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