Friday, July 01, 2005

Editing, Day 14--Character Motivation

Kudos to all of you who decided to take a public stab at rewriting the “change sequence” for Christy.

Here’s a very good question from Linda: "distaste at her weakness curling one corner of his mouth." Is this a POV shift? I'm sure Christy can infer that, but from her POV can she know it?"

Bottom line, no, for me it’s not a POV shift. But it easily could be. The reason I say no is because the line is based upon the “book” that I have written in my head that leads up to our AS. This astute question leads me right into what I planned to discuss today.

I saved character motivation for last in editing our AS because it’s the hardest technique to teach and grasp, and because it’s the one technique that can’t be separated from the rest of the book. With our other techniques, action/reaction sequence, sentence rhythm, etc., we’ve been able to edit the AS “as an island,” so to speak. We’ve been able to look just at it, and not what has occurred in the book leading up to it. But as I said when we began discussing CM earlier this week, an author must begin motivation within a character in the very beginning of the novel. So before I could edit the scene for CM, I had to know what’s happened up to that point.

So I asked the author of our AS what had happened previously in the story between Christy and Vince. I learned that our scene takes place in chapter 17 out of 21. Christy lived with Vince but left him after he hit her one too many times. He has since stalked her and burned her apartment. Christy has retreated to her sister’s cattle ranch for refuge from Vince, and this is when our AS takes place.

Well. That told me quite a few things. Chapter 17 out of 21 is certainly toward the end of the book. Christy and Vince have a lot of history—bad history. From these few points of knowledge about their relationship, I had to make assumptions based on how I would have written these characters to work up to our scene. (This, of course, is one reason why our rewritten AS may be far from how its author would rewrite it, using our discussed techniques. In the end, she will have to make these techniques work for her, according to her story and her own author’s voice.)

Now. If I had written this story, in planning it out I would realize that this would be a major scene between these two characters. For Vince—because he’s moved from abuser to would-be killer. For Christy—because in realizing this fact, she must make the decision to fight him. That change in her will make a difference in this action scene, and it will stimulate change within her for the rest of the book. She’s going to learn how not to play the victim.

So—I’d have written the rest of the book toward this scene. In the first 16 chapters, I’d have so thoroughly established the twisted relationship between Christy and Vince by this point, that they will know each other very well—down to facial expressions. This is why Vince’s curled mouth will not be a POV shift, because Christy will have seen that curled mouth many times and know what it means. In fact, I may have established that so well that I can simply say his mouth curled and delete “in distaste at her weakness,” because the reader will completely understand the meaning of the expression. For this same reason, I can subtext the line: “I have some special plans for you, girl,” and Christy—and the reader—will understand that the special plans will go way beyond what he’s done to her so far.

In other words—to repeat myself because this is so important—I’d have been establishing the CM for this major scene from the very beginning of the book.

A quick aside—for those of you who have trouble plotting out a book beforehand, you might at least be able to figure out the major turning points of character in your book, and then write toward those scenes. Now maybe not. If you’re a true seat-of-the-pantser, you know nothing when you begin. I don’t want to tell you you’re wrong—we all write in different ways. But just know that some basic plotting can be accomplished based upon crucial scenes in your story.

All right. With all of the previous established, we can turn to the change moment for Christy in our AS. Two points about it.

1. We do want to deal within our framework of sentence rhythm as much as possible. That is, we want to use the right amount of sentences that will give the reader the idea of the time passing while Christy is having a change in her thinking. But we know this change is only a couple of seconds. If we adhere strictly to sentence rhythm guidelines, this passage of change will seem too quick to the reader. Why? Because the entire book’s been moving toward this point. The reader’s gonna expect a bit of drawn-out emotional struggle, because we all know intuitively that people don’t like change—even if the change is good.

Therefore—important guideline here. When sentence rhythm and major change in CM butt heads—CM wins.

You know this, albeit perhaps subconsciously. You know it not because you’re writers, but because you’re readers. From all the books you’ve read, and all the movies you’ve watched, you’ve come to understand that an important change moment—an emotional shift in the story—will often be drawn out. Not drawn out too long, but a little bit. In other words, in a book, the sentence rhythm is allowed to relax so that the reader can undergo the shift in thinking with the character.

Writers will handle this “slowing down” in various ways. Koontz, for instance, would easily take two pages. I love reading Koontz, but I don’t write that way. I wouldn’t stretch out the passage nearly as long. He can get away with it, because he stretches out many passages, often ignoring that facet of sentence rhythm, whereas I tend to write a leaner story. So for him, two pages might be the right amount of stretch for an important moment, while for me it might be a short paragraph.

2. While we’re stretching out the moment, we will so very easily fall into telling writing. If we do that, we’ll negate everything we’ve tried to do with this crucial passage. We’ll water it down. It won’t zing. It won’t feel true. This isn’t to say there won’t be some narrative sentences. It is to say that we want every word to count (remember our editing for compression). We want to use ords and phrases that will be so meaningful for the reader that they’ll require no explanation. And so . . .

We go full circle. Back to the beginning of the book. How do we establish words and phrases that will be full of emotional meaning for the reader? Through all the conflict between Christy and Vince to date. The more we pack each scene up to this point with full, layered emotion, the more an individual word or phrase that reminds us of those conflicts will mean.

So—the way I would handle rewriting this moment? First, I’d think of the most emotion-ridden conflicts between Christy and Vince in the past and have Christy remember them. (In few words!) Second, I’d move into narration regarding her sudden understanding that everything that came before, as awful as it has been, was nothing compared to what will now come. That realization must be deep and soul-shocking. Third, with the CM completely in place, Christy can then move toward the appropriate responsive action.

Anybody wanna take further stabs on the rewrite? I’ll post my own rewrite when we meet again next week.

Few notes: (1) I will be taking Monday, July 4 off. We will reconvene on Tues. the 5th. (2) Over the weekend, as much as I can, I’ll check for comments here and also discussion on our discussion board. I’ll answer questions and clarify things in both of those places over the weekend as I can. Maybe there won’t be any questions. Maybe I haven’t ended up sounding thoroughly confusing, as I fear I might. If I’ve made sense, perhaps you can think of a changing point in a book or movie in which everything slowed for a moment or two for the reader to fully experience the moment. If so, tell us about that. Your feedback may help others who are reading—even if they never respond back. Remember, the vast majority of readers here don’t usually break the surface.

Happy Fourth, BGs. If you’re attending a parade, make sure you’re standing when those military folk and veterans go by. They deserve it.

See you on Tuesday.

Read Part 16


Tina Helmuth said...

That was a sneaky trick, Brandilyn! You get a lot of us involved with our own little rewrites, and now you'll leave us hanging for a long weekend? We have a personal investment. We're waiting for your version to see how we can improve.

I'm not brave enough for a second try, but I like where you're heading. I didn't think of mini flashbacks to previous beatings... more thought, more time and motivation for that change to take place.

So much to learn! Keep 'em coming. :)

Anonymous said...

I'll add on to what I did yesterday:

Christy recoiled at his words. They seared her heart. Robbed her of her last shred of hope. Memories flooded her mind of each time he had hit her and degraded her in the past. She knew he was capable of carrying out his threat. She also knew she wasn't safe anywhere if he would chase her down on her sister's secluded ranch.

This was it. She had to defend herself. Or die the coward he knew she was.

Vince stepped nearer. Another step and he would be on top of her. She could feel his venomous breath. Knew she would soon be out of options.

Helpless on the floor, she squared her jaw. She desperately wanted to live. To breathe. Silent resolve slowly filled her. This time she would act.

Keeping one eye on Vince, she searched for a weapon. Anything that would slow him down.

Straw bale. Horse comb. Saddle soap bottle. Sawhorse. None worked.


That was it!

It leaned against the wall by the door. Only six feet away, it looked like 50. Could she crawl fast enough? She had to try.

Anonymous said...

Question on characterization. My wip is in the suspense line, and I'm getting really encouraging comments form my critique group. They like the story and the pace. Don't seem to have problems with things like telling, dialogue, etc. -- but they may just be kind.

However, the comment I've gotten a couple times is that they don't feel like they know much about the characters. How do you balance slipping readers tidbits about characters in the first few chapters without slowing down the pace? I've been trying to avoid paragraphs of information because that would slow everything down and lose readers. I'm kind of in a quandry. Readers have to care enough about the characters to get past the first 50 pages, but I'm afraid if I add much it will slow down the pace and lose readers because it's a suspense. Help!

Anonymous said...

I'm just getting caught up with the posts this week. I e-mailed the second chapter of my WIP to my critique group yesterday. It had been months since I looked at the scene and apparently I've been learning all sorts of things because I rewrote the whole scene.

So thanks for what you've been teaching. I am becoming a better writer. That's a good thing.

Rebecca LuElla Miller said...

" We want to use ords and phrases that will be so meaningful ..."

Brandilyn, you do write lean--even starting to subtext your text now. Hahah--sorry--I couldn't resist teasing.

This is wonderful, helpful info. I'll try to carve out some time this weekend and give another stab at this (she said pointedly. Hahah). It really is a great exercise.

BTW, I caught your discussion with J. Mark--good stuff. I thought you made your points convincingly.

And how is Paige? Couldn't help noticing your comments about putting off writing on WIP and now a 10 page per day goal (was that in the View?). Hmmm.

Anonymous said...

That will have to be my goal soon if I'm going to finish my WIP by conference!

Domino said...

This is so excellent! I'm really learning a lot. I can see my own major turning point scene in new light now.

I need to go back and improve the layers of emotion, the tightness, the sentence rhythm, and check on my motivation/reaction.

Then it's gonna sing, baby!

Thanks so enormously, Brandilyn.

Unknown said...

This is helping tremendously, BC, because I'm up to a similar scene in my WIP. It's tough to nail down what emotions and thoughts go through a person's mind during such a violent encounter. I'm trying to keep up with you the best I can, been on the road a bit lately. Thanks.