a way that shows it was ‘sudden.’

ORIGINAL: My husband and I were sitting at the kitchen table enjoying our peaceful Saturday breakfast when we couldn’t believe what happened next. Suddenly, a man neither of us knew opened the door and started to walk in. As if that wasn’t bad enough, now I noticed he wore no clothes. Next, I asked if he wanted cream or sugar in his coffee.

REVISE: My husband and I sat at the kitchen table, enjoying our Saturday breakfast, sipping coffee and munching on croissants and strawberries. I turned to refill our cups when the door flew open and a strange man walked in. Stark raving naked. “Cream or sugar?” I asked him.

In short, don’t tell readers you’re about to surprise them. It defeats the purpose.


Jan 27 2011

Internal vs. external emotion

I know I overdo the smiles and sighing etc. Could you give me an example of showing internal workings rather than expressing something external such as a sigh or blush?Samantha, Australia

There are lots of ways that writers slip into ‘telling’ (external) rather than ‘showing’ (internal), especially when it comes to emotion. There are the obvious phrases such as: Bob was sad.

The writer is stating the fact, telling the reader what emotion Bob is feeling. Usually it is more effective to show Bob’s emotions rather than stating the fact.

Sometimes when a writer wants to show emotion, she will use an external sign of an internal response. Some examples of these external signs include smiles, frowns, sighs, shrugs, blushes, looks (such as stares and glares), and my all-time least favorite, the furrowed brow. I’m not even sure what a furrowed brow looks like or what it means, but I seldom see a manuscript that doesn’t deploy at least two furrowed brows. If I’m editing your work, you can bet I will strike through that phrase or suggest you find a different way to say it. I’ll probably furrow my brow as I hit the delete key.

Bob sighed, furrowed his brow, and began to cry.

This is now describing Bob’s facial expressions, body language, gestures and other external physical responses to illustrate Bob’s sadness. It’s better than saying ‘Bob was sad,’ at least most of the time.

Often this happens when the writer is trying to show rather than tell, but it’s only a halfway step. The writer is ‘telling’ the reader what facial expressions the character is giving, and those facial expressions then ‘show’ the emotion. It’s still a step removed from the readers. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, just like there is nothing inherently wrong with ‘telling’ the reader some things. It’s all in when and how something is told or shown that makes the reader engage with the story and character. Sometimes “Bob was sad” is exactly the right sentence. Sometimes “Bob frowned” may be exactly the right sentence. Showing will generally take more words, and maybe it’s not important enough to spend any more than three words on the fact that Bob was sad.

But if Bob’s sadness is an emotional moment in which readers need to empathize with Bob, it’s worth a few more words. Describing facial expressions, sounds or body language alone doesn’t bring the reader into the character’s emotions. Adding physical actions and responses can help show the emotion.

Bob’s hand shook as he stared at the photo of his old friend, and he began to cry.

Better, but it’s still missing something – it’s flat. It describes the physical actions and response. This sentence is part showing and part telling. The writer tells the reader that Bob’s hand shook, that he stared at the photo, and that he started crying, all of which creates a ‘showing’ scene. The reader is seeing the scene, better than “Bob was sad,” but the reader isn’t feeling it first-hand. The reader is seeing the scene from the external, not the internal. 

The photo trembled as Bob remembered his old friend, and the image blurred behind his tears.

Not saying this is Pulitzer Prize stuff, but this last version shows the reader that Bob is sad. It paints a scene in the reader’s mind, and the reader can feel Bob’s reaction – his internal response. The external has almost been completely eliminated. This last version doesn’t tell me if Bob is frowning or sighing. It doesn’t even directly tell me that he is looking at the photo or that his hand is shaking or that he started crying. Those are external actions. Yes, all of those actions are there, but they aren’t ‘told’ or stated as a fact for readers. This version explores the internal response. It puts the reader inside Bob as he holds the photo in his trembling hand, he remembers, and the photo blurs.

If writing in first person, remember the narrator can’t see her own face to describe her smiles, frowns, and furrowed brows. A first-person narrator, like all of us in real life, wouldn’t usually notice when she sighs. You probably don’t stop to think, “I’m smiling now.” But in first person, or in a tight third, the character’s thoughts, feelings, and internal monologue can be used to show emotions much more effectively than describing facial expressions.

Below are a few examples from Samantha’s manuscript draft with the original wording and suggested edits. All suggested edits are merely examples of one way the sentence might be revised. There are many different ways of saying something, and it’s always up to the writer to come up with the best way that fits the writer’s style, voice and story.

ORIGINAL: I shot her daggers and refused to dignify her remark with a response. She knew how important my career was to me.

 REVISE: I refused to dignify her remark with a response. She knew how important my career was to me.

Sometimes the external signs of an emotion can be eliminated completely, as the existing internal thoughts, actions and dialog show the emotion. I deleted the ‘shot her daggers’ phrase (a reference to the character giving a sharp glare). It’s not needed. The rest of this paragraph carries the full weight of the character’s irritation.

ORIGINAL: The security guard looked me up and down. ‘You his mother or something?’

I glanced down at my suit, then back up at the guy. ‘Oh, sod off!’

REVISE: The security guard eyed my business suit. ‘You his mother or something?’

‘Oh, sod off!’

I moved the reference to what she is wearing to the guard’s actions rather than have the character glance down at her clothes. She already knows what she’s wearing. Her words convey her reaction without her reviewing her own attire.

ORIGINAL: I blushed the same way I did every time David quasi flirted with me, then realised how inappropriate it was to be reacting this way with a dead guy just metres away.

REVISE: Every time David quasi-flirted like this, it awakened the giggly, embarrassed 12-year-old who still lived inside me, completely inappropriate with a dead guy metres away.

Eliminates the blush but shows from an internal perspective what she was feeling, perhaps in a way that readers can relate to. It also eliminates the filter that tells readers the character ‘realises’ something rather than just letting the realisation come through naturally.

ORIGINAL: I felt my forehead crease with surprise that the cop appeared to know me, and took a closer look at him. I may have come across him in my work, but nothing stood out.

REVISE: How did this cop know me? I gave him a closer look. Maybe we’d crossed paths before, but nothing stood out.

This revise replaces ‘I felt my forehead crease with surprise’ with the internal thought, ‘How did he know me?’ That shows her surprise from the inside rather than telling readers she was surprised and the character describing the feeling on her face.

ORIGINAL: I sighed, slipped off my heels and trudged into the lounge room.

REVISE: I slipped off my heels and trudged into the lounge room.

A simple elimination of the sigh. Slipping off her heels and ‘trudging’ (a great verb in this sentence) captures her mood. People sigh for a variety of reasons – sad, happy, satisfied, perplexed, fatigued, confused, resigned, etc. Stating that a character sighs doesn’t really say anything without some additional information to show the emotion. And once the additional info is there and the emotion is shown, the sigh becomes unnecessary.

ORIGINAL: I flashed him what I hoped was a beguiling smile.

REVISE: None. This is a very specific action that the character does consciously for a reason. It is her conscious action of flashing a particular type of smile that is the important point of the sentence. There are always exceptions, like this one, where a smile, sigh, or a blush is the important action rather than only serving as an external sign of an internal emotion.

There is nothing wrong with having a character frown or smile or sigh on occasion. The questions to ask yourself each time are: What is the best way to engage the reader in this moment of the story? Am I relying too heavily on external signs of emotion?

Many thanks to Samantha for allowing me to use these examples.


Jan 10 2011

Pace yourself

How can I tell if the pace of my novel manuscript lags in parts? Ames from Alabama.

First, let’s define terms. What is pace in a novel?

Pace is what provides the flow and rhythm of the story through the arrangement of action, suspense, conflict, rising tension, intermixed with slower scenes to give readers a breather.

Pace is the forward momentum of the story, the speed at which the plot unfolds. A novel is a marathon race, not a sprint. It’s not flat out as fast as you can go from start to finish. It’s uphill, downhill, around curves, speeding up during a straightaway, slowing for an uphill climb, taking a few minutes to go steady and take in the scenery, the position of the other runners, the lay of the course ahead, even pause for a sip of water and a breather. The runner (in our case, the writer) needs to know when to preserve energy, when to turn on some speed, and when to give it the final kick to the finish line.

The overall pace you want to create in your story can be from one extreme to the other depending on your story and genre. The pace of a Tom Clancy thriller is going to be very different from a Nicholas Sparks love story. But pace is crucial to both.

So how do you know if the pace lags in places? The easy answer is when readers skim pages looking for something interesting to happen, put the book down, fall asleep, or gouge out their own eyeballs from boredom.

But how do you gauge the pace when you’re writing the manuscript?

Every writer has a different approach, but many don’t worry about pace during a first draft. Get the story down, pay more attention to plot, character development, the writing style and voice. Then during your first revision, map out each scene to see where the pace increases and decreases, and where it needs to speed up or slow down.

Other writers map out the scenes before writing, taking the pace into account as they outline.

Either way, plan for pace. Slower scenes still must move the story forward. Flashbacks, narratives, characterization scenes, sedate scenes, transitions, and breathers all must be placed at the right point so the information conveyed is crucial to the reader at the exact moment it’s needed. These scenes must fit into the story at that point, not randomly tossed in.

If you plotted the scenes on a graph, does the pace go up and down with a gradual increase over the course of the novel as the tension builds? Are there long stretches with slow pacing that might lose readers’ interest and cause mass eye-gouging? Do you have page after page of back story, flashbacks, descriptive narrative where nothing really happens, no rising tension or conflict or suspense? Those long low points on the graph are likely spots to look for lagging pace.

At the other extreme, does the main character lurch from one crisis to the next with no breaks in the action, no lulls, no introspection or places for readers to catch their breath? Even in a fast-paced thriller, one car chase, shoot-out, and explosion after another becomes repetitive. Repetitive becomes expected. Expected becomes boring, and then eyes get gouged.