Thursday, June 16, 2005

Editing, Day 4--Action/Reaction Sequence


Greetings, BGs. First a little housekeeping. Ron had a great idea when he set up a discussion thread for this blog within the ACFW forums. Numerous BGs who usually leave comments here skipped over to that forum after reading yesterday’s post. That reminded me that I’ve been meaning for some time to create a discussion board right here, as part of the blog. I now have my assistant working on this, so it should be up in a few days. That way all BGs will have an easy forum for interactive discussion, whether a member of ACFW or not. Ron, thanks for your nudge on this.

Second, over on Mick Silva’s blog, Your Writer’s Group, is part 1 of an interview he did with me about Christian fiction. I was responding to general negative comments about CBA fiction and was very happy to be given some “air time” on the subject. This evening, part 2 of that interview will be posted. View it at:
http://mywritersgroup.typepad.com/

My bottom line for all Christian novelists, whether we’re writing for the CBA or ABA, and no matter the genre—let’s support and encourage each other, understanding that God has placed us on different paths, but all for the common glory of His kingdom.

Back to our edit. Jason had two good questions from yesterday. First, can you overdo highly active verbs to the point they sound corny? Sure, that's possible. But the verbs really become the "right" verbs when all character motivation and emotion is in place to justify them. These issues have yet to come in our edit, so for now, some of the verbs may seem over the top. Second, Jason said some of the sentences seem wordy. Agreed. Wordiness is an issue we'll tackle when we look at sentence rhythm. That will be a major edit. Remember, we're only doing one thing at a time so I can fully explain each technique. We'll see it all come together in the end.


Today we look at action/reaction sequences—an important concept in high action scenes. If you’ve read Dwight Swain, you may have heard his term “MRU”—for motivation/reaction unit. I don’t call it that, but the concept is the same. (1) Something happens to POV character, and (2) character reacts. The reaction may be a physical feeling, a thought, or an action. Of course, action/reaction sequences also apply to non-POV characters, but in that case the reaction has to be in the form of an outward action hat shows us what that person felt or thought.

This concept sounds easy enough, but it’s hard to remember when we’re writing action scenes because lots of stuff is happening very fast. We must immerse ourselves in the heads of the characters to understand what they’re feeling/saying/doing as a result of each split-second action. These reactions have a logical order (even in the midst of a perhaps totally illogical fight).

Here’s the current first paragraph of our AS (as edited up to this point):

In an instant, he spun her whole body around, and her shoulder pummeled into Spirit. The horse panicked and jumped away, ripping the reins out of her hand.

The action/reactions here work in logical order. (1) Vince spins Christy around. This action causes Christy’s (2) Shoulder to ram the horse. Which causes horse to (3) React in fear and jump away. Which causes (4) Reins to be torn from Christy’s hands.

All of this occurs in a second or two. There’s no time for thought on Christy’s part. The action is bam, bam, bam.

Now here’s current paragraph two:


Vince’s fist landed on her cheekbone, and she spied the horse bolting out the door before pain shot through her head and she stumbled.

The action/reaction sequence doesn’t proceed in a logical order. Here’s the proper order: (1) Vince hits her on cheek, which leads to (2) Pain!, which causes her to (3) Stumble.

The problem arises because at the same time Christy is being hit, the horse is bolting away. We need to take that out of the hit/pain/stumble sequence. We can either have the horse bolt before or after this sequence. If we put it before, the bolting becomes the final reaction of the previous sequence. If we put it after, the bolting becomes the already fearful horse’s reaction to the hit/pain/stumble sequence.

How about putting it after, in its own paragraph, like this:

Vince’s fist landed on her cheekbone. Pain shot through her head. Christy stumbled.

Spirit bolted out the door.


These actions/reactions make more logical sense. There’s a reason I’ve placed the bolting after instead of before. We’ll get to that in a minute.

To recap—one thing to watch for in action/reaction is the logical sequence of events.

Second thing to watch for can be harder to spot—a gap in action/reaction.

Vince’s fist landed on her cheekbone. Pain shot through her head. Christy stumbled.

Spirit bolted out the door.


Put yourself in the midst of this fight. Think it through. Fist hits cheekbone, which leads to pain. That’s true. Then Christy could stumble. But before we get into Christy’s whole body reacting with a stumble, what happens to Christy’s head when fist meets cheek? Newton’s Third Law—For every action, there’s an equal and opposite reaction. Fist meets cheek, head jerks back under force of the blow. At the same time head jerks, pain shoots.

I suggest filling this gap in the reaction. And while we’re at it, I missed fixing the verb “landed” in our verb choice edit. It’s a weak verb. Also the verb “shot” could be even stronger. How about:

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

Spirit bolted out the door.


Better, I think. We’ll leave that for today. Here’s the next sequence:


“Spirit!”


Vince hurtled himself upon her. He grabbed a fistful of her jacket and yanked her to her feet. “It’s time you learned something, Darling.” He stuck his face in hers, his stale cigar breath assaulting her. “I don’t take ‘no’ for an answer.”

There’s a couple things wrong with this. First, I don’t think in the midst of being hit and stumbling, that Christy is going to call for Spirit when the horse bolts. Her attention is on Vince. I’d take out that one-word paragraph. This is why I put Spirit’s bolting at the end of the first sequence, because it now serves as the short paragraph beat that’s needed between Vince’s first and second actions. (More on this concept another day.)

Second problem—another gap in sequence. Last we saw of Christy, she was stumbling. A stumble isn’t necessarily a fall. But Vince is now hurtling himself upon her and yanking her to her feet. So either we need to show her falling to the ground, or we can show Vince grabbing her jacket, which keeps her falling, and yanking her close to his face. In either case, I also don’t think we need the first sentence: Vince hurtled himself upon her. It doesn’t really work. He can’t be literally upon her, and also grabbing her jacket.

I suggest that Christy stumbles but stays on her feet.

Next we see Vince say one sentence. Then yank Christy close to his face, then say another sentence. This is okay, but it feels more logical to me for him to yank her close, then say both sentences.

Suggested edit with all these action/reaction changes:

Vince grabbed a fistful of her jacket and stuck his face in hers. His stale cigar breath assaulted her. “It’s time you learned something, Darling. I don’t take ‘no’ for an answer.”

The next paragraph illustrates a third kind of action/reaction problem—the impossible mix of two actions at once.

She squeezed her eyes shut, gasping. If she resisted, he’d make it worse. “Vince, please, don’t.”

If a person is gasping, she’s not talking. She’s merely sucking in air. I’d delete the word:

She squeezed her eyes shut. If she resisted, he’d make it worse. “Vince, please, don’t.”

Enough for today. Here’s the sequence as edited so far:

In an instant, he spun her whole body around, and her shoulder pummeled into Spirit. The horse panicked and jumped away, ripping the reins out of her hand.

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

Spirit bolted out the door.

Vince grabbed a fistful of her jacket and stuck his face in hers. His stale cigar breath assaulted her. “It’s time you learned something, Darling. I don’t take ‘no’ for an answer.”

She squeezed her eyes shut. If she resisted, he’d make it worse. “Vince, please, don’t.”

Comments? Do you see action/reaction problems elsewhere in the scene?


--------------------
Read Part 6

6 comments:

Stuart said...

(sneaks in early...or is it late)

Yet more great stuff Brandylin. :)

Kind of dropping back a day, but can a shoulder really "pummel" anything? ;) Don't think the action matches the definition. (Hides behind a bale of hay)

Back to today.

Is this an MRU mixup:?

He picked her up by the jacket again and shoved her against a stall door. She groaned as pain shot through her back. He’d pushed her against the metal latch.

The first two sentences are in order, but I'm not sure about the third. Perhaps better as:

He picked her up by the jacket and shoved her against the stall door. The metal latch dug painfully into her back.

Thanks for taking us through this step-by-step!

Stuart said...

Doh! Did I kill the comments? There's usually at least two or three here by now!

Maybe everyone is just to awestruck at the thought of a full blown Forensics & Faith forum!

That is awesome news, can't wait.

Domino said...

Keep up the good work, teacher. This is making my rewrites a little better. Thanks!

Becky said...

Good stuff, Brandilyn. I like the exercise suggestion, too. It's just that ... well, I'm too busy checking my own manuscritpt. hahah

Wayne said...

This is a terrific excercise, Brandylin. I'm learning a great deal - thanks!

I think Stuart's rewrite of the stall door is an improvement - I wondered about that bit myself.

Here is something I think is an MRU problem:

Vince’s hands flew to his face, and he moaned as he sagged to the floor.

A few questions:

1. What happened to the rope that he had just pulled out of his pocket?

2. If someone gets hit in the head with a shovel, are they going to just moan? I think he'd more likely cry out in pain and/or surprise. This guy seems like he would be surprised that she is fighting back.

Here's my feeble attempt at fixing this one.

"Gaah!" Vince dropped the rope and his hands flew to his face as he sagged to the floor.

3. If you swing a shovel at someone's head, there's a good chance you'll hit them with the blunt side of the shovel. If you throw it like our heroine did, odds are that you hit the guy with the sharp end of the shovel. The sharp end would draw blood. I would have her swing the shovel at his head, then drop it and run. Alternatively, she could still throw it, but in that case I think he needs to bleed - at least by the time he runs out of the barn.

C.J. Darlington said...

I think Vince needs to bleed in general. :-)

My file on these suggestions is getting mighty large! Keep the thoughts coming. Wayne, I appreciate the comments on the shovel. It might be better to have Christy swing at his head instead of throwing it anyway. I'll have to think about this.