Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Editing, Day 12--Character Motivation


An interesting phenomenon is happening on this here blog. While y’all have gotten quieter on the comments, we have gained more readers. Go figure. I just think in this cyber space day and age, folks love to lurk. Brings out the kid in us, know what I mean? When I was young, I used to love sneaking around and trying to hide.

Lurker BGs, we love you.

We did have a few good comments yesterday regarding ideas of how to handle the CM in our action scene. They picked up on what I said yesterday—that CM has to begin at the beginning of the book. That we have to fully understand Vince’s evil and ability to do harm before he ever steps onto the scene.

We also need to know what happens in the scene before the excerpt we’ve been using. The author of our AS informs me of what we haven’t seen:

The scene takes place in Chapter 17 of the novel, and there are 21 chapters. We know a lot about Vince before it happens. Christy, a guilt-ridden alcoholic, lived with him for several months, but then she left when he hit her one too many times. That's her situation when the novel begins. Vince wants her to come back and he also wants her to do some shady things with him where they both work. She has just mustered up the courage to refuse him. Vince has been stalking her, and she suspects he is the arsonist who destroyed her apartment as well. Christy turns to her sister's cattle ranch for refuge. This is where she is in the AS, and Vince has basically decided if he can't have Christy, no one will.

When Vince shows up before our excerpt begins, Christy tries to act like she’s not scared. She tells him to leave and tries to get by him as she’s walking the horse out of the barn. At that point, our AS begins.

So how do we build on all this?

I have to admit, this CM stuff is hard for me to teach. Character reaction and emotions, which work as motivation for the next action, is something an author learns over time. It’s something I’ve learned to innately sense. But the way I get at it is to completely, unequivocally immerse myself in the POV character’s head. What is happening second by second? What is each thought, each action, each word? I figure those out, then decide which ones the rhythm of the scene will allow me to use.

For our AS there are two things I’d like to see accomplished. (1) I’d like to feel Christy’s fear more. Which means we need to see more internal and external reaction from her. But we don’t want to slow the scene down. (2) I’d like to see her turning point more acutely—when she decides she must defend herself.

He grabbed Christy’s arm, whipped her around. Her shoulder rammed into Spirit. The horse jerked up his head and jumped away. The reins ripped from her hand.

Vince’s fist crunched into her cheekbone. Her head bounced sideways, pain exploding through her face. Christy stumbled.


The above actions happen in seconds, bam-bam. I see no room for reaction before this. Next sentence is:

Spirit bolted out the door.

I see room for something before this sentence, and I sense the need for it. Think about it rhythmically. For Christy to stumble and for the horse to be rattled enough to bolt, you need a second or two. Time for a blitz thought to streak through Christy’s head. Now I don’t know whether this character would pray or not, but the sake of the rewrite, let’s assume she would. How about if we added:

Oh, God, please.

This added sentence will be in its own paragraph. The sequence will read like this:

Vince’s fist crunched into her cheekbone. Her head bounced sideways, pain exploding through her face. Christy stumbled.

Oh, God, please.

Spirit bolted out the door.

We really don’t have time for any more words than those three. Certainly not some telling sentence. Just a quick thought to let us feel her internal reaction of fear while we’re feeling her physical reaction to the pain. And at the same time we're adding a reactive emotion, we're adding a needed and logical beat of rhythm for the actions of the horse.

Vince grabbed Christy’s jacket and yanked her close. Rancid cigar breath poured over her. “Guess what. I don’t take ‘no’ for an answer.” He punched her in the temple.

He grabs her, yanks her up close. If she’s smelling his breath, there’s a second or two in there while he’s exhaling in her face. Room for another quick reaction. I don’t want an internal one here, because we just had one, and you’ve really got to be careful about stringing actual thoughts (put in italics) too closely to one another. Even very quick thoughts, when arranged too closely, can make the scene feel slow. So I’d go for an external reaction that shows her fear. Because when she’s face to face with Vince, and he’s already hit her once, she’s got to know another blow is coming. So how about something like:

Vince grabbed Christy’s jacket and yanked her close. Rancid cigar breath poured over her. She trembled.

I don’t know about you, but with those two words added, suddenly I get this visual of the scene. I can see her nose to nose with him. I can feel her fear that more is coming.

To punch up that emotional beat even more, I'd cut the paragraph there and start a new one with Vince's next action.

Vince grabbed Christy’s jacket and yanked her close. Rancid cigar breath poured over her. She trembled.

Guess what. I don’t take ‘no’ for an answer.” He punched her in the temple.

We’ve only added two CM moments, but you should already be getting the picture of the kinds of things to go for. This is where SHOW is indeed so important. We have no time for a telling sentence. Ironically, the more we try to tell of emotions and thoughts, the less the reader will feel it, because we’re ruining the rhythm of the scene. Two words—Christy trembled—can replace a whole telling line that might read: She shook in fear, knowing he was going to hit her again. See how such a line, as well as being telling, totally throws off the rhythm?

Dear BGs, I know we’ve looked at this AS for so long, your eyes are probably crossing. And we’re to the point where we’re ready to talk about something else. But I don’t want to gloss over this very important concept. We’ll look at more of the scene tomorrow to see where else we can insert CM moments. For today—where else in the scene do you see a second or two for some emotion or reaction—and what might you place there?

More importantly, how can you apply these concepts to a crucial scene in your own wip?

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Read Part 14

8 comments:

C.J. Darlington said...

I think Brandilyn's right about this being an instinctive thing. It's one thing to lay down a set of rules, it's another to implement them. As we grow as writers, this sense should grow with us. I know I'm constantly learning new ways of writing better.

Give your characters a history, secrets they don't want anyone to know. They didn't just all the sudden "appear" in Chapter 1 of your WIP. They have childhoods. They've had bad things happen in their lives. Know those things, and you'll be on your way to creating believable emotions and reactions.

I'm still on the journey myself, so I'm talking to me just as much as you! :-)

Tina said...

I'm not going cross-eyed yet. I'm enjoying each and every edit as it comes. Amazing how a few little words adds so much depth. It will be good to see the AS completely edited, but I'm enjoying the process and absorbing all I can. Thanks so much!

Stuart said...

Thanks for the inisght Brandilyn :)

I have one critical scene coming up in the chapter I'm starting on where my main character does something unexpected, but I don't think out of character for him. I'll definetly have to focus a lot on his motivation from the groundwork I've laid. Going to be hard, but your explanation here has helped me know what to look for in pulling it off. :)

Becky said...

Good stuff, Brandilyn. I'm learning a lot. You really should write a how to book. Heh heh heh--OK, another how to book.

Jennifer Tiszai said...

You hit the nail on the head for me today, Brandilyn. I have struggled with how to truly be inside a character's skin, to show what they're thinking and feeling without slowing down action scenes. You gave us some great things to consider when constructing a scene. Very helpful.

Bret said...

Enjoying every minute. Thank you so much. Lurking, Bret

Dineen A. Miller said...

What perfect timing for my WIP to be learning all this. I have a critical action scene to revamp and now I feel like I can approach it more confidently. What I want to achieve is more defined now. Thanks, Brandilyn. This is so great!

Lynette Sowell said...

You said:
"Ironically, the more we try to tell of emotions and thoughts, the less the reader will feel it, because we’re ruining the rhythm of the scene. Two words—Christy trembled—can replace a whole telling line that might read: She shook in fear, knowing he was going to hit her again."

This helped me immensely, especially since I just finished the bang-up climactic action scene for my novella. I need it to show lots of action, lots of emotion. Right now it needs LOTS of work. But now I have a TOOL I can use to make it better. Thanks! ~~