Sunday, January 23, 2011

Signal words

I was taking pitches this weekend, and one pitcher was summing up her story: "(Title) is dark and uplifting."

That gave me pause. The two adjectives there didn't seem similar enough to be joined by "and". I suggested that she put the word "both" in there, as that would signal that she understood the two terms are somewhat contradictory and wanted that conflict. That is, by emphasizing the "bothness," she would be signalling that she recognized and wanted the contradiction. (That is, not that she's so clueless she thought they were the same thing.

These little words are useful as they help draw attention to aspects that you might want to subtly emphasize. I was recently reading a submission where the hero and the heroine met in chapter two in kind of mysterious circumstances (and kissed), so in my head it wasn't entirely clear that they knew who each other was. Then they became betrothed (long story), and I kept asking, "Do they know that they met and kissed in chapter two?" For example, there was one scene where she's wondering if he is going to "press his affections" on her now that they're engaged, and she asks him outright, and he says, "When I kiss you, you'll have the answer to that" (or something like that). "When I kiss you?" But they've already kissed. Doesn't he remember?
Really, I asked this often enough that I think I became irritating. :) Finally the author said, "What is it I'm not doing that you think I should do?"
And I realized that if she just added "again"-- "When I kiss you again," that would be enough to signal that yes, he did remember kissing her in chapter two, that he didn't think the kissee back then was someone else entirely, and that he knew she also knew, that the kiss was part of both of their mental databases.

(Really, this is needed-- authors rather frequently forget what they've done earlier in the book. I've done it myself. When you do multiple drafts, you might think you cut out that she went to work the morning of the funeral, but in fact, you left that in there. So the reader reading that might think that you just forgot, right? And so when that verdict of "forgetting" could be applied to something you deliberately have in there, best to make it subtly clear with a signal word if you can. "No, I didn't forget. This will all make sense if you keep reading." Anyone have examples of this sort of thing I can use? :)

Twain said, The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.

I think also though that adding one of these "acknowledgment/emphasis" words can make your meaning and your intent plain, yet in a subtle way. It tells the reader you do in fact know what you're doing, that you remember what you have done. Doesn't usually take much, but establishes credibility, showing that you know the import of your events and your words.


Leona said...

Sigh. So true. I had it happen last night. I don't remember the exact words, sorry, but I do remember going, huh? as I went through the edit and had to go through it again.

It needed one little word. One tiny little word. And it became absolutely clear the next pass through. I sometimes miss that subtlety, due in part with familiarity with the story. Your blog is my writing salvation! It wasn't until I read todays blog that I realised what I had done last night in my edits.

It'll help in the future to have that concrete knowledge to look for it :)

PS trying to catch up on my favorite editors prolific outpour the last few weeks! And finish this story! last chapter (again :P)

L.A. Colvin said...

This is perfect! It's amazing how one little word or word placement can change an entire scene. Thanks for the great post.

Edittorrent said...

I wonder if it's a lot easier for a reader or critiquer to notice these opportunities. The writer might mentally correct it.

green_knight said...

For me, 'when I kiss you' indicates that she'll remember it - and that he's going to use the kiss to make her remember. If he says 'when I kiss you again' it means that he's triggering the memory now, with words.

To me, the first is stronger, because it shares the nudge, nudge, wink, wink between the character and the reader - we know something she doesn't. I' might emphasize it with a knowing or playful smile, but I wouldn't add 'again'.

Edittorrent said...

GK, My point is-- the author says neither of them have forgotten that they kissed before. So for him to say "again" is not only natural, but also lets the reader know that they do in fact remember. Now sure, if you were writing this book, you might want her to forget, but that's not what the author wanted, so why not avoid that inadvertent misunderstanding with the word "again?"

Besides, if she doesn't remember that he's kissed her before, then I think he's not doing it right. :)