Yesterday I posted an analysis of several paragraphs in the book DEAD MAN’S RULE, by lawyer Rick Acker. A number of my loyal blog readers posted comments or questions, and I think it’s time to answer some of those:
My main character is mostly blind. He can see a little, but not much. The best input he gets is auditory. I have a lot of people describe what’s happening to him, but he still goes a lot by what he hears.
The problem is that this means his “Motivations” will also be mostly auditory. But I can’t seem to get away from saying “[he] heard” or “the sound of”.
For instance, here’s one motivation written different ways (he and other people are in a wagon, which is being chased):
1) He heard running feet beside the wagon.
2) Running feet were heard beside the wagon.
3) The sounds of running was heard beside the wagon.
4) People were now running beside the wagon.
Randy sez: I think the best solution is to write as if the character were not blind.
I would avoid #1 because it injects the POV character into the Motivation, and I can’t see any reason to do so.
#2 contains a passive verb construction “were heard” which should be avoided or plagues will be called down on the head of the author, or even worse, your book will not be read, or even worse, you may become the object of self-referential humor which will be read on my blog.
Ditto for #3.
#4 works fine. This is most likely the way the POV character actually experiences it. He hears them and deduces that people are running based on the sounds that impinge on his ears, much as a sighted character will see them and deduce that they are actually there, based on the light that impinges on his eyes.
Parker suggested as a solution:
Seems the auditory input must trigger an emotional or visceral experience for your character. You might play on that. Another variation for your ideas file:
“Fear pulsed hard in his veins (or head, or ears) at the pounding of feet beside the wagon.
Randy sez: It’s an excellent idea to put in emotive Reactions to the Motivation, but they must come AFTER the Motivation, not before. So you would need to show the sound of the pounding feet and THEN show us that fear pulsing through those veins. Remember that the reader has a very linear experience, because she must read the words in order. If you write the effect before the cause, then it feels “unrealistic” to the reader, who will likely not realize what’s wrong. It is not enough to use a connective such as “as” or “while” or similar to make the cause and the effect seem simultaneous. In writing, it’s a rare place where it works to say that things happen simultaneously, because they can’t be read simultaneously. So always put the explosion first and then the shock wave.
In your example above when I read Alexie’s hand shot into his pocket and got the gun, I thought it meant his own pocket, not the other guy’s. Would adding a couple words to make it clear slow down the action too much?
Randy sez: This is a good point. Here is the original:
“Hurry!” a voice urged in Russian from the front seat of the car. A tall, dark-haired man jumped out of the right rear door, still holding a Makarov pistol. He shoved the weapon into his jacket and quickly searched Alexei’s coat pockets. As he knelt to frisk through Alexei’s pants pockets, Alexei’s hand suddenly grabbed his arm and held it in an iron grip. Alexei’s other hand shot into his jacket and pulled out the Makarov.
If I were writing this, I’d probably simplify this and put a paragraph break at the point where the Motivation transitions to a Reaction. This would eliminate those pesky pronoun problems:
“Hurry!” a voice urged in Russian from the front seat of the car. A tall, dark-haired man jumped out of the right rear door, still holding a Makarov pistol. He shoved the weapon into his jacket, knelt down on the frozen sidewalk, searched Alexei’s coat pockets, and then reached inside his right pants pocket.
Alexei’s right hand grabbed the assassin’s arm in an iron grip. His left shot into the man’s jacket and yanked out the Makarov.
This tightens things up a bit, and eliminates the confusion, I think.
I see the MRU’s in fast paced fiction, but what about in what you termed recently “pesky literary” fiction?
It seems to me that there you might have several pages of building the motivation, and perhaps that again in showing the reaction. And this raises another question in my addled brain.
Is it reasonable to have multiple minor MRU’s within a larger one?
Randy sez: Remember that MRUs are the magic secret to “showing” rather than “telling.” A lot of literary fiction consists in “telling.” This is not a requirement of literary fiction, but literary novelists are better than normal writers and can “tell” some things a lot more grippingly than most of us can “show”. If you are a literary novelist, then “show” or “tell” as the spirit moves you. If you choose to “tell,” then of course you can’t use MRUs. If you choose to “show,” then you can.
As for having MRUs inside MRUs, I don’t see any reason to do this. An MRU is the smallest unit of conflict in a story. If you can break it down smaller, then it wasn’t an MRU to begin with.
We’ll continue next time with another analysis of the MRUs in a story.