Lack of Attention

The days when family members would each curl up with a book for the evening seems as quaint as a Currier and Ives print. Broadcast technology, especially the ever expanding channels on television, provide the modern family with fodder that better suits the brain-dead torpor we often feel at the end of the day. The change in medium, however, does not alter the imperative to tell an entertaining story.

Television scriptwriting has affected novel writing in so many ways. Reliance on dialogue, ultra-short scenes, and a narrative voice that follows the cadence of speech are only the most common among them. Yet the novel maintains its advantage of telling a more thorough, involving story, and all the artful jump-cuts in the world cannot mask that.

In terms of intelligent television, many believe it reaches its apogee in the grand sweeps of British history. The costume dramas of Victoria and its ilk return us to a comforting world in which important personages all knew each other. Amid the swirling plot lines of these soap operas, however, still lies the imperative: how do we deliver the beginning, middle, and end of this week’s main story?

This is where the diffracted attention span caused by a chopped and spun screenplay can plague both media. A viewer or reader can start wondering why a lead character keeps defending the villain of the day. Because the visual arts can dazzle our eyes in a variety of scenes, that technique can substitute for plot development. Luckily for TV, a thin ruse needs to be maintained for only an hour, and then viewers will have a week to forget how dull the episode was.

A novel cannot rely on the same cold comfort. If the same stuff keeps happening over and over, the reader falls asleep. Oh my God, will he kiss her already? This is a reason why the movie version of a story is so much simpler. When I can look out over the stunning canyons of Utah, I don't need the riders of the purple sage to show up just yet.

It is fitting that a number of authors I work with are writing both a novel and its screenplay simultaneously. When the work of filling up book pages with enough interesting material becomes too hard, they turn to the screenplay. Dialogue trips off the fingers nicely. The screenplay is written more quickly. The only problem lies at the end, when the writer finds that Hollywood is even more of a bastion to assail than New York.

Exercise: For every description of character or scenery, you can dig in deeper to find aspects about the issue that the reader doesn't know. If a character is defending a known villain, what does that indicate about the character? In the art of manipulation, for one idea, lies all sorts of fascinating scenarios that can be explored.

"I don’t think screenplay writing is the same as writing—I mean, I think it’s blueprinting."
—Robert Altman


Removing the Screen

A novice writer, trying so hard to inhabit a character, will describe a piece of action taking place as seen by the character. The problem is, if you are truly inside your character’s head, everything is seen by her. Describing the act of seeing is a screen. Here’s an example: “When she looked up, she saw that he was easily making his way down, but when he landed, his foot slipped on a wet rock and he lurched forward.” On one level the narrative makes sense. If a character is contemplating her navel, and her attention is diverted by a more distant sight, she needs to look up. In addition, “she” controls the scene’s point-of-view, so she would be witnessing his clumsiness.

During the course of an edit, however, I usually take out all references to sight. It is possible that a character is so engrossed in something that she needs to physically turn her head to look up. Yet most of the time it is just lazy writing. More descriptive would be a phrase describing where the man is before he starts climbing down: a rocky bluff, a grassy dune, etc.

In particular, the phrase “she saw that” is hardly ever needed. If you’re inside the character, the point of view is assumed. A better strategy is to let the other character signal their presence first. Here is that sentence again, without the screens: “He called to her from the top of the rocky bluff. He easily made his way down, but when he landed, his foot slipped on a wet rock and he lurched forward.” She still is watching, but the actions of the other character are more immediate. The screen has been removed.

You can make the same implicit assumption for what a character thinks. The phrase “it seemed to her” is another one that I almost always delete. The entire book is filled with her thoughts, her opinions, etc. Everything that is narrated is the way it seems to her. Here’s an example, adding onto the beach example above: “It seemed to her that he should stop trying to please her so much.” If she is the point-of-view character, you don’t need the screen. “She really wished he would stop trying to please her so much” is more direct, allowing the reader to fully participate in her amusement and/or annoyance.

Exercise: Conducting a global search, key in any word related to sight, such as “look” or “see.” Judge whether the point-of-view character really needs to witness the event, or if it could just happen. Do the same with “seem.” This word rarely needs to be used in fiction. Everything is made up, so something is either real to the character or it isn’t.

“I’ve discovered that rejections are not altogether a bad thing. They teach a writer to rely on his own judgment and to say in his heart of hearts, ‘To hell with you.’”
—Saul Bellow

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


Dragging the Cart

Where is the best place to put a background story? Part of the answer depends on the role that discoveries play in a novel. In a mystery, for example, the denouement may be a background story that explains the hidden link of the murderer to the victim. For the purposes of this post, I’ll refine the question to: what is the best place for a background story about a character?

One prevalent style front-loads the information. That is, as soon as a new character is introduced, a mini-bio of a half page or more immediately ensues. This style, like a pop-up window with an explanation, is used commonly in such genres as thrillers. While sometimes they are not intrusive, I generally dislike them for two reasons. First, they often clog up the momentum of an action-oriented scene. Second, and more important, as a reader I don’t know if I want to pay so much attention to a character I’ve barely met.

The imperative to front-load information about a character affects more literary endeavors as well. The first 50 or so pages are clogged up with background stories. The plot cannot gain any forward momentum because the story keeps on being dragged into the past. I get it. A great deal happened to the character before page 1. Yet so many background stories so early begs the question: why did you start the book where you did? Maybe it should have started earlier in the character’s life.

Now let’s flip over the script: front to back. Some authors keep on dropping in back stories all through the book. I’m not talking about pieces that bear on the developing plot. These are random stories, like the memory of a girl’s first horse. The problem here is that the plot usually has gained enough momentum in its later stages that the plot events are building steadily upon plot events that have already occurred. The train is moving too fast, in other words, to stop the story dead in its tracks for an unrelated story.

So where is the best place? The answer is a variant of show, don’t tell. In this case it is show, then tell. In other words, the character should perform some interesting plot business first. Then we’ll want to know more about that interesting person. The monkey charms us and then we’ll want to learn about its terrible story of being abducted from Cameroon.

Exercise: To put a number on it, the sweet spot for most background stories ranges from roughly page 50 through the first third of the book. That way the plot gets under way. You firmly establish why the reader should be interested in the story told within these pages. Yet the background work fills out portraits at a time when you are still setting up the characters we’ll be following all book long.

“Life is a hideous thing, and from the background behind what we know of it peer daemoniacal hints of truth which make it sometimes a thousandfold more hideous.”
—H. P. Lovecraft

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


The Art of Coupling

Amid the swirling rhythms of a writer’s sentences, many different combinations may work, given the specific context. As an editor I have very few fixed rules because I know that effective expression trumps every other consideration. I do find that certain couplings work less successfully than others. Among them, a frequent unfortunate pairing occurs when not enough attention is paid to the verbs being used.

One fault line occurs in sentences driven by verbs with dissimilar functions. A verb that describes an abstract conclusion, for instance, performs a different function than one that describes a form of action. Let’s take an example: “That moment changed his life as he stared at the lifeless bodies, and Edgar’s bloodstained knife, and he knew he had to tell someone.” A change in one’s life has nothing to do with staring. The two verbs are on different planes. The sentence, as edited, removes the coupling: “That moment changed his life. As he stared at the lifeless bodies, and Edgar’s bloodstained knife, he knew he had to tell someone.” Now the passage reads fine, because each verb is driving a separate sentence.

The same is true of a verb that describes a form of cognition as opposed to one that describes a form of action. “Miriam knew she was right as she pulled a cigarette out of her pocket, while keeping her eyes on the road.” Knowing she’s right has nothing to do with pulling out a cigarette. But see what happens when the coupling is detached: “Miriam knew she was right. She told herself that as, keeping her eyes on the road, she pulled a cigarette out of her pocket.”

Even when you have verbs that serve similar purposes, you may find that decoupling allows each to stand out in greater clarity. Here’s an example of a muddled reflection: “Something gnawed at him and he knew there was an answer, but couldn’t get his mind to focus on it.” In this case, the problem is caused by forcing different types of cognition to coexist in the same sentence.  Gnawing and knowing are both ongoing states, but they work against each other. As edited, the distinction is easily revealed: “Something gnawed at him. He knew there was an answer, but couldn’t get his mind to focus on it.” You’re not losing much complexity in sentence structure. You’re just making sure your verbs work in harmonious linkage.

Exercise: As you review the manuscript, take a close look at the verbs you’re using in compound or complex sentences. Does one verb lead to the other within the same sentence? If not, experiment with breaking them apart. What happens when they are broken into two separate sentences? If you still don’t like the way they read, you may be using the wrong verbs.

“Try as hard as we may for perfection, the net result of our labors is an amazing variety of imperfectness. We are surprised at our own versatility in being able to fail in so many different ways.”
—Samuel McChord Crothers

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


Finding a Way to Hope

Gritty realism occupies an honored place in fiction. Most readers want to explore the outcomes of evil, even when the causes are institutional in our society. The actors in such a drama, who are often victims, are not nice people. They scrape and claw for what they get, and if that means hurling a plate at the dinner table, the reader will accept that behavior.

Protagonists in these stories are usually hard-bitten, a failure in the eyes of others, even their family. They keep offending those around them in their blind groping to get ahead. An author may nod in satisfaction because their deeds keep the tension level high. Will George fall off the wagon? Will Helen take that high-risk bet? You bet they will. That’s just being realistic.

In the hands of a skilled writer, such a portrait can succeed even if the character is odious. The mental state of the character is fully explored, and what is revealed can be unpalatable. Yet the saving grace of this in-depth approach is that the character explains why their world looks the way it does. Horrid choices are justified—i.e., the better alternatives are explored and discarded, sometimes with savage humor.

What happens through this constant process of mental sifting? Readers can see themselves in the character. You or I might never have considered murder, but the way the character explains why it is necessary, maybe it could be a good idea. The skilled author, in other words, appeals to the evil instincts in all of us.

That balance of the right and wrong course, unfortunately, does not exist in a more plot-driven book. The blind lurching forward occurs for reasons that remain opaque to the reader. Repeated misdeeds have the effect of alienating those of us who obey society’s rules. After all, those rules are designed, at least in part, to protect those people subject to a malefactor’s reign.

It is a hoary maxim that life is brutal and short. I don’t need to read a novel to realize that. I read in order to find reasons why my existence could possibly matter. You see, if I can better understand the nature of evil, I can go forth after putting down the book knowing more about how to correct that impulse in myself. Maybe George didn’t decide to take the path lying clearly before him, but I can.

Exercise: Review the novel with an eye out for evil deeds. Before each one occurs, look to see if the character has justified the step they’re taking. Why is evil preferable? What do you know about human nature that would make the reader agree with that choice? You may find, through this ongoing exploration, what makes your character unique.

“It is a man's own mind, not his enemy or foe, that lures him to evil ways.”

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


Leave the Personal Aside

In nonfiction books, following a narrative template of theory-example is a useful practice. You state your topic idea, such as a type of game that people play in business, and then provide a personal case, such as salesman Horace playing a game of manipulation. That method allows you to keep advancing onto new topics while grounding each point with illustrations the reader can easily grasp.

You have to beware, however, lest you rely too much on personal examples. You first have to consider what you’re trying to accomplish with your book. You are advancing points of an argument. You are saying that the way you advise the reader to think is better than the way they think now. In order to be convincing, you must be an expert. Whether that credential stems from a degree, a profession (such as medical), or long experience, you have to show that you know more about the subject than the reader. Otherwise, why should I believe you?

Here is an additional consideration. In order to gain the full scope of expertise, you want your examples to be wide-ranging. The more variety you introduce, the more your ideas apply across the spectrum. Every time, reader, in every place my ideas work.

Now let’s consider the personal examples. They tend to be local, such as within your family or one specialty within a profession. You are trying to be an expert, but citing examples from your own life can appear to be limited. Okay, the reader thinks, so that works for your family, but how about all the families that are unlike yours? How about all the businesses that are different from yours?

Start by taking yourself out of the proceedings. You need to adopt a neutral voice, like an expert observer. Use first names for the examples, so a reader can readily put herself in the person’s shoes, but merely tell their stories. The narrative distance will add authority to your writing. You might even employ this technique for the personal examples. For instance, does anything change about the point you’re making if your wife happens to be named Mary?

As for variety, consider the basic choices that will include as many readers as possible. Try to jump back and forth between the sexes. If you’re discussing family structure, portray intact families, divorced families, families with partners, etc. If you’re exemplifying business practices, let’s meet executives but also secretaries, salespeople, etc. That way readers will feel that you have gone out and fully explored the world that your book is covering.

Exercise: Try for variety in length of example as well. Think of the people you have known or observed, and write a quarter-page story about them. As you’re writing, you’ll find you need more space for some examples. Write a half-page about them. If you really need the space to explain the circumstances, you may require an entire page. The length alone can make the reader’s experience richer.

“The writer is important only by dint of the territory he colonizes.”
—Van Wyck Brooks

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine

Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.