3.03.2016

The Painful Steps

Most authors use a common level of diction. That’s because they want to communicate with their readers rather than use words that fly over their heads. That is a sound policy, but it has a potential drawback. Only a limited number of words exist to describe action. That means the same words can be used over and over again.

In my editing practice, I spend much of my time deleting what I call “physical business.” You might also call it “getting from here to there.” I understand what is going on in the author’s head. She is trying to immerse the reader in her fictional world. That means describing the acts of moving through that world. Every setting presents a new challenge: the character must walk through the room, possibly with hardwood floors, with perhaps a creaking board. If someone calls to the character before exiting the room, he must turn, pause, and possibly stare at this someone before delivering a line of dialogue.

The author is describing what the character does, but in that lies a problem.  How many times does that character turn, pause, and stare? In any given manuscript, I will cull several hundred instances of the act of turning. Why do we need to know the character is turning each time? Don’t we, as readers, assume that the character has to turn around if he is heading toward a doorway?

You will save the reader a great deal of tedium by stepping up to the next level in writing. Take a jump and assume that the character has inserted the key in the ignition, put the gear shift into drive, looked in the rearview mirror before pulling out, etc. Simply saying, “He pulled out too rapidly into traffic,” covers all of that stuff. We know how to drive a car.

More important, ask yourself if you are providing emotional content to a physical act. If we know, for instance, that the heroine desperately wants to flee a room after being embarrassed, then the act of turning represents almost a stroke of doom. The reader clamors: “Just let her get out of there with a shred of dignity!” That’s the next level: physical actions become a manifestation of unfolding thoughts.

Exercise: Go through a chapter you’ve already written. Look for physical business. Run a global Find for common words like “walk,” “turn,” and “shrug,” among other culprits. How many times are those words highlighted? Your characters shouldn’t be turning more than one time during a, let’s say, five-page chapter. Look at each one and ask yourself: Could I delete it? Better yet, could I substitute words that convey an emotional state?

“Mediocrity knows nothing higher than itself, but talent instantly recognizes genius.”  
—Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Copyright @ 2016, John Paine

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