Archive | October, 2008

Critiquing Camille

My schedule has been way out of kilter lately. My mother-in-law had a bad fall about a week and a half ago, and so my wife has been staying with her pretty much full time. Which means I’ve been doing more driving the kids around and more chores around the house and my blogging time has shrunk drastically. Today, I’ve got a bit of time to blog so I’d like to pick up where we left off.

Last time I began critiquing various sections of the works in progress of my loyal blog readers. Today, I was going to critique Camille’s post, but then I saw that she rather badly violated the six-paragraph rule. Six paragraphs really is enough to critique, and in my view, thirteen is too many.

So instead, I’ll critique the second snippet that Camille posted in response to my latest blog post critiquing Sina’i. This one is shorter, and is actually over-paragraphed, if I’m reading it correctly. Let’s look at what Camille wrote:

Hey everyone – I know mine’s up next… but I’m flying through to wrap up the novel and came across this prime example of what gives me a headache about MRUs. If I follow the mru rules, every sentence is a separate paragraph, I think. But it looks weird. Okay, I KNOW, this text already sounds weird because it’s the mush in the middle of a romance, so ignore that weirdness. Can anyone tell me if breaking each of these lines apart is right or wrong?? Or am I getting way too legalistic here?

========================================
What he was saying didn’t really sink in. The fact that he called and was not upset by her letter eclipsed all other thought. She leaned back against the doorframe and let out the breath she’d been holding.

“I’ll tell you more about it when you arrive—you’re still coming, aren’t you?”

“Yes.” Three more weeks . . .

“Emily . . .”

The sudden depth of his voice sent a warm shockwave through her.

“Do you remember when we stopped that night? On the side of the road?”

A shrill scream blasted from the teakettle.

Emily jumped, heart pounding.

“Hang on!”

She dashed to the stove, moved the kettle off the burner, took a deep breath, then put the phone to her ear. But the drumming in her chest made her words come out sounding breathless.

“Yeah . . . I remember.” Are you kidding me? How could I forget?

Randy sez: There is no reason to use so many paragraphs for this. I have often seen this in published novels–an action tag sentence, followed by a paragraph break, followed by dialogue. Honestly, I find this confusing. I interpret a paragraph break as (normally) a change of focus.

A paragraph break normally signals one of the following:

1) A change in focus from the POV character (i.e. a Reaction) to a non-POV character or some other external thing (i.e. a Motivation).

2) The opposite–a switch from any external thing (i.e. a Motivation) to the POV character (a Reaction).

3) Sometimes, a switch from one non-POV character to another non-POV character (i.e. two separate Motivations).

4) Occasionally, a continuation of the action and dialogue when one paragraph just isn’t enough to hold it all (i.e. one multi-paragraph Motivation or one multi-paragraph Reaction).

But here’s an example of the kind of thing I find confusing. This example is made up, but it’s similar to things I’ve seen many times:

“Would you like to go to the Yule Ball with me?” Ron asked.

Hermione glared at him furiously.

“What I can’t figure out is why I like you.”

Randy sez: OK, who said that third line? Was it Ron? Or was it Hermione? As written, there’s no way to know. There’s no dialogue tag. The author might well have intended paragraph two to serve as an action tag, thereby making Hermione the speaker. But the author may also have intended the paragraph break between paragraphs two and three to indicate a change of focus, thereby making Ron the speaker. There’s no iron-clad way to know. You have to read on to find out, which is annoying because it breaks the flow of your reading. Anything that loses clarity like this is likely to break the flow of the reading, and that’s bad.

I have seen this many times, and I always wonder why the author didn’t write it clearer. It is trivial to do it. Here’s one way to make it clear:

“Would you like to go to the Yule Ball with me?” Ron asked.

Hermione glared at him furiously. “What I can’t figure out is why I like you.”

Randy sez: In this example, it’s obvious that Hermione is the speaker. The first sentence in the second paragraph serves as an action tag for the second sentence of that paragraph. Now here’s a second way to write it that changes the meaning:

“Would you like to go to the Yule Ball with me?” Ron asked.

Hermione glared at him furiously.

“What I can’t figure out is why I like you,” Ron said.

Randy sez: This time, there’s a simple dialogue tag in the third sentence making it obvious that Ron said it.

Now to work on Camille’s example. In my view, the paragraphing should go as follows:

What he was saying didn’t really sink in. The fact that he called and was not upset by her letter eclipsed all other thought. She leaned back against the doorframe and let out the breath she’d been holding.

“I’ll tell you more about it when you arrive—you’re still coming, aren’t you?”

“Yes.” Three more weeks . . .

“Emily . . .” The sudden depth of his voice sent a warm shockwave through her. “Do you remember when we stopped that night? On the side of the road?”

A shrill scream blasted from the teakettle.

Emily jumped, heart pounding. “Hang on!” She dashed to the stove, moved the kettle off the burner, took a deep breath, then put the phone to her ear. But the drumming in her chest made her words come out sounding breathless. “Yeah . . . I remember.” Are you kidding me? How could I forget?

Randy sez: By combining paragraphs like this, I have squeezed Camille into the six-paragraph limit that I imposed. And I think I’ve made the whole thing a lot easier to read. Emily is the POV character here, and so now we have paragraphs in a simple pattern: Reaction, Motivation, Reaction, Motivation, Motivation, Reaction. Notice that paragraph 4 is a Motivation (Ian speaking) and paragraph 5 is a second Motivation (the tea kettle). This is commonly done and works just fine. The paragraph break clearly distinguishes between the two Motivators–Ian and the kettle.

The one issue is in paragraph 4. Let’s look at that in detail:

“Emily . . .” The sudden depth of his voice sent a warm shockwave through her. “Do you remember when we stopped that night? On the side of the road?”

In Camille’s original, she made this three paragraphs. I combined the three sentences into a single paragraph because the subject of sentence 2 is Ian’s voice. This is a Motivation. It is true that Camille sneaks a bit of a Reaction into the second half of the sentence, but the fact is that the sentence serves as an action tag to remind us who is speaking. Furthermore, it interrupts Ian’s sentence. So I vote for jamming them all into a single paragraph, as shown above.

As a final note, the phrase “The sudden depth of his voice…” is technically called paralanguage. This is just a fancy term that means that it’s describing the way something is said. Paralanguage about a non-POV character simply has to be part of the Motivation, not the Reaction. You can find out a whole lot more about paralanguage and its uses from Margie Lawson and her excellent courses on writing.

Is it OK for Camille to sneak in a bit of Reaction here? Yeah, sure, why not? It works pretty well this way. I can’t see an easy way to improve it. When you have to break the rules to make the scene work better then do so. The rules are to help you write better, not write worse. Use them accordingly.

Critiquing Sina’i

In my last blog, I invited my loyal blog readers to submit a few paragraphs for critique on their Motivations and Reactions (which I’ve just finished discussing at great length). Today, we’ll look at the first submission by Sina’i:

Starfa was still in shock. “Are you telling me that that woman has kidnapped my brother?” Well, at least that would explain Veylan’s absence from this meeting.

“Think, Starfa!” the king snapped. “That woman has been imprisoned for over a thousand years with no difficulties! How, all of a sudden, do you suppose she escaped from under the eyes of her guards? And then kidnap your brother, Veylan, of all people?”

Starfa hated being scolded like a child, even if he was not thinking too clearly. If anyone besides the king had spoken to him in such a manner, he would have had the man’s head on a spear immediately. Because it was King Terdan, however, he swallowed his pride. “So you’re saying…she escaped like she did the first time. She had help.”

The king nodded.

“And…Veylan…helped her?” Starfa was having far more trouble with that idea. He knew that Veylan was soft-hearted, particularly where women were concerned. That was one of the problems the nobles had with him. But could he really be so stupid as to help her escape? Starfa would have to have a serious talk with his brother once he became king. That is, if Veylan was still alive. He had a knack for getting into trouble on his own. He could only imagine what dangers Veylan would blunder into under the influence of that…that witch.

King Terdan interrupted his thoughts by dismissing the attendant. “Starfa, you don’t seem to understand what this means. Your kingship is in danger.”

Randy sez: Well done! This appears to be part of a fantasy novel. We have two characters, King Verdan and Starfa. The Point-Of-View character is Starfa, and Sina’i is doing an excellent job of putting us inside Starfa’s skin. We see what he sees; we hear what he hears; we think what he thinks; we feel what he feels.

Notice that we have six paragraphs, and three of them are Motivations (external to Starfa and objectively shown) while three are Reactions (internal to Starfa and subjectively shown). These are perfectly structured. As a result, it’s easy to follow the scene and understand the conflict.

I really can’t find anything to complain about here. There is one ambiguous sentence: Starfa would have to have a serious talk with his brother once he became king.

Given the context that follows, the “he” who is going to become king is probably Starfa. But it’s not obvious from the sentence alone. It’s possible that it could be Veylan. But we’re jumping into the middle of a novel without context. If we’d read the preceding chapters, we’d presumably already know this and there would be no ambiguity.

Tomorrow, we’ll look at Camille’s submission.

MRUs Lesson 8

Today I’ll wrap up my discussion of Motivations and Reactions.

Yesterday I showed the first few paragraphs of the first Harry Potter book and asked my loyal blog readers how to “Show” this passage, rather than “Tell” it (as JK Rowling did). Today, I’ll give you my own answer to that.

First, let’s be clear that the passage really is “Telling”. None of this is happening in real-time. There is no Point-Of-View character with whom we can identify. The acid test is this: Can you color-code it into Motivations and Reactions? (See the color-coded examples I’ve done for a number of passages in the last few days).

Here is the Potter passage one more time:

Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense.

Mr. Dursley was the director of a firm called Grunnings, which made drills. He was a big beefy man with hardly any neck, although he did have a very large moustache. Mrs. Dursley was thin and blonde and had nearly twice the usual amount of neck, which came in very useful as she spent so much of her time craning over garden fences, spying on the neighbors. The Dursleys had a small son named Dudley and in their opinion there was no finer boy anywhere.

The Dursleys had everything they wanted, but they also had a secret, and their greatest fear was that somebody would discover it.

The answer is no. There’s nothing to color-code. This is “Telling”.

But it’s brilliant. I have a rule for this: If you’re going to “Tell,” then be brilliant about it. Since it’s brilliant, there’s just no good reason to “Show” it–unless you can “Show” it better.

Remember that “Telling” is very efficient. You can tell a lot of information very quickly by “Telling” but you need to make it interesting. And this passage is very interesting.

JKR’s goal here was to take us from our own very ordinary world (in which magic doesn’t exist) into a very similar-looking world (in which magic exists, but the Muggles don’t know about it). How is she going to do this?

Her method is elegant and simple: She presents us in a few swift, comic strokes with three very unlikable characters, the Dursleys, who deny that magic exists. We have all met people like the Dursleys and we find them despicable. Since the Dursleys don’t believe in magic, and since we hate the Dursleys, we are willing to entertain the possibility that magic is real. This is how JKR pulls us into the fictive dream–by convincing us not to be like the dreadful Dursleys.

In the rest of the chapter, we learn that the Dursleys have a nephew named Harry. The Dursleys hate Harry’s parents and therefore have never met Harry, but they hate him on principle. Because we dislike the Dursleys, we automatically like Harry.

When we learn that Harry has somehow survived the death curse of the greatest dark wizard of all time, we’re intrigued. Nobody else has ever survived this curse. What makes Harry different? We read on to find out–but JKR doesn’t tell us for quite a long time. There is a reason, a very good reason, and it is one of the major themes of the entire series. Of course I won’t tell you what this reason is because it’s such an essential part of the story.

So in the passage above, JKR’s choice to “Tell” about the Dursleys is a good one. She doesn’t want to make us identify with the Dursleys, she wants us to believe in magic and to get curious about Harry. The way she wrote it works.

Let’s now summarize with my final slide from my lecture:

Slide 35: Summary

  • The decision to “show” or “tell” is a strategic decision for each segment
  • If you are going to “show,” the easiest way to do so is to use the MRU structure
  • Structure is not enough!
  • Sometimes you need to violate the MRU structure in order to get the best effect
  • Resolve all dilemmas by asking how to get the most Powerful Emotional Experience

At the end of the day, rules can only take you so far. They can suggest ways to improve, but you can’t write fiction in a paint-by-numbers way by following rules. Those pesky rules are to help you figure out what’s wrong with a passage of fiction when it isn’t working.

But if a scene is working very well already, don’t mess with it.

OK, now it’s your turn. If you’re having trouble with those pesky Motivations and Reactions, then post a segment from your current work-in-progress in a comment here and I’ll analyze them in the order they’re posted. No more than 6 paragraphs please! I will ignore all posts that have more than 6 paragraphs!

MRUs Lesson 7

I’d like to soon wrap up the series of blogs I began a couple of weeks ago to work through a recent lecture I gave on “Motivations and Reactions” at the ACFW conference. We should finish either today or tomorrow, depending on how wordy I am today.

First, I want to congratulate one of my loyal blog readers, Mary DeMuth, who has recently launched a mentoring service for writers at www.TheWritingSpa.com. Mary has published several novels and has also published several nonfiction books, all with good publishers.

As my loyal blog readers know, many published authors (including me) use freelance editors (like Mary) to help us buff up our novels before sending them to our agents and/or editors. For one thing, it’s a competitive world. For another, you can never view your own work objectively.

In my own case, I don’t need a lot of mentoring; I mainly need a hard-headed person to tell me when the story isn’t working and why. Once I know that, I can figure out how to fix it. A mentor will not only tell you what’s wrong, she’ll give you some guidance on how to fix it.

OK, on to those pesky Motivations and Reactions. If you’re just joining us, you may want to read through the previous 6 lessons that I’ve posted over the past couple of weeks.

In our last lesson, we worked through a snippet of a scene from PATRIOT GAMES by Tom Clancy. The scene had some very minor structural issues, but it worked very well. Today, we’ll look at a perfectly structured snippet from THE DA VINCI CODE by Dan Brown.

Slide 32: Dan Brown: The DaVinci Code, p. 184

Vernet gave a helpless sigh. “I’m afraid every key is electronically paired with a ten-digit account number that functions as a password. Without that number, your key is worthless.”

Ten digits. Sophie reluctantly calculated the cryptographic odds. Over ten billion possible choices. Even if she could bring in DCPJ’s most powerful parallel processing computers, she still would need weeks to break the code. “Certainly, monsieur, considering the circumstances, you can help us.”

Randy sez: The viewpoint character is Sophie, a cryptologist who works for the French government. She is trying to recover the contents of a safe-deposit box in a bank from Mr. Vernet, the annoying bank official who is playing by the rules. Sophie has the key but not the password. If she can’t guess the password, the key is useless.

The Motivation is therefore the first paragraph, which shows Vernet speaking. The Reaction is the second paragraph, showing Sophie’s internal thoughts.

As I’ve done with our other examples, I’ll color-code this snippet in the next slide so you can see how nicely structured it is. The Motivation is black; the Reaction is red.

Slide 33: Dan Brown: The DaVinci Code, p. 184

Vernet gave a helpless sigh. “I’m afraid every key is electronically paired with a ten-digit account number that functions as a password. Without that number, your key is worthless.”

Ten digits. Sophie reluctantly calculated the cryptographic odds. Over ten billion possible choices. Even if she could bring in DCPJ’s most powerful parallel processing computers, she still would need weeks to break the code. “Certainly, monsieur, considering the circumstances, you can help us.”

Randy sez: Dan Brown has got the structure perfect here. The Motivation is in one paragraph and is very nicely objective and external to the POV character. The Reaction is in its own paragraph and is subjective and internal to the POV character.

But there is still a problem here. Can you see what it is? Read the snippet above again, remembering that Sophie is a mathematician. Do you see anything slightly off here? And do you see anything that is grotesquely off?

Mull on that for a minute and then look at my comments below.

OK, enough mulling. Here are the problems I see. You’ll see that most of them are minor and one is major.

* “Sophie reluctantly calculated…” Randy sez: This is a little odd. Why would she be reluctant? The calculation is trivial. I could see that she might be disappointed in the result, but it’s strange to think that she might be reluctant, since it takes no work to do the calculation. It’s a minor point, but it just feels funny.

* “the cryptographic odds”. Randy sez: I earned a double major in math and physicss and then went to Berkeley for my Ph.D. in physics, where I took a few more graduate math courses. I’m not a cryptologist, so I can’t say with certainty, but the phrase “cryptographic odds” sounds foreign to my ears. Most mathematicians I know would simply say “the odds” or “the combinatorial factor”. The phrase “cryptographic odds” feels more like a novelist trying to use big words and less like a real mathematician. Again, it’s a minor point, but again, it just feels funny.

* “Over ten billion possible choices.” Randy sez: This is flat out wrong. There are exactly ten billion possible choices. The calculation is trivial. It seems odd for Brown to overstate the facts here, since 10 billion is a big enough number already. Why try to inflate it? But overstatement of facts seems to be a common theme in the book. This is a fairly bad mistake, because someone like Sophie could not possibly get this wrong.

* “Even if she could bring in DCPJ’s most powerful parallel processing computers, she still would need weeks to break the code.” Randy sez: This would be a completely idiotic thought for a mathematician to think. It is true that computers can be used to crack codes. It is true that parallel processing computers are faster than single-processor machines (all other things being equal). But this is not a code to be broken, and a computer would be of absolutely no help here. There is a password which you have to guess and type in to a terminal. There are 10 billion different options. The only way to guess the password is to GUESS it. You can’t compute it! If you have no reason to guess any particular password, then you have to resort to the brute-force method of typing in each one by hand, and you can’t have a computer do that. But in this particular case, that won’t work either, because the system only allows one attempt and then shuts down. So the entire sentence is a blunder. Sophie could not possibly have thought this sentence.

One paragraph in the point of view of a mathematician. Two minor glitches. One biggish glitch. One monumental blunder. What’s the moral here?

The moral is that if you’re going to put thoughts into the mind of a character with specialized knowledge, then you need to ask somebody with that specialized knowledge to read your work. Don’t just make stuff up. There are a lot of readers out there, and some of them will know what you’re talking about, even if you don’t.

Getting your Motivations and Reactions right is not enough! Your goal is to give your reader a Powerful Emotional Experience. If you instead give your reader a Powerful Scornful Experience, then you goofed.

Now let’s move on to our final example. Keep in mind that we have been talking about how to “Show, Don’t Tell” effectively. This example is one of the most famous passages in recent literary history, the opening paragraphs of the Harry Potter epic series.

Slide 34: J.K. Rowling: Harry Potter #1, p. 1

Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense.

Mr. Dursley was the director of a firm called Grunnings, which made drills. He was a big beefy man with hardly any neck, although he did have a very large moustache. Mrs. Dursley was thin and blonde and had nearly twice the usual amount of neck, which came in very useful as she spent so much of her time craning over garden fences, spying on the neighbors. The Dursleys had a small son named Dudley and in their opinion there was no finer boy anywhere.

The Dursleys had everything they wanted, but they also had a secret, and their greatest fear was that somebody would discover it.

Randy sez: This snippet is all “Telling”. Now the simple question is this: How would you “Show” this passage?

Before I address this question, I’ll give my loyal blog readers a shot at it. Go ahead and post a comment here. I’ll give you my thoughts on it tomorrow.