Thursday, June 28, 2012

What is the scene ABOUT?

There's a trick we use with college essay writing that often comes in handy with unfocused fiction scenes, too. This has to do with focusing the material so that it is coherent free of distractions, well-paced and relevant. Sometimes, we have scenes that seem to flitter around from idea to idea, and even though it all seems to flow smoothly enough in a line-by-line way, the sum is less than the parts.

In a college essay, when a paper bounces around like this, we ask students to reverse-outline the paper. That is, they take the finished paper and go through it paragraph by paragraph to identify the main topic of each paragraph. This requires them to evaluate each paragraph individually and decide what it is about. Is every sentence in the paragraph related to the main topic? Are there two or more topics covered in a single paragraph? Are the same topics addressed in multiple paragraphs? These are the things we evaluate as we reverse outline, and frequently, the process of asking these questions is enough to show the students how to rearrange the existing parts, snip the irrelevant bits, and end up with a stronger paper.

In fiction, of course, we don't have this methodical, one-topic-per-paragraph approach to organization. Nevertheless, a similar process of reverse outlining can help a lot with an unfocused scene. Most scenes have one main conflict, just as most academic paragraphs have one topic. Most scenes will contain some supporting material, just as most academic paragraphs will, and in either case, it's not a bad idea to double check whether this supporting material actually supports the main idea. In fact, if you've ever completed a scene chart, you've already done a bit of reverse outlining with fiction. In a scene chart, we identify things like the main conflict, the main goal of each character, any complications or obstacles, and the like. This lets us understand what the scene is ABOUT the same way a reverse outline can help a college student get a grip on the paper they've already written.

So that's the first step for this sort of refocusing process -- identify the main conflicts, goals, and obstacles. You have to know what the scene is supposed to be about before you can measure whether it meets those goals. Once you've figured that out, then, you need to look at the scene to see whether you hit the target. A quick way to check this involves a highlighter -- either a highlighter marker and paper, or the highlighter tool in your word processor. Just go through and highlight every line that is directly related to the main conflict, the main character goals, and the main obstacles. If it's not directly related to those things, don't highlight it.

If the scene is wildly out of focus, you'll have a lot of plain text with no highlighting. But this doesn't always mean those plain bits should be cut. The scene might have sub-goals. Or the scene might foreshadow something that will happen later. Maybe there's a red herring. These things should legitimately be included in some scenes, so they can stay. Highlight them, too, but you might want to use a different color for these essential but secondary bits.

Some of you might be tempted to highlight pieces on the grounds that they contain "character development." Resist that temptation. The main action of the scene -- conflicts, goals, obstacles, plus a bit of description to ground the reader in the story's reality -- are where you should be developing the characters. Not in explanatory asides. If it doesn't tie in to the action of the scene, chances are that it doesn't belong in the scene at all. Ditto clever banter unrelated to the conflict, lovingly rendered descriptive passages, and anything else that was super fun to write but is only muddling the scene now. Don't highlight this stuff.

You should be left with a good chunk of important highlighted pieces and a scattering of secondary highlighted pieces. Read the scene through, skipping anything that isn't highlighted. These are the bones of the scene. This is what the scene is ABOUT. You might need to rearrange these pieces or write some brief transitions to smooth out the scene, but in most cases, you won't need anything except the highlighted pieces in order to make a solid, focused, relevant, readable scene.


Sunday, June 24, 2012

Your chance to be grammar queen/king!

You are not who/whom I wanted to see.

Who or whom, and why?

And what would you substitute to get rid of the question altogether?

Monday, June 11, 2012

Question from the comments

Here's a question from the comments, and it's a good one.

Hi Theresa & Alicia,
I've got a question for you (your site says to post in the comments). Don't know if you ever want to hear again about present participial phrases, but I read your series with interest and even bookmarked it.

I took the advice to heart, but I've notice a side effect -- I find myself a bit paranoid about ever using a PPP. On top of that, in a novel I'm reading by a respected author, I'm finding a greater use of the PPP than I would have expected.

So I thought I'd ask you this: when is it acceptable to use a PPP?

Thanks so much for all your painstaking work!

 Monica, this is a great question. Every part of speech has some good use and purpose. The problems come from overuse and misuse, but it would be as wrong to say, "Never ever use PPPs," as to say, "Never ever use nouns."

So, if every part of speech has a purpose, what is the purpose of a present participle used to modify a noun, such as:

the burning house
Burning too rapidly for containment, the house posed a threat to the entire neighborhood.

Notice that in both cases, the present participle "burning" is used to modify the noun "house." It describes a state of being of the house or something about the nature of the house. In one case, it's a single-word modifier, and in the other, it's in a present participial phrase. So, because it's a modifier, the first thing we look at with a PPP is whether it is next to the noun it modifies. Compare:

Burning too rapidly for containment, the fire department focused on saving the neighboring homes.

That is a dangling modifier because "burning" cannot be said to modify any noun in that sentence. So this, clearly, is a bad usage, unless the fire department is itself on fire.

But that's only the first step in the analysis. A present participle might be next to the correct noun (or it might be used, more rarely, as a cumulative modifier), and it still might not be the best choice for your prose. Why? In normal usage, this applies something like a progressive verb tense. A progressive verb tense describes an ongoing action:

The house was burning when the tenants arrived.

The arrival of the tenants happens in one particular moment in time. The burning occurs over a span of time, and the arrival happens within that span. In a similar manner, a PPP describes an ongoing condition of a noun at the moment when a verb action occurs:

Burning too rapidly for containment, the house posed a threat to the entire neighborhood.

The act of posing a threat occurs at a moment when the house is burning too rapidly for containment. "Burning too rapidly for containment" describes the condition of the noun "house" when the verb action "posed" occurs.

But here's why this is sometimes more problematic than it should be for fiction writers. Literary convention has us using the simple past tense. Present participles in general -- whether used in progressive conjugations, as gerunds, or as modifiers -- feel ever so slightly out of synch with the literary past tense. Sometimes, this can be used to great advantage, as when you're trying to write a highly stylized or even surreal passage. And sometimes it just sounds like the wrong note.

But typically, the danger from PPPs comes from one of two huge and common issues:
1. Misplaced/dangling modifiers
2. Using them to try to describe sequential actions (or really, any actions -- they can only describe a state of being)

"Burning out of control, the house was rebuilt by Jones Brothers Construction."

That's wrong because they aren't going to rebuild the house while it is still burning. Do you see how that works?

I recognize that I'm hammering on incorrect usages in a discussion of correct usage. But this is because, I'm convinced, most authors can't spot these errors in their own prose. They try to shoehorn a sense of immediacy into their prose by tacking on PPPs, and PPPs just don't work that way. You want your prose to feel fast? Shoehorn tension into every line. That's a much better solution.

So. Bottom line. When can you use a PPP? I have advised authors to keep it to around one usage per five to ten pages, but that's an arbitrary rule based on observation and experience, and ymmv. This measure might feel like overusage to some sensitive readers, and it might pass entirely unnoticed by others. But you definitely want to avoid overusage because this will prejudice educated readers against your prose -- and this means editors, agents, booksellers, reviewers, and the like. But *if* you aren't overusing them, you can use a PPP as long as it is used correctly to describe the state or nature of a noun at the moment of the action of the verb. And as long as it doesn't disrupt the temporal rhythm of the prose, which is, I admit, hard to gauge.


Friday, June 8, 2012

"Rules" and making them up

Just heard from a writer who was told by someone she described as "a sage critiquer" that it's a "rule" that you can't use contractions in third-person narration.

Can we have a "huh?"

Of course, there is no such rule. :)  Contractions were used by Shakespeare-- they've been used informally for many centuries. They are used in third-person all the time-- whatever fits the voice.  Writers who say something like that don't actually have a voice, I suspect, or they'd know that they need to sound like their voice or the character voice.  They invoke non-existent rules because they can't really recognize when a
voice is working.

If the voice is formal, then sure, no contractions might work. If it's a historical novel, maybe. If it's narrated by a pompous character, sure.

But writers need to create their voices, and while of course they should default to grammar rules (unless they have reason to break them), contractions are just as legal as the terms they replace.  I'd even say that the rhythm of the sentence would often dictate a contraction as it will have (usually) fewer syllables. But obviously someone like the "sage critiquer" who doesn't recognize voice wouldn't notice the rhythm imparted by more or fewer syllables.

In fact, in the past, they had more contractions, even in names. Thom. Nelson, Jos. Epsen. My dad always signs his name "Rob't Todd." Etc.  "Oughtn't," "Durs'nt," "Tis." "Ain't," in fact, was a perfectly acceptable contraction well into the 19th C.

So... what have you heard about other supposed "rules"?  What are some "rules" that you've been told to follow that aren't rules at all?


Sunday, June 3, 2012

That pop at the end

I've been avidly watching Game of Thrones on HBO, and as with most HBO productions, I've been impressed with the crisp, controlled writing. Word on the street was that the show followed the book pretty closely, so I didn't rush to buy the books, but I have them now and I'm about halfway through the first one. Based on this limited reading, I would agree that so far, the series is true to the books, but there are some minor changes. One of them, I think, bears examination. There are no spoilers here, so don't worry if you haven't seen the series to this point yet. The lines we'll look at came from about midway through season one, but they won't reveal much about plot or conflict.

The character Tyrion Lannister has had a run of bad luck, and finds himself in the woods with only one swordsman with him. This is hostile territory packed with warring tribes. Soon enough, some of the tribes people come upon Tyrion at his makeshift camp. Dialogue ensues, including these two lines.

From the book:
"How would you like to die, Tyrion son of Tywin?"
"In my own bed, with a belly full of wine and a maiden's mouth around my cock, at the age of eighty," he replied.

From the HBO episode:
Tribal guy
How would you like to die, Tyrion, son of Tywin?

In my own bed, at the age of 80, with a belly full of wine and a girl's mouth around my cock.

I won't embed the HBO clip here, but it can be readily found on youtube here, here, and probably other places, too, until takedown notices go out. The main thing I want to point out is how much the emphasis shifts when the phrase "at the age of eighty" is moved. Remember the general rule that what comes last carries more emphasis, and burying things in the middle will diminish their impact. And I want to point out -- this is important -- that either line is equally valid, depending on what you wish to emphasize.

I would say, then, that the book is more preoccupied with issues of life and death, and is more willing to diminish the sex and drinking that's so dominant in the series. Based on my reading so far, there's very little actual sex -- a few minor details, but nothing like what we see in the series. The series is pretty graphic in that respect. The book does pay more attention to the way people die and how it weighs on the minds of the living, so this particular arrangement -- sex and wine buried in the middle, the pop at the end from "age of eighty" -- makes sense for the book.

But the series is different. Not different in plot or character, but different in emphasis. There are naked women all over that set (Hey, HBO! Even it up and show us more naked men already! Fair's fair!) and Tyrion's wit seems much more evident because of the brilliant way the character is played. So they played this line for shock and laughs, and they diminished the life-and-death aspects by shifting focus to the sex-and-wine aspects. It's the right choice for the series, given the context.

How would it be different if they had shifted other bits around, too? What would that have told us about the emphasis of the story?


Saturday, June 2, 2012

Now I lay me down to sleep

The other night on twitter, I went on a mini-rant about the difference between fewer and less. There are quite a lot of commonly confused word pairs such as those, and almost instantly, people started asking for tips on how to remember other correct usages. Longtime friend of the blog Ian Healy asked for tips on lay and laid, but instead of tweeting it, I thought I'd better do a blog post. This one doesn't lend itself to 140.

Everyone mixes up lie/lay and lay/laid. Even the most meticulous authors can fumble this one from time to time, and the main reason for the confusion, I think, is that the past tense of "to lie" is lay, which is also, of course, the present of "to lay." So you have the same term used both transitively and intransitively in different tenses, and the meanings are so close as to be nearly indistinguishable. Yay, English! Good choice on that one!

Right. Let's break it down.

To Lie (intransitive - no object)
Present - Lie
Past - Lay

To Lay (transitive - object)
Present - Lay
Past - Laid

The main difference between the two is whether they take a direct object. This is where the children's prayer in the title of the post comes in handy.

Now I lay me down to sleep...

The three most important words here are now, lay, me.
Now -- it's the present tense.
Lay -- this is the confusing verb we're trying to sort out
Me -- the direct object.

So in the present tense (now), the verb lay takes a direct object.

If you used the other verb, it would have to be revised to:

Now I lie down to sleep...
(no object)

Two hours ago, I lay down to sleep...
(past tense, no object)

Two hours ago, I laid the baby down to sleep, and please God, make him quit crying...
(past tense with an object)

But that's not what the prayer says. Now I lay me down to sleep, etc. If you remember that, it will help you remember the difference between lie and lay. Even so, I have a grammar page bookmarked (the Purdue OWL, because, you know, Boiler Up! etc.) so that I can check it when I need a refresher.