Fresh Territory

I frequently liken a book to a new territory, with such analogies as the helicopter viewpoint, being anchored on the ground, and the like. Today I’d like to extend that metaphor into another realm: the work between the lines—of dialogue, that is. Most writers use physical business for this purpose, and it includes such descriptions as staring, nodding, and shrugging, to cite several of the most common fall-backs. An author that inserts such material has the right idea. Dialogue should be broken up in order to give the narrative more texture. Yet such attempts can be self-defeating in the long run if an author keeps hoeing the same rows.

I imagine that nothing annoys an editor, or a reader, more than repetitious physical biz. This sin is committed by an author who is writing too fast or can’t edit himself, or both. I suppose I am more fastidious about these matters than most, but I can’t believe they don’t pick up on the repetition when reading over the manuscript. One reason may be that we all perform according to certain habitual patterns, and for a writer a certain physical reaction just seems like what the character would do at that point. Another reason may be that the author believes certain repeated actions, such as cigarette smoking, define a specific character. The cumulative effect, however, is to try a reader’s patience. I actually used to smoke, but if I have to read twenty times about a character smoking, at some point I really wish that guy would get rid of his disgusting habit. 

Part of the joy of reading is pushing on into unknown territory. This notion encompasses a book’s concept, distinctive characters, unusual plot—but also simple word choices. Merely providing fresh vocabulary words can keep a reader entertained. Providing variations on a theme, such as scuffling a toe to imply anxiety, can alleviate the problem. Since so many authors are eye-centric, forcing yourself to insert any other sense-related activity can produce fruitful results.

After a certain point, though, you will exhaust the physical possibilities. You need to raise your sights one level above what a physical activity indicates about a character’s mental state. Instead, write directly about their mental state. For instance, “She could not believe he could lie so boldly.” Such a comment does not interrupt a dialogue passage unduly, but it sure tells us a lot about what she is really thinking about what is being said. You can go for an even higher plane: “She was so glad Peter showed up, because now she could hitch a ride out of this awful conversation.” The best part of this approach is that in these quick strokes, delivered between the lines of dialogue, we are learning more about the character. 

Exercise: The rise of the online, or dashboard, thesaurus makes providing fresh words easy. Yes, eight out of ten synonyms may be inappropriate for the level of diction you are employing, but several more may be down-to-earth enough (if that is the difficulty). This practice need not be done during the first burst of writing. Write the repetitious action, just to get it out so you can move on. I usually substitute fresh words during an editing pass, when I notice that a word or expression is being used too often. And if you can’t find the right synonym, why don’t you jettison the idea altogether and give that character a thought?

“The essence of the beautiful is unity in variety.” —W. Somerset Maugham

Copyright @ 2023, John Paine

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