Sunday, July 17, 2011

Layering Your Scene -- Enhancing Language

Finally we’re at the part of layering the scene that most new writers consider “editing” or “revising” – enriching the language. By now, if you’ve been following my Layering Your Scene blogs through all nine parts (has it really been that many?), you’ve discovered there’s a lot more to enhancing a scene’s emotional impact than “fixing” the words.

Actually, words are the last thing you should look at, because by the time you’re finished puttering with everything else, those words may not even be there.

OK, you’ve got your scene working hard, contributing to the novel’s plot, conflict, theme, character development and building tension as it goes. Your scene has a strong beginning that jumps right into the central conflict of the scene and it has a hook that spins the characters off into a new direction.

You’re ready to look at the words.
  • Backload your sentences to strengthen their power.
  • Tighten the language. Get rid of redundancies and unnecessary verbiage.
  • Replace clichés with fresh writing.
  • Layer in rhetorical devices that heighten the emotional impact.

There is already so much good advice on the internet on how to enrich your language that I’m not going to repeat it all. Instead, I'll to point you in a few choice directions. So here goes:

"Backloading" is an expression that I think was coined by Margie Lawson, though she’s not the first place I discovered the concept. Backloading a sentence means putting the most powerful word in the sentence in the most powerful location in the sentence: its end.

Power words (also called “loaded words”) are words that resonate with readers’ emotions. They’re strong words that carry their own baggage, words like death, prayer, rape, caution, silence, blood, guilt, knife, edge, fall. Words that contain connotations of death, injury, disaster, chaos, pain, joy, love are all power words, as are many action verbs.

There are two ways you can backload a sentence.

 Chop off words and phrases that aren’t necessary and that cause the power of the sentence to trickle away.

Thinly scattered streetlights reveal vast lawns, long, curving driveways, and tall, old trees whose bare branches twist like witches’ arms in the moonlight. 
The power words here are “witches’ arms”. I’ve already mentioned streetlights, so I certainly don’t need moonlight. It can go.

Thinly scattered streetlights reveal vast lawns, long, curving driveways, and tall, old trees whose bare branches twist like witches’ arms.

Here's another original that can be chopped:

I remember now the ambulance arriving, and realize they must have come up the same lane we did.
Revised, it looks like this:
I remember now the ambulance arriving, and realize they must have come up the same lane. 
Another way to backload is rephrasing the sentence so the power word is at the end.  Here's the original:
We were both sitting cross-legged on our beds, our summer blankets pulled over our shoulders, even though it was hot outside

Rephased to move the power words to the end:
Even though it was hot outside, we were both sitting cross-legged on our beds, summer blankets pulled over our shoulders.

My revision has other problems, namely lots of fat, so let’s move on to my second bullet point and look at how to tighten it.

Mr. Stewart, my junior year high school teacher, introduced me to Strunk and White’s Elements of Style close to fifty years ago. The book was already a classic text for writers then, and still is now. It should be in every writer’s reference library. Mr. Steward repeated Rule 1 of Strunk and White so many times that it still rings in my ears: “Omit needless words.”

So what needless words can go?

First, anything that the reader could have guessed from context. Like “both”.

Next, anything that can be said more concisely: “Even thought it was hot outside” can become “Despite the heat”.

Third, look at the verb. Compound verbs that contain “begin to”, “start to” or anything similar can be reduced to the main verb. Progressive tenses (is + verb+ing) are also suspect. No, they are NOT passive voice, though critique partners and contest judges who have a mediocre grasp of grammar will try to tell you so. A progressive verb indicates that something, while active, is happening (see a used one right there) while something else happens. In other words, it indicates synchronicity. But you don’t always need progressive tense. Test the sentence by replacing the progressive form with the simple form of the verb. Does it still work? If so, use the simple form.

My sentence now looks like this:

Despite the heat, we sat cross-legged on our beds with our blankets pulled over our shoulders.

Now that "pulled over our shoulders" – the power words that indicate there’s some strong emotion making these kids feel cold – is at the end of the sentence, the phrase “cross-legged on our beds” seems to intrude on the main idea (the emotion). When that happens, ask yourself, “Do I really need that image”? Ninety percent of the time, the answer’s “no”. Often, when the answer’s “yes”, you can find another place to work it in (possible a different sentence) without weakening the sentence you’ve just strengthened.

I’ve merely scratched the surface tightening your writing. Author/agent Lois Winston has an amazing blog post that covers it in detail.

Clichés crop up at us when we least expect them. There are two that sentence. “crop up at us” (which I think is a misuse, as well) and “when we least expect them.” The point is it’s easy to write clichés. They’re so strongly embedded in our culture that when we open to the door to our Muse, there they are.

The trick is recognizing them and replacing them with something fresher. Fresher equals stronger.

Having trouble recognizing them? Just Google “cliché lists” and you’ll find over five million lists.

There are also plot clichés -- those predictable bits of action that bore the reader. You know, the hero who spots the unknown heroine at a ball and just has to pursue her, the girl who trips so the hero notices how pretty her ankle is, the dog that eats the crucial piece of evidence (otherwise known as “the dog ate my evidence”), and so on. Hopefully by now you’ve gotten rid of them, but if you’re still new to writing, you may need help recognizing them. Google will point you toward websites with lists of them, as well. One of my favorites is

That leaves layering rhetorical devices. Rhetorical devices are the things you learned in poetry: metaphors, similes, hyperbole, alliteration and so on. Actually, there are heaps more. If you’re serious about upping the standard of your writing, take any of Margie Lawson’s courses. Her EDITS course includes practice in many rhetorical devices that writers use all the time, but that you probably were never aware were RD’s and could be used to create specific effects.

That wraps up my series of blogs on Layering Your Scene. Have fun revising!.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent blog post and just what I needed! Just retweeted :)