The Groundplan

Most Americans who emerge from college think they know it all. That brashness stems partly from the natural exuberance of youth and partly from the general excellence of our institutions of higher education. I often find, however, a strange gap in that all-encompassing knowledge: an ignorance of basic grammar rules. That cause might be attributed to another dominant American trait: the desire to rebel. Grammar belongs to the hoary old days of junior high; it tries to confine your freedom of expression. Rules are made to be broken, right?

Throughout my twenties, when I was primarily a writer, I paid not the slightest attention to grammar. I knew all that stuff—because I basically knew everything. I was blazing new frontiers. I should add that I have since edited authors who are much older but still retain the same loathing for those days of main stems and subordinate clauses.

Like a chameleon, we all change our skin to suit new circumstances. When I first joined publishing, I became a copy editor. That is the person below the rank of an editor, tasked with correcting a manuscript’s spelling, punctuation, and grammar. Many authors hate these creatures. Alice Kahn famously remarked, “It is wonderful that our society can find a place for  the criminally literal-minded.” While I certainly saw extreme pettifogging when I reviewed the work of other copy editors, I was surprised by how often I agreed with them.

What happened to my youthful dreams of freedom? Absolutely nothing. What I came to realize was that grammar rules are ever mutable. Although they can be applied rigidly, they were (and are) developed in the first place as a means to enable people to communicate effectively with others. Why should you use active verbs? Because they most effectively propel your sentence forward. Why should you avoid adverbs? Because you should first examine the sentence to see if you can employ a stronger active verb. All of these tiny calculations are a wonderful aid in helping writers get the maximum force out of every sentence. In the case of grammar, knowledge truly will set you free.

Exercise: How well do you know your grammar? What was the last time you looked at a grammar book? For that matter, what was the last time you looked at Strunk and White? Rather than regarding grammar as a set of rules, you can take their principles as a roadmap as you become more fluent in your writing. Sure, rules are made to be broken, but you should know what they are first. What you may find is that you’ve been following many of the “rules” of grammar all along.

“Don't use words too big for the subject. Don't say ‘infinitely’ when you mean ‘very’. Otherwise you'll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.”  
—C. S. Lewis

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


Beginning, Not End

If a “chapter” in a novel was renamed “story unit,” an author’s conception of its construction would be clarified. A story unit implies that the chapter must make forward progress by the time it ends. Judged in this light, where is the best place for a background story?

At the beginning of a new chapter, you have momentum cresting over the previous chapter break. Yet, in terms of a story unit, the beginning is the chapter’s low point. The reader is catching his breath after the previous chapter. Since background material does not drive a story forward as hard as present action, it is best inserted at this point.

The reader does want to find out more about what makes the book’s main characters tick. While she is catching her breath, she’ll enjoy the greater breadth that background material provides. Plus, she knows that you have the rest of the chapter to create another story obstacle that will provide new plot propulsion.

By contrast, back stories don’t function well as endings of chapters. That means you’re back-stroking the paddle just when you want to position the canoe to jump over the chapter break. One horrible mistake occurs when an author doesn’t know where to put a back story. So he sees an action scene to which the back story relates loosely—and dumps it in after the action. That casts all that fine action into the shade of less exciting material.

I’ve even seen back stories about another subject entirely dumped at the end of a chapter. Yet that means you’re telling us that the entire chapter wasn’t really that important, because now you’ve segued onto some other subject as its ending. The reader is left puzzled—and now that chapter break looks like a good excuse to put the book down. That’s because she doesn’t feel any need to turn to the next chapter. You’ve left her unmoored at the end of a story unit.

Exercise: Look for where your back stories are placed within a chapter. In particular, judge them purely in terms of story momentum. Is the background material competing with the present-day story line? Try lifting the back story out of the chapter and judge the momentum now. Do you see where it’s really starting to catch fire? Place the back story before that point.

“A critic is a man who knows the way but can’t drive the car.”
—Kenneth Tynan

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


Using Others as a Yardstick

The changes that lead to a character’s turning point stem mainly from how he reacts within, but the progression can also be gauged by how others react to him. That’s because a reader is swayed by the opinions of a third party. Unless we are given a reason otherwise, we tend to believe what is written on the page. For example, we can be thinking, as we’re reading, that the protagonist sure likes to spend money, and if another character remarks on it, we feel that our guess is confirmed. That supporting character’s reaction has given us an insight into the lead character.

A friend of the protagonist works well as a gauge in a character arc. After all, who knows how much a person changes better than someone who knows where she started from? The observations made by the friend need not be passive remarks, like commenting on a new haircut. The friend can be upset because the heroine is changing, and they can fight about why she hasn’t stayed in the old-shoe place that the friend found comfortable. A number of these fights can lead to a total break, whether temporary or permanent, which can disturb both the protagonist and the reader.

A stranger that the protagonist gets to know can perform the same function. Although his remarks, or looks, operate on a less-informed level, a stranger also is less encumbered by the preconceptions of a longtime friendship. So if your hero finds himself trying to solve the murder of his sister, a private detective he hires can show progressive reactions to the increasingly bold things that the hero says. “Whoa, slow down, Junior.” A half dozen of these remarks over the course of the book can be very useful markers for the reader.

Such work can be overdone. If you’re trying to explain how Clark Kent transformed into Superman, remarks about how amazing the new Superman is can be distrusted by the reader. That’s the equivalent of a character’s continuing to be somehow fascinated by a speech that utterly bores the reader. Understatement works better, slipping in subtle hints that the heroine we thought we had pegged is blossoming into someone unexpected.

Exercise: Review the manuscript with an eye out for supporting characters that appear in a number of scenes with your protagonist. What is the supporting character’s original view? As you keep flipping through pages, keep track of your protagonist’s arc. How could the supporting character help us understand the evolution? See if you can insert a dozen reactions that chart the changes.

 “It's a damn good story.  If you have any comments, write them on the back of a check.”
—Erle Stanley Gardner

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine
Copyright © 2012 John Paine. All rights reserved.