Monday, February 18, 2008

First Three Sentences Plus a Fourth

Just a reminder, if you want us to parse the first three sentences of you manuscript, send it to edittorrent at gmail dotcom.

Here's one from the mailbag that shows why sometimes we need that fourth sentence in order to correctly analyze the writing.

The itch on her nose woke her. When she tried to move her arm and couldn't, Shaine opened her eyes and squinted against a bright light. It was thick enough that she saw dust motes floating in the air, and hot enough to bake her scalp under the wig she wore.

If you're like me, at this point you're not entirely connected to the prose yet. But look what happens when we add that fourth sentence:

Her breathing doubled as she stared with incomprehension at the twin bands of metal holding her by the wrists to the arms of what looked like a steel shaker chair.

That pops.

First Impressions

I'm not going to out the writer, but I will reveal that she confessed to a bit of frustration over this opening. I can see why. The first three sentences, almost fifty words, just aren't doing the heavy lifting we expect from an opening. It's not that they're bad sentences. They're a little wordy, true, and there are some issues with causation. But for the most part, they're serviceable, even ambitious. In other words, this is a classic case of so close, and yet so far.

But there's hope. A little tweak will work magic on these sentences. We're going to parse all four with special attention on two areas: tightening the prose, and beefing up the action-reaction mechanics.

Breaking It Down

The itch on her nose woke her.

I have no problems with this sentence. At first, I thought we might want to use the character's name as a substitute for one of the pronouns, but the rhythm is more natural if we leave it as is.

Try it: The itch on Shaine's nose woke her. Or, The itch on her nose woke Shaine. Read them aloud. Hear the difference? Switching from the pronoun to the proper noun changes the rhythm because the pronoun reads as a down beat but the character name reads as a strong beat. Nose and woke are also strong beats, back to back, and switching the pronoun would create three strong beats in a row, a rhythm uncomfortable in English.

One thing helping us here is that, even though we don't know the character's name yet, we're in her point of view. It's a common physical moment, familiar to us all, and uncluttered by details that would distract from the essentials of this character in this precise moment. So we'll leave the sentence as it is.

When she tried to move her arm and couldn't,

Now we're getting into trouble. There are a couple of problems here. Before we get into the technical problem, let's look at how this clause relates back to the previous sentence.

We're all familiar with the concept of stimulus and response, right? Action and reaction? It's often said that these components form the building blocks of prose, but that only tells two-thirds of the story. Because sandwiched between every stimulus and response is a third layer which we'll call, for want of a better term, emotion.

Now, emotion isn't a perfect term to describe the white filling in the action-reaction oreo. What we're talking about is something more broad and encompassing than simple emotion. It can include analysis, as when a character puzzles through a complex stimulus before forming his response. Or it can be reflexive, as when we touch something hot and pull away quickly. Or it can be purely emotional, as when someone says something highly provocative, and we feel a powerful emotion before we respond. Whatever form it takes, it is always going to enlighten us about why a character responds to the stimulus the way she does. It's the sweet frosting holding the two cookies together. (Who else wants oreos now? Yum!)

The thickness of the emotion layer depends on complex factors, but for now, we'll just all agree that the frosting can be quite thinly spread, or it can be double-stuffed. (OMG. I need a different analogy. Totally craving oreos. Bricks and mortar, maybe? Nah. Everything is better with chocolate.)

If the action-reaction is truly reflexive, the emotion layer can be thin enough to be invisible because we can all be supposed to have the identical response. Hot stove? Pull back. It needs no further explanation. And I suspect our writer wants the itchy nose to fall into this category. Itchy nose? Scratch it. Stimulus - reflexive response.

Except for one thing. There are two actions in the first sentence. First her nose itches, then she wakes up. We've already established a link between these two actions, so we know the truly instinctive, reflexive response to the itchy nose is not to scratch it, but to wake up. No frosting needed between those two cookies. But more important, as is the way with chains of causation, the second action (woke) is itself a new stimulus.

So now let's look at our adverb clause again: When she tried to move her arm and couldn't. If woke is the new stimulus, how does it follow that this is the response? It doesn't. We need a little frosting there, something from the internal state of the character, to bring these two things together. Is she annoyed that she was awakened, or is she ready to rise? If annoyed, you might try something like, Maybe if she scratched it, she'd be able to fall back asleep quickly. If ready to rise, maybe something like, Rise and shine, twitchy-nose! Or, Shaine could always tell the sunrise by her nose.

The point is, what you use as filling doesn't really matter. Some oreos are mint, and some are peanut butter, right? Pick your flavor and spread it on the cookie. It's more important to ice those cookies together in a way that makes them stick.

So that's the first problem: the clause doesn't flow neatly from what precedes it. We'll deal with the technical problem next: what we've got here describes a temporal link between the main clause (Shaine opened her eyes, etc.) and the subordinate adverb clause, but what we need is a causative connection. Not when, but because. The actions aren't simultaneous, but sequential.

I don't know if I've ever worked up a good lather over simultaneous v. sequential actions on this blog yet. It's one of those topics I feel I never really stop talking about, really, because it crops up over and over again. Even the best writers flub it sometimes.

  1. But the sequence of the actions is clear.
  2. itch
  3. wake
  4. try to move
  5. can't move
  6. open eyes
  7. squint

The third and fourth items -- try to move and can't move -- are as simultaneous as we're going to get in this chain of events. As long as we've got the next two actions on the list, let's remind ourselves of the clause:

Shaine opened her eyes and squinted against a bright light.

The way it's written, opening her eyes happens in the same moment as trying and failing to move her arm. I think we're meant to see these as sequential, though, and that opening her eyes is a direct result of not being able to move her arm.

Couldn't opening her eyes be a direct result of waking up, though? And if she tries and fails to move her arms, shouldn't she open her eyes with the express purpose of looking at her arms? Without the frosting between the layers, we don't know why these different actions flow from what precedes them. We don't know if she moves her arm because she wakes or because she itches. We don't know if she opens her eyes because she wakes (as is implied by the simultaneous clause) or because she can't move her arm. And we have no idea at all why she can't move her arm.

Maybe we'll find out in the next sentence.

It was thick enough that she saw dust motes floating in the air, and hot enough to bake her scalp under the wig she wore.

Maybe not. The next sentence contains a description of the bright light that made her squint. Normally, this would be a good thing because it flows neatly from the action immediately preceding it. Normally, this would be a kind of frosting -- Shaine is not merely squinting, but figuring something out about this bright light making her squint. The light is thick, full of dust, and hot. Important details for a woman about to make a decision about how to respond to the light. But is the light what she needs to respond to here? What about her arms? Which is more important?

Is the dust in the air making her nose itch? I can't tell. Honestly, I'm distracted by the wig thing -- a baked scalp might be a bigger stimulus than an itchy nose. Especially given that we've forgotten all about the itchy nose and the unmoveable arms while we're analyzing the light qualities. Maybe it should be a hot, itchy scalp waking her up? Would that tie this together better?

Regardless, edit the wig she wore to her wig. If her scalp is under the wig, we can assume she's wearing the wig. In fact, I want to take a hatchet to the weak main clause at the front of this sentence, too.

Dust motes floated in the thick, hot light.

If Shaine wakes up because of a hot scalp under her itchy wig, the second part of this sentence would be unnecessary. I'd rather see a strong verb like floated in the main verb slot. And really, how important is the light when we still have to solve the mystery of the unmoveable arm? (Which arm? Why only one?)

If we had stopped reading here, if the writer hadn't provided the final sentence, I would be lost right now. But we have the final sentence:

Her breathing doubled as she stared with incomprehension at the twin bands of metal holding her by the wrists to the arms of what looked like a steel shaker chair.

And now it makes sense. Trim out some of the wordiness, though.

Her breathing doubled as she stared with incomprehension at the twin metal bands holding her wrists to the arms of a steel shaker chair.

Please consider some other phrase than with incomprehension. Incomprehension means without comprehesion, so the phrase literally means with without comprehension. Stops me every time I read that sentence.

Credit Where Credit Is Due

I must say something in defense of these sentences, though. The writer is going to great lengths to try to stay in the moment-to-moment consciousness of a character, and I applaud that. This is exactly what we should be doing, narrating as a character experiences things. First Shaine feels the itch, then she wakes up, then she tries to move, then she visually examines her environment, the she freaks over the metal bands strapping her to the chair. We're with her, even if we don't understand what's going on. (It may be that Shaine doesn't understand either, in which case the emotion/filling should reflect that.)

This shows a good instinct for point of view despite the fact that the pov is too objective. Make it more subjective by giving us the emotion. Reconsider the choice of details -- itchy nose or itchy scalp? How much detail does the light deserve when other problems are set up without explanation? After you get the right details in place, make sure we get not just the physical things Shaine notices, but her emotion filling. With the right details, this passage will be much easier to follow, we'll bond more with Shaine, and our breathing will also quicken when we get to that final eye-popping sentence.



Ian said...

I happen to know this writer - she's one of my friends and critiquers and it gives me just a slight perverse pleasure to see someone going through her work with the same fine-tooth comb she's applying to mine. Nicely done, Theresa. And to my friend - you're off to a great start. :)


Anonymous said...

For me, something *major* is missing in the middle.
When I wake up, I have physical sensations long before I open my eyes - and so does Shaine, yet her body appears to exist in a vacuum until she looks down.

The 'can't move' needs more clarification for me - and something as unfamiliar as metal bands need to create a sensation - they're cold and edgy and alarming. THEN opening her eyes and looking at them would make more sense.

Also, my default for 'asleep' is 'laying on bed'. If I woke up sitting I would comment - and I would have more sensations, since sleeping in chairs in uncomfortable.

Yes, this springs a surprise on us, but to me, it's an artifical surprise.

Unhinged said...

I don't mind sharing that I'm the writer of these four lines. Hi, everyone!

This is helping tremendously. As Theresa wrote at the beginning of the entry, I have had trouble with this opening and that's why I wanted it torn apart and examined. Thank you, Theresa, and thanks also to green_knight.

If anyone else wants to comment, feel free. I'm here to learn.

Edittorrent said...

You're welcome, Unhinged. Thank you very much for offering your opening lines. It was a good way to showcase some small-scale sequencing dynamics. Just watch your details, filter it through the pov character, and you'll see this opening snap into focus.

Green Knight, I agree that the moment this fell apart was when Shaine couldn't move her arms, and then ignored that very provocative detail. It does need something more there. Or something different.

But, really, these are fixable problems. :)


Anonymous said...

What do you think about putting the narrator as the subject of the sentence instead of the itch?

She awoke from an itchy nose. Must scratch. Wait. Why can't I move my arm? And why am I sitting? Shaine opened her eyes etc etc

I'd drop the wig bit or incorporate it as a potential cause for the itch, perhaps a loose curl dangling before her eyes.

Fewer ideas and concepts would keep the whole opening simpler, something that a reader might deal with easier while they are finding their feet in a brand new story. Otherwise they won't know where to focus.

Just my humble opinion.

Edittorrent said...

Yeah, I'm not sure it works to reverse the order of that first sentence.

Which causes which?
Itch --> wake
wake --> itch

There are so many other minor causative glitches in these sentences that I'd hate to reverse that first sentence. Maybe if the rest of the passage were completely linear, but it's not.

What you've done with the rest, though, cements it in Shaine's point of view by relying on her interior monologue, and I think that's probably the right approach for what the author is trying to accomplish.


Unhinged said...

I can't wait to give this opening another crack tonight. Great ideas, everyone. (I love seeing my work discussed, lol.)