3.15.2016

Surrounding Factors

Getting the narrative voice right is so tough, for a number of different reasons. A prominent one is the difficulty of telling outward exposition through a distinct character’s prism. You think you’re relating plot events from inside the protagonist’s head, but when you read over a section, you’re discouraged because the story seems so remote.

Being in the midst of an exciting milieu takes you only so far. An author can be so caught up in trying to create interesting dynamics that his lead character becomes a reporter rather than an actor. The problem is compounded when, as many fledgling authors do, the novel features multiple points of view. The revolving characters in effect describe their portion of the scenery, whether the setting is historical, military, political, or even domestic.

The calculus I use as an editor to determine plot momentum is: talk/action. A senator in Washington whispering to his devilish aide about subterfuge in Afghanistan rates less than the actual subterfuge being committed. A woman who contemplates a menage à trois rates less than her stepping into the forbidden bedroom. Yes, I do want interesting context, but that ranks lower than my desire to vicariously participate in plot events. If I never descend into the valley of evil, how am I supposed to achieve the victory of redemption?

Preparing the stage for events to come is an initial phase in a novel. Just because you find you have a talent for this fairly painless level of writing, you can’t stop there. What you are setting up then needs to be acted upon. The events have to spiral downward. It isn’t comfortable down in hell; you’re going to sweat. When the beads appear on your forehead, the reader will start going somewhere.

Exercise: Dialogue scenes are often mainly setup material. When you are reviewing your manuscript, write a sentence capsule of each scene according to the ratio of dialogue—talking about events—to commission. You’ll start to see why the sequence feels flat, because your characters are doing too much talking rather than doing. A threat merely voiced is just as empty in fiction as it is in real life.

“The promises of this world are, for the most part, vain phantoms; and to confide in one's self, and become something of worth and value is the best and safest course.”
—Michelangelo

Copyright @ 2016, John Paine

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