Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Editing, Day 16--Character Motivation

Note to Cara: Okay, we will probably cover backstory at some point, since I apparently haven’t done it here. Another idea: at Mt. Hermon this past March I taught a workshop called “Bustin’ the Backstory.” If you go to and find the Christian Writers Conference, you can order a CD of this workshop. It’s real inexpensive—something like $6. You might want to check that out. Proceeds of the CD sales go to the conference.

Well, I have not one BG taking me to task for my rewrite of our Big Moment sequence yesterday. Not sure if you’ve decided to keep your negative opinions to yourselves, whether you’re too pushed trying to catch up after the fourth to comment, or whether you’re thinking it’s the most brilliant rewrite of the century.

Today I want to tell you about my philosophy behind my rewrite of this major character moment in our AS. My goal isn’t to convince you that this rewrite is the be-all and end-all. Instead I hope that you can take from this discussion a new insight regarding character emotions and how to handle them in your own wips.

As I mentioned yesterday, I chose not to tell of Christy’s actual moment of decision to save herself, e.g., She had to save herself, or a thought along the lines of No more! I think that such a line comes across as telling and weak—for two reasons.

Reason One: The instinct for survival is very strong in man and beast alike. Any healthy human faced with the possibility of unexpected death will fight it. Even against all odds. Christy’s decision to save herself from a sure, torturous death is no different from what any person in her situation would do. Your readers intuitively know this. Therefore, they don’t need to be told of Christy’s obvious decision.

Reason Two: Springs off of #1. If Christy’s decision is the same as anyone in her situation would make, and your readers already know this, telling the moment of actual decision does nothing to characterize Christy. Such a line, instead of digging deeply into the unique psyche of Christy, merely skims along the surface of general human emotion. And any time we skim the surface of emotion, our writing’s going to be weak.

It’s not the actual “telling” of the line that’s wrong. We so often use that phrase, “show, don’t tell.” But some “telling” is necessary. And some authors do lots of telling—but they do it very well, so it works. It’s not the telling itself that readers will find weak. It’s that much of the time, telling depicts only the shallowest of emotion. That’s what makes it weak.

So, we’re looking at rewriting this sequence in which Christy realizes she’s going to be killed by an abusive man—and she decides to fight back physically for the first time in order to save herself. The action/reaction sequence here is pretty basic. Action: Vince pulls out rope. Reaction: Christy realizes he’s going to kill her. Reaction: Her body responds in some visceral way. Decision: She is going to fight. If we skim that on the surface—so what? Who wouldn’t react the same way? Our job as writers of this scene is to go deep into Christy’s head. What are her unique thought processes? What does her body feel as she realizes she’s going to die? What memories blitz by her? What sights or sounds or smells cause her to have further memories, or goad her into action?

It’s this deep dive into the character’s psyche that will pull the reader through the scene. The more this unique character comes alive, the more the reader will identify with her plight, and the more the book will speak to that reader.

So rather than writing this sequence toward the decision moment and then naming that moment, I chose to load up on motivation for Christy’s decision. She remembers all that Vince has done to her—details included. How his actions have hurt her spirit as well as her body. She sees blood from the wound in her nose and realizes much more is to come. Then, so loaded up with motivation, she begins looking around for a weapon. It all flows. Her decision comes naturally. I don’t need to tell the reader this moment of choice. In fact, I’d argue there isn’t one particular ah hah! moment in which Christy decides to fight. Rather, it’s a growing sense in her as she realizes her plight.

Here’s what I’m trying to get across to y’all. We must always, always, always delve deeply into our character’s emotions. To do this, we have to constantly study emotions, become armchair psychologists. And when we’re writing, we have to pull back and think through the emotion and resulting choice. Particularly if the choice is something anyone—or even most people—would do, we can’t stay there on that shallow surface. We have to go deeper.

And so the irony. The one major moment of choice in this scene, that the whole story of Christy and Vince has been leading up to—is not actually told. Doing so would be too easy and remain too shallow. We want to go deep into the undercurrents of Christy, and once we’re there, no need to pop up to the surface and state the obvious.

In tomorrow’s editing, it’s back into high action. This stretched out moment of major decision is over, and we return to the fight.

Meanwhile, you inordinately quiet BGs--comments/questions on today?

Read Part 18


C.J. Darlington said...

This is all very interesting. One of my biggest weaknesses has been not telling enough. That sounds strange since, like you mentioned, the maxim "show don't tell" is pounded into every beginning writer's brain from the get-go. I think I've often erred too far in the other direction. Sometimes a little bit of telling is just what the story orders. I'm seeing that even more with your edits.

One thing that I've tried to implement in my action scenes is something James Scott Bell talks about in his book Plot & Structure (and in a WD column he did a while back) - Stretching the Tension. Slow it all down as much as possible to make the reader feel for a character. Fell her pain. Feel her fear. Feel her emotion.

Your edits are bringing those emotions out in this AS.

Cara Putman said...

I agree with CJ. I'm already thinking of scenes I can make richer by going back and moving beyond the surface with an emotion. Someday I'll get past page 50 :-) Write ten pages, go back and add another level to 40. And so it goes. But I'm excited about what I'm learning and how it is strenthening (hopefully!) my writing and the story. Thanks!

Tina said...

Aha! To me, that's the crux of the whole CM discussion. In my writing I tend to think "what would someone do in this situation?" but that's not enough by far. I have to think "what would my character do in this situation?" and then I'll have a character worth reading about, who brings the story to life.

I'm glad I took a stab at rewriting that paragraph. The point has really driven home in a way it wouldn't have otherwise. Thanks for another valuable insight.

Becky said...


Camy Tang said...

Aaaaah, I like your comments about character emotions and armchair psychologists. That resonates with me. Good points. They've made me think differently about my fight scenes now.


Shannon said...

Wow, I may finally be "getting" this.

Your comment about skimming the surface of general human emotion really clicked with me today (as I'm finally getting to catch up on the week's blogs). I, too, have a few scenes to go back and look at again ...

Thanks for your comments about appropriate telling, too.