3.24.2016

Trying Out New Looks

When a draft of a novel is being written, characters and plot events become locked in by the words on the page. The unfolding process of new discoveries continues on this foundation. Guided by the parameters laid down, you rightfully feel elated when a lead character starts taking the story to places you didn’t expect.

What happens, however, when the magic you felt while penning a scene doesn’t hold up a week, or a month, later when you sit down to review it? As a cold-hearted reader, the way a nurse announces, for instance, what you had thought was a triumphal declaration of assuredness to her arrogant boss now seems egotistic and shallow. You start to tinker with the wording of what she says, and the new version, while slightly better, doesn’t remove the brassy shine of self-satisfaction.

You need to step back from the conception you had going into the scene. That nurse might need an entirely new slant in her declaration of better care for their patients. What if you shifted away from oppression by doctors? What if her desire to help patients stemmed from an elderly mother that she ignored, in her teenage years, until it was too late?

You might want to step outside the box altogether. Take the sterling example of Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See. He knew before he wrote page one that World War II has been used in hundreds of other novels. So he made his heroine blind. The Nazis stomping down the streets of her town and she's blind? You can shoot for the unique prism too. When you think about nurses, what would make yours utterly different from the stout, stern matron you know so well?

Because words can lock you in, you have to think big when you’re shaking free their chains. The scene may not be limp because you chose the wrong words in dialogue. It may be that you haven’t thought through enough what a character needs to truly stand out when saying those words. So, metaphorically, make her a paper doll. Try out all the different dresses in the book. Write out a scene with that conception. Now is it coming to life? If not, keep shifting what lies underneath.

Exercise: One solid way to shift paradigms is to mix different strains in the character’s life. The doctor boss is a plague at work, but what about the trials her husband is putting her through because the baby’s in day-care? Should her struggles at home be brought into the office? Is she rebelling against her boss or her spouse?

“Cherish forever what makes you unique, 'cuz you're really a yawn if it goes.”
—Bette Midler

 Copyright @ 2016, John Paine

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