The Endless Explanations

One of the advantages of the 1st-person narrative voice is the ability for a character to spill out thoughts and comments. The personal touches that this interior work adds can change pedestrian prose into a highly nuanced style. Since the narrator’s view of an event determines how the reader experiences it, you can make the most banal daily undertakings fresh and engaging. 

I am an advocate of the open-spigot approach when you are getting ideas out of your head onto the paper. When they remain whirling upstairs in your brain, their usefulness is compromised by the myriad other ideas you are planning to get into the story somewhere. They also can glow with a promise that often dims when set in the concrete of black type. So, get it down first in order to focus on what you actually have.

When you go back to edit, what you may find is a melange of striking thoughts—the keepers—and what I’ll call notes to yourself. Let’s take an extended example to illustrate. Say you want to capture the prickly interactions between a male teenager and his mother.  The barbs contained in the dialogue may have some sting, but you don’t want the exchange to sound like another show on Nickelodeon. So smart, and aren’t they from L.A.? You add commentary in between the lines of dialogue to define what makes this relationship different. In this case, maybe the boy’s father died a few years back.

During the editing, a primary objective should be to transform as much of the commentary into the dialogue as possible. That is, once you know the relationship, you can craft the lines of dialogue to make the ramifications of the father’s death implicit—both in what they say and how they react to statements. If the boy gave up sports to mind his younger siblings after school, that resentment frames what he says about his siblings when he talks to his mother. It frames how he reacts when she complains about never having a spare moment to herself. As you go through the manuscript, you can look at each sentence of narrative commentary on an issue and ask: “Can what he is saying assume they’re both aware of the issue?” Then you can delete the commentary.

When you winnow out such notes to yourself, what will remain are the more acute thoughts. He may make a sweeping remark to the reader that he knows he dares not say to his mother. He may vow to do something in the future. In this way the thoughts become just another dazzling means of attack.

Exercise: As you’re reviewing, separate out what happened in the past from the present. You can trim remarks about the past, for sure, but most of the notes to cut concern the present. That stuff is dynamic, which you should change it to become active.

“Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” —Anton Chekhov

Copyright @ 2024 John Paine. All rights reserved.

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Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.