Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Editing, Day 11--Character Motivation

Methinks y’all are tired of the sentence rhythm subject and are ready to move on. So we shall.

First, I must deal with this question from yesterday: Is it OK to mix tenses within a scene? In your examples from COLOR, you did switch from past to present (-ing) to note the passing of time. Someone told me I couldn't do that but when I write, I do mix tenses b/c of the rhythm.

I didn’t mix tenses, and perhaps you’re really not mixing them either. That’s why you may be confused. Putting a verb in participle form (-ing) doesn’t make it present tense. In fact, a participle form is only part of a complete verb. You need to add the state of being verb before it, and that is what makes the verb present or past tense—is winding, vs. was winding.
I crested a long grade, the hills on either side melting away, and slowed at the sight before me. Melting here is not a complete verb, and therefore it’s not in present tense. It’s part of an incomplete descriptive phrase. Winding through a bordering forest were the glimmering waters of the river. In this sentence the verb is past tense, although it’s split up. Winding . . . were = were winding. Past tense. The squall of the town seemed so removed from that that vista, the pulses of its rhythm fading long before they reached me. The verb of this sentence is seemed. The pulses of its rhythm fading is another incomplete phrase, used as description.

Clear as mud? You can always write me privately is this is still confusing.

Another question had to do with showing the actions of both hero and heroine in an intense scene as they try to get to each other during a fire. How to do that?

I'd use very short scenes, switching back and forth between POVs. (You see this in a book often--same chapter, but an extra space or perhaps a graphic between the paragraphs delineates a switch in scene.) As the intensity of the sequence increases, make each POV scene even shorter. You can even go down to one paragraph. The very act of jumping from one POV to another gives the choppy feel of rhythm you want. I did this in the crisis/climax sequence for Eyes of Elisha, when I had 3-4 characters all doing something at once at various points around a building.

Okay, on to character motivation. (Called CM. What else?)

How to teach this? All I know at this point is that I’m likely to spend several days on it. I saved the hardest for last. So much of this is conceptual. It’s a sense that writers have to develop. It’s not just a bunch of rules I can list. (Come to think of it, I suppose sentence rhythm is much the same way.)

First, I suppose I should define what I mean by character motivation. It’s a pretty loose term here, I’ll admit. I’m talking about what makes the character do what he/she does. And what the character’s thinking at the moment. I’m also talking about emotions, internal reactions. (Which will lead to further action.)

We will eventually edit our AS for character motivation. In order to do that fairly, I’ll need to show you a little more of what happened in the scene before our actual excerpt. But for now I want to lay some foundation for the concept. Stick with me as I try to make sense of this. Examples to follow, which should help clarify.

Here are some principles/guidelines I use for establishing the CM needed for a particular scene:

1. It doesn’t start in that scene. The foundation for effective CM starts on the first page of your book.

In my suspenses, I start the book writing toward the crisis/climax. One of the conventions in the suspense genre is that the protagonist ends up in big, bad danger. Often mortal danger. These have to be intense scenes. If I’m going to write an effective crisis/climax, with my protagonist up against the bad guy, I have to establish her motivation for terror during those scenes. I can’t stop the scene at the time and explain to the reader that this guy really is big, really is bad, and really does want to kill her. That information has to come in all the pages leading up to these scenes.

2. Emotions in the current scene must arise naturally and in logical progression from all the CM created before.

When my protagonist is up against big, bad guy, and I’ve shown (not told) the reader throughout the book that the guy is evil, it will then be natural for her to feel terror, to understand that her life is on the line. So that foundation’s in place before the scene even begins. But as the scene progresses, the protagonist will undergo shifts in her emotions. (She’d better, or the scene will go nowhere.) Those shifts have to be logical, and based upon what has gone before.

3. At the point when there’s a shift in the protagonist’s emotion that will therefore lead to a change in action, the motivation has to be further layered in. In other words, this is a key point for additional CM.

Example, using our AS:

(Point #1) In order to fully feel the intensity of this scene through Christy’s POV, we need to feel her fear. In order to feel her fear, we have to know—before Vince ever materializes—that he’s a big, bad guy and he’ll do her harm. Which means from the first time Vince is mentioned, the author of our AS must be writing toward this scene. Even if we never meet Vince until this scene, we can learn of him through Christy’s thoughts of what he’s done, and perhaps through her conversation with others about him. And maybe a conversation with him over the phone.

(Point #2) If everything above is laid in effectively, when the scene begins, the very appearance of Vince will make the reader tense—before Vince even does anything. In that crucial moment of his appearance, we definitely want an emotional, internal reaction from Christy. (Again, this part of the scene has been off camera so far. I’ll need to remedy that.)

(Point #3) Christy’s emotions need to progress logically from the first two points. We see this occur pretty well in the scene. At first Christy feels fear and plays the hapless victim. Then—a turning point. She sees him pull out the rope—and realizes this time he will kill her. This is another crucial moment in which we want to see further layering of CM. Christy’s emotional reaction to the fact that Vince plans to kill her changes her action. She moves from playing victim to trying to save herself.

Now I haven’t read the rest of the book, so I don’t know what CM has been layered in before our scene. I’m guessing that up to this point Christy has always been the victim. If that’s true, her change here from victim to fighting back is HUGE. The reader needs to feel that hugeness. It’s a major change in CM. Yet it takes place in a matter of seconds, because that’s all the time she has.

If you’ll remember, the original AS had a few sentences of character motivation at that turning point. During our SR edit, I took most of them out. Why would I do such a silly thing when I just told you they’re necessary? I suppose I shall half to explain myself by and by.

Question to leave you with: How can we effectively convey this major change in Christy’s CM and yet use few enough words that we don’t mess up the rhythm of our action scene?

Hit me with some answers.

Read Part 13


Wayne said...

In the last edit, we had "Now he would kill her, and every ounce of survival instinct she had kicked in." That's a fine sentence, but I don't think that just going on instinct conveys the huge shift in Christy's thinking. I think we need to add a conscious decision to fight back. Christy needs to put her old behavior behind her and decide to stand up for herself.

I'll step out on a limb and see if I can't help the reader "feel the hugeness." Where that comes in the AS is open for debate, but I chose to do it this way:

Vince kicked her in the thigh. “Get up.”

She'd spent her whole life letting people kick her when she was down. No more.

Christy struggled to rise in a slow, defeated way, but the second she gathered her feet underneath herself, she lunged for the door, and the shovel.

Question: If we gave her epiphany a longer paragraph, in which the enormity of her decision is laid out - maybe thinking back to all the people we've learned about in the story that have stepped on her and she never fought back - would we be doing bad things like stalling the scene or destroying the beats? Or would the break all take place in her mind in an instant, and the pause would act like a deliniating point between the old Christy and the new?

If I could extend the description, I'd still start and end it with the two sentences I added.

Time for me to duck and cover. :)

C.J. Darlington said...

I think these are some great thoughts, and edits, Wayne.

Stuart said...

Nice job Wayne :)

I think also to help keep the action flowing the author would want to do a good amount of set-up for Christy's change in the stuff that comes up before this scene.

If you build her mindset going into this scene correctly then you can have the action flow almost untouched and then add in a line like Wayner suggested that keys in on what was laid down before and brings about the believable change in Christy, spurred by the realization that this time Vince means to kill her.

Perhaps shown as a glimmer of hope that she sees before Vince arrives. Maybe she is very close to getting away from him for good. That she is finding herself dreaming of a life away from him. Then he comes in and shatters her hope, but when he goes to kill her, she realizes that he must know how close he is to losing his power over her as well, and that spurs the change in her.

Make any sense? :)

~ Brandilyn Collins said...

C.J., please e-mail me. Thanks!