Friday, September 18, 2009

Don't undercut the drama

I actually like underwriting, where you strip your prose of the more heavy-handed indicators of emotion and drama. You say, "Her anger," not "Her blazing anger," or you let the character's body express the emotion. Or you might use irony-- He got it. She was slightly pissed.

But remember the big moments should probably FEEL big. Not exaggerated, but as big as they are. You might achieve this by underwriting (I -love- it when a moment POWs with subtle language). However, there's a danger here. This underwriting at dramatic moments should be intentional (or effective, at least). You don't want to undercut by accident.

There are two ways you might accidentally undercut the drama of a big scene. One is placement. For example, usually the most intense emotional scene is positioned right before a big turning point scene, like the crisis. You want to work up to this, with a series of scenes building up the tension, then the Big Emotion, and then the Big Reaction. No burying it in the middle of the book between two low-key scenes. And reaction is essential. You don't want the reader thinking, well, the hero seems utterly unchanged, so it must not have been dramatic after all.

The other way to undercut drama is to use dismissive and undramatic language. Sometimes, of course, this can be effective-- if you do it well. But generally, if the hero is spurned by the woman he's loved desperately, or the heroine is defeated by a hated rival, or he finally comes clean on something he's been hiding, or she learns the truth about her parents... your prose should reflect the power of the event. This isn't the time to resort to cliche:
The jar was empty.
All those crumpled dollar bills, collected in twoyears of waiting tables on the midnight diner shift, meager tips from the drunks and the derelicts and the disappointed, were gone. Stolen.
Oh, well, win some, lose some.

Just as bad would be:
She was pretty unhappy.

Dramatic writing doesn't have to mean lots of pounding adjectives and high-strung verbs. Let the body show the emotion. What would be a good action or sequence of action to show her despair at finding two years of savings gone? She replaces the jar on the shelf. Then what does her body do?



Jami Gold said...

If there's no external forces making her face up to all the emotions at this very moment, I'd probably have her avoid "dealing" with it for a bit. Let's say she went into the kitchen to make herself a sandwich and saw the jar on the way to fridge. I'd probably use some words like "forced", "blankly", "absently", etc. over the next couple of paragraphs while she goes through the motions of making her sandwich. After she finally sits down to eat, she can't ignore the empty jar in front of her anymore and she'd break down, choking on her bites through her quiet sobs.

This makes her despair clear and draws it out so that the actual reaction doesn't have to be as high-strung to get the impact across.

Jami G.

Kelsey (Dominique) Ridge said...

It might be my personal style for dealing with things like that, but in my version she slumps against the counter (in my head she's in a kitchen) suddenly very, very tired.

If she's like me, she's already figuring out what she'll have to do to get that money back, and it's not going to be easy.

Edittorrent said...

Yeah, even if she doesn't react, the reader needs something to show that the lack of reaction is itself a reaction.

Anonymous said...

I like the slow reaction, Jami G.

I'd have her slowly sit on the floor, pull her knees up and bury her face in her hands. If she was frustrated, then her hands would be bunched in fists, covering her eyes.

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

I need to know more because I can see her going one of two ways: crumpling up in defeat while the shock registers, or picking the damn jar up and, in one motion that's more fast than fluid, throwing it against the floor and watching it shatter. What the hell; it may as well break the way her dreams just did.

(yeah, that latter one is the drama queen version)

Or maybe she's calculating. She cocks her head, narrows her eyes, and lets her brain begin drawing up a list of suspects.

Anonymous said...

I'm with you, Susan. With all her money gone what does she need the jar for? Throw that sucker away and find out who took the cash. Once she discovers the neighbor kid climbed in the window and stole the money to feed stray cats, her anger goes off in a different direction- at the handsome uncle who's the only surviving relative to the young delinquent.

Riley Murphy said...

Here's how I'd spin it:

Jude, carefully replaced the jar on the shelf and stared through the empty glass. It was all gone. All the hard earned money she’d painstakingly scraped together. Stolen. She grasped the edge of the counter and squeezed her eyes shut. She couldn’t look at the emptiness. She wasn’t going to cry. Instead, she took a deep breath, straightened her shoulders and willed herself to remain calm. Relax and breathe. She consciously eased her fingers, one by one, from their tense hold on the butcher-block. This was no time to panic. She needed to stay focused. Her eyes slowly opened and she examined the jar. Think, Jude, and when she did, she realized the jar wasn’t empty at all. He eyes narrowed. It was filled with clues. Had her little brother Johnny, taken the money because she’d refused to loan it to him for his plane fare to Memphis? Had Debbie taken it? She’d been wearing that new suit tonight at the bar. What about Doug? Wasn’t he constantly living in fear that she’d use the money to get out of this small town? It could've been anyone of them, and suddenly that truth gave her a modicum of comfort. She blinked, stretched a hand out, and swiped the smooth wood counter with her fingertips. Whoever took those savings needed it more than she did. Oh, the money may have disappeared, but her dreams hadn’t and neither had her suitcase. Which was a darn good thing, because she was getting the heck out of Dodge.

I just love a gal who takes the Lemon and makes the ade out of it. :D

em said...

JG, if all my money was gone I'd cry and then eat.:)
Susan, I'd probably throw the jar.
Murphy, i really liked your spin. It works for me. I liked the progression of her mood. Does she kill anyone before she leaves Dodge? LOL:)

Edittorrent said...

Careful not to over-modify. I'd go through Murph's passage and think about what NEEDS modification and what doesn't. Like here:

Jude carefully replaced the jar on the shelf and stared through the empty glass. It was all gone. All the hard earned money she’d painstakingly scraped together.

Here's the line that really made me FEEL it:
She couldn’t look at the emptiness.

Watch also what movements you're highlighting-- too much eye here, I think.

Notice how much stronger and more fluent it gets near the end, when you're not forcing it. Why is that? It's in her head, not in her body? Can you have that level of fluidity when you're in her body too? I think maybe sparer language would reflect her dismay more, and maybe more kind of big motions-- like (as said above), slumping against the counter-- would be a bit less frantic than opening and closing eyes. Not sure. The hardest thing for me to narrate is always description of body action, and I wonder if anyone's really good at that and can tell us how to make it seem effortless (the narration, not the action)?
Thanks, Murph-- I loved that "and suitcase" at the end-- nicely done. That's that "synecdoche," where an object stands in for a larger object and both stand for a concept (escape, flight).

Joan Mora said...

I learn so much from your posts (and the comments). Thank you!

Murphy, love the concept of the not-empty jar.

Riley Murphy said...

Alicia, *waves* adjective queen here. Did you forget so soon? Man, I thought I did good to put down empty jar when I had visions of making the jar a mason jar, so she could stare at the embossed writing on the side of it - or worse yet, (insert one of my favorite words) when she scans the rusted lid while she thinks about her situation. Hmm, I wonder if that rusty lid creaks when you open it? Maybe it’s haunted...:D

Truthfully, if this happened to one of my heroine’s she’d be smart enough to know who took the money and she’d be so pissed about it, that she’d grab that jar off the shelf and march through town until she found the culprit. And faced with him, she’d bash that sucker over his head so hard, he’d be knocked out long enough for her to rifle through his pockets and take any of her cash he hadn’t managed to spend. (Between you and me - a phatic phrase here ;)) She might take his credit cards too. Not to use, mind you, but to cut up. The tiny plastic pieces would make a lovely tinkling sound in that jar, as she marched triumphantly home. Yep, she’d listen to that music, happy in the knowledge that he’d be washing numerous dishes to square up his bar bill when he came to.:D (Disclaimer: It was a very thick mason jar so it knocked him out, but didn’t break.;))

Joan Mora,
I love Alicia's post too. I’ve learned a lot from hanging out here. But um, obviously not enough - that’s why I continue to stick around. Well, that, and the longer I stay at the computer and look like I’m actually working, the less likely it is I’ll be asked to take over doing the laundry. (hehehe)

Edittorrent said...

Murphy, I think we provide a valuable service-- we give you a motive to avoid laundry!


Riley Murphy said...

If you knew how much I hated doing laundry you'd really appreciate the sentiment. I've often thought I would have done better at school if my parents had laundry day to hold over my head. A week without my bike? No biggie. An afternoon grounded in my room? *shrug* A morning having to separate, wash, fold and put away laundry? Okay, okay - I'll get better grades, I swear!

You know? I was onboard with the paper clothes movement. Wear and throw out - what a concept! And then a few rotten apples baking in a couple of house fires and BAM! The whole trend goes up in smoke! Snap.
Murphy (Doing the happy dance because the laundry is all done)

Unknown said...

lol. You guys crack me up. Shaking my head, Murph.