Monday, June 27, 2011

Layering Your Scene -- Pace

For those of you who’ve joined this discussion of layering a scene in medias res, this is part of a workshop I delivered last month to my area chapter of the Romance Writers of New Zealand. This week we’re talking about layering to increase the pace of a scene.

No question, the emotional impact of a scene is tied to its pacing. Pace equals conflict. In my first blog, I talked about making sure that the scene was set up to contribute to the conflict inherent in the plot. Now we’re going to take a magnifying glass to the scene.

First, check every paragraph to make sure it contains conflict. Get rid of what Margie Lawson calls “walking the dog”. “Walking the dog” are those bits of business (a theatrical term that means actions and activities) that don’t contribute to the conflict. Typical walking the dog segments include:
  • getting up and getting dressed or ready
  • eating a meal
  • travelling, entering, leaving
  • waiting (unless you’re able to show tension building)
  • bickering (as opposed to where the argument stems from the characters’ goals)
  • social conventions
  • polite dialog, such as when the host offers tea and the guest says, “No thank you” (and there’s no subtext that indicates she thinks she might be poisoned)
  • anything you wrote to fill pages while you figured out what happens next
The rule is get in and out of the scene as close to the central action as you can. Start the scene where the conflict begins. Show us the secretary asking for a raise from her stingy boss – forget the part where she drives to work. Get out of the scene as close as you can to where the protagonist achieves or fails to achieve his goal. Forget the polite good-bys the morning after they sleep together – but by all means keep the part where he says, “I don’t think we should see each other again.” (Lots of conflict there!)

 Next, highlight all lines of introspection -- you know, those places where your character is thinking. Introspection slows the pace.

 Scrutinize. Is it all necessary? Cut, cut, cut, right down to the bare bones. Then turn as much of the rest as you can into dialog, which is much faster paced.

 Closely linked to introspection is over-explaining. These are lines that look like,

     “The Apaches will attack at dawn.” He wanted his troop to be alert.

As if they’re going to sleep through the night after news like that.

 Not all lines of explanation are useless. Sometimes they add subtext to the story:

     “I’m on a diet.” She didn’t want him to think she was always this fat.

Now we know (a) she’s got a weight problem, or at least she’s concerned about her body image (b) she’s worried about what he thinks of her, perhaps as the first step towards a romance…

 Over-explaining merely adds padding to your text. Give your readers credit for their intelligence. Do you really need to explain this? They’ve probably already figured it out. Omit the repeats, and consider opportunities to add subtext.

 Backstory is another pace-slower. A whole blog – possibly a whole book – could be written on this. In an opening chapter, it can kill your sale.

 As a good writer, you probably know more backstory on your characters than you’ll ever need to tell.

 The rule for backstory is feed it to the reader only on a need-to-know basis. And only one line at a time. One speaker at last year’s RWA National Convention mentioned that in the first third of the book, there should be only one sentence of backstory per chapter. That’s not much.

 Look at it like this: your job in the first half of the book is to set up “story questions”, questions readers ask themselves that keep them reading to the end in order to discover the answers. You do that by dropping hints. For example, in the opening of my YA WIP, my first person narrator says,

     We haven’t had a lot of happiness.

Instantly the reader is going to ask “why not?” But not until several chapters later do they get the beginning of the answer. And then, only the beginning…

 There are two places where somewhat extended backstory will work:

  •  The prolog (if your editor will let you get away with one) – Prologs are designed to provide the necessary backstory to set up the plot. But you need to open with action, just the way you would in a standard opening. And, bad news, a prolog does not get you off the hook of having a terrific Chapter One. Editors still want to see an “opening chapter” that pulls readers into the book.
  •  A flashback (late in the book) – By that time, hopefully, you’ve dropped so many hints about what happened that you won’t need one. Warning: the minute you go into the past, you’ve taken the reader out of the conflict and the tension drops.
Research – historical or otherwise -- can also slow the pace with what editor Jennifer Enderlin calls “over-writing”. You’ve probably put a lot of time into making sure you’ve got the details right. You know your time period or your protagonist’s job details better than a real life person in your protagonist’s shoes. But, like backstory, you should include only enough for the reader to understand the plot.

Signs of overwriting include:

  •  The POV character says or thinks stuff everyone around her/him takes for granted or knows. For example, the stable master does not have to explain to the groom how to harness a horse.
  •  The tone changes. Suddenly it sounds like a college lecture. You’re no longer in the POV character’s head.
  •  It pulls you out of the action of the story.
Sometimes you need that bit of historical or technical explanation, so how do you work it in?
  • Introduce an “Expert” cluing in the newcomer/neophyte. For example, in the James Bond movies, this job of M and Q.
  •  Refer to it in a way that is natural for the context, making use of subtext. For example, in the movie Gosford Park, there is a discussion below stairs over who among the staff will serve those guests who didn’t bring maids/valets. The subtext intimates that (a) it is expected every guest will have a maid or valet to help them dress and take care of their clothes (b) staff are expected to do extra work when there’s an event like a house party.
A final suggestion for increasing the pace is to look at your white space, paragraph length and sentence structure.

White space always speeds up the pace.


So do short sentences.

And fragments.

On the other hand, long sentences, as much as we enjoy their rhetorical and structural intricacies, slow down the pace, which isn’t always bad. In an idyllic scene where your lovers are enjoying each other’s company, a slower pace enhances the tranquillity of the moment.

Notice the difference?

So go back one more time and look at sentence and paragraph length. Decide what pace this part of the scene requires and adjust your sentences accordingly.

Next week: the moral and symbolic layers

Monday, June 20, 2011

Layering Your Scene -- The Emotional Level

When I submit a chapter to my critique partners, I ask them to mark MOEs – missed opportunities for emotion. Because for me, remembering to stick in the emotion is the hardest thing to do. After all, writing about the emotion forces me to feel the emotion. And you know, with what I put my characters through, there’s times when I’d just as soon not feel that.
But emotion is what readers crave.

Romance is all about emotion. But it’s not the only genre in which emotion counts. Readers of historicals seek the emotional link that connects our era with theirs. Readers of YAs chase the fist-punching-air “ha!” of victory and the soul-plummet of angst. Readers of thrillers, mystery and suspense go for the chill up their spine as the protagonist’s situation turns from dire to desperate.

Once you’ve gotten the mechanics of structure and issues with POV worked through, the next level of layering a scene is the emotional layer.

Start by reading the chapter over again in one quick swoop and mark all the places you’ve shown the emotion. This can be:

Naming the emotion:

      Now I’m facing Joseph, but I’m afraid to look in his eyes, afraid to see the hurt that must be there.

Body language:

     Joseph blushes and rubs his collar with his left hand. The way guys do with a new shirt when there’s a pin still sticking there that their mother forgot to take out. Except this is a pin he’ll never find. It will always be there, itching and rubbing, for the rest of his life.


      “Not again!”

Dialog cues:

      “I think,” she says in a voice cold as the snow that will start falling any day now, “you made your position clear.”


       My mind is going fast. I’ve forgotten everything I meant to say. But, then, I said it. I apologized. What else does she want?


      The scent of gardenias drifting through the open window reawakened the sweet memory of an awkward boy’s blush as he struggled to pin a corsage to her prom dress.

Go back now and look more closely at the various ways you’ve shown emotion. Have you used them to the fullest?

OK, time for an unabashed and blatant promotion. If you really want to learn to write emotions well, take one of Margie Lawson’s on-line courses. In fact, take all of them. She is the dean of writing emotions, bar none. What I’m going to jot down here is just a drop in the bucket compared to what she knows and teaches. End of commercial. We will now resume our regular programming.

Naming the emotion

Naming the emotion is “telling”, not showing, but at times it’s ok to tell. Be judicial your use of naming the emotion. It’s not a blanket replacement when you can’t think of how else to show emotion. 
Body language:

 Most writers use facial expressions, but there’s a lot more to body language than whether the character looks, smiles, raises her eyebrow, etc. Other stereotypical body moves are touches, shrugs, nods, shakes and turns. Go beyond the standard repertoire. Think about:

  • Where are the two characters in relationship to each other? How close? Does the space change? How comfortable are the characters with the space?
  •  How are their bodies oriented towards each other?
  • How your character uses his hands and feet? Where are they placed, what are they touching?
  • Visceral reactions and their signs. Visceral reactions are the automatic responses your body makes to strong emotions like fear and attraction. They’re things like increased heartbeat and breathing, blood rushing to face and neck (and genitals), sweating, increased or decreased focus, etc. Whenever something important has happened, whenever you want a strong emotional hit for the reader, remember to include the visceral reaction. 
Dialog and Dialog Cues:  
Often the words in dialog itself convey an emotion. But if there’s potential ambiguity, then you can clarify the emotion with what Margie Lawson coined “dialog cues.” Dialog cues go beyond simple dialog tags to actually convey how a line is delivered. They indicate the speaker’s volume, tone, or pitch.

Internalization is the character’s thoughts. It’s internal dialog, and it goes without saying it can carry emotion. But it’s a weak way to convey emotion, as intellectualization is one step removed from the actual feeling. Think about combining it with a physical reaction, as well.

As writers, we’re told to use all five senses in our descriptions. Writer and medical researcher Marilyn Kelly (11 Senses: Who knew?) says actually there are eleven:

  •  The 5 senses plus
  •  Sense of temperature
  •  Sense of time
  •  Sense of equilibrium/balance
  •  Sense of motion/speed
  •  Sense of pain/pleasure
  •  Sense of orientation
  •  “6th sense” – intuition/ESP

If you're writing a  Paranormal: does your character have other senses?
When you’re writing in Deep POV, descriptions need to serve emotions. Characters don’t just see or hear something. They filter what they experience through their own world view. Your descriptions should reveal what they feels about what they see, hear, smell, touch, taste… 
      Photos of a younger Miss Pride, in slinky sequins and fluttery feathers, sneer at us as we follow her through the front hall and to the kitchen.

 In this sentence from my WIP, we don’t just get a description of the pictures on the walls; we get how Sophie, my POV character, feels about them. She feels looked down on, judged and found wanting by someone who considers herself superior.

 And there’s one more I haven’t mentioned: The subtext – what are the characters NOT saying or doing? Can you show internal dissonance? (Internal dissonance is when what they say contradicts what they do.)  For example, a shivering heroine can shrug off the jacket the hero tries to lay around her shoulders.  
     “I’m not cold,” she said through blue lips.

Now that you’ve looked at how you’ve handled the emotions in the places you’ve got it, go back again and mark every Missed Opportunity for Emotion (MOE). If you’ve got good critique partners, this is where they come in really handy. If you don’t have CPs to do this for you, you can still identify where emotions should come. Just ask yourself, “How does my character feel about that?” after every:
  • Line of dialog
  • Move by another character that
  • Is overtly or subtly threatening
  • Closes personal space (including touches)
  • Opens personal space (including turning away)
  • News or event that the character didn’t want
  • News or event that the character wanted
  • News or event that the character didn’t expect
Dig hard. Don’t let yourself off the hook. And think of fresh ways to show the emotion. Don’t let yourself get away with clichés, including less obvious clichés like “he glared, she shrugged, he grinned” that are simply shortcuts for what the emotion really looks like. Push yourself to make the way you express the emotion be as strong as the emotion itself.

Next week: Layering to speed up the pace

Monday, June 13, 2011

Interview with multi-published historical romance writer Anita Davison

One of my critique partners – Anita Davison – has just had her latest book released. Rather than blogging more about layering a scene, I thought I’d give everyone a vacation and a chance to visit with a multi-published author of historical romances.

Hi, Anita! You and I have been critique partners for a couple of years now. What got you interested in writing historicals?
I was born in London, a city which has a unique atmosphere; a sense of time passed that I connected with, even when I was young. When the other children on the school trip coach were throwing the contents of their lunch boxes at each other, I was staring out of the window at the ancient buildings, imagining men in wigs and heeled shoes coming out of coffee houses and climbing into sedan chairs on the cobbles outside St Pauls Cathedral.

Trencarrow Secret is set in Cornwall in the late Victorian period. That’s a long ways from Restoration London.
Strangely it was walking through Paternoster Row with a dear friend, discussing books of course, when the idea for the story of Trencarrow Secret came to me. One requirement of modern writing, is you cannot simply write a story, it has to be categorised, put into a box so it is instantly recognised. My critique group, and my agent, say time and again that romances are the largest market in the fiction genre. In an attempt to break into the world of traditionally published authors, I chose to step outside the world of Restoration London and into the heads of characters of another era. I haven’t managed it yet, as Trencarrow Secret is Inde Published, but I still have some stories to tell which may make it.

Isabel Hart evolved, beginning as a Jacobean character, she turned into a Regency one, eventually finding her own time in late Victorian England. Her reserved character belonged in the rigid, uncompromising days of the British Empire, and I gave her strong reasons for seeing life as many of us do when we are young; in black and white, where right and wrong are clearly defined and there is no blurring of the two.

Tell us a little bit about Isabel’s character arc?
Trencarrow Secret is a love story, and during one fateful summer, Isabel discovers that marriage is no fairytale, but an enigmatic and unique bonding of a couple which may appear unsatisfactory to outsiders, but each comes with its own chance of success.

Isabel’s romantic illusions are dispelled and she comes to realise that people, even those closest to her, are flawed and make mistakes. She has to find the capacity to forgive and move on – and to continue to love them anyway because that’s what families do. Through her unique relationship with her brother, David, Isabel struggles through revelations, self doubt and danger before she finds her soulmate.

As a reader, I’m drawn to your vivid descriptions of the period and place. Trencarrow seems so real to me? Did you model it after an actual home?
I modelled Trencarrow on a real place, which is the village of Marazion and St Michael's Mount rather than the house itself. The Hart's summer home in Cornwall is a house I have visited often - also the village of Marazion and St Michael's Mount have not changed much since the late 19th Century, which made them easy to portray realistically. I tend to write about places I know so I can portray them with a level of credibility.

I did have one property in mind, but made it slightly smaller in my head. The inside with the staircase and the marbled floor, the double doors to the drive - yes that was from memory.

This is the house: . The problem was it's late Victorian, and as the Harts are supposed to have owned it for sixty years, so I had to change its age and say it was a bit older. I loved visiting Lanhydrock when I lived in Cornwall and have great memories of the county, although my husband hates it as he says 'It's too far from anywhere'.

Can you share with us the blurb for Trencarrow Secret?
Isabel Hart is afraid of two things, the maze at Trencarrow where she got lost as a young child, and the lake where her brother David saved her from drowning in a boating accident.

With her twenty-first birthday and the announcement of her engagement imminent, Isabel decides it is time for her to face her demons and ventures into the maze. There she sees something which will alter her perceptions of herself and her family forever.

Isabel’s widowed aunt joins the house party, where her cousin confides she is in love with an enigmatic young man who surely cannot be what he pretends, for he is surely too dashing for homely Laura?

When Henry, Viscount Strachan and his mother arrives, ostensibly to use her ball as an arena for finding a wife, Isabel is determined not to like him.

As more secrets are revealed, Isabel doubts she has chosen the right man, although her future fiancé has more vested in this marriage than Isabel realizes and has no intention of letting her go easily.

Will Isabel be able to put her preconceptions of marriage behind her and take charge of her own life, or is her life destined to be controlled by others?

You’ve got another novel coming out in September – Culloden Spirit. How do you manage to be so productive?
Actually, I'm not that productive. Both books have been in progress for the last three years. It's a coincidence that Muse wanted both. Basically I sent Lea Trencarrow Secret and she asked if I had any more!
I don't have the cover art yet, but the edits are done.

Wow! That’s still impressive. And being one of your CPs, I can hint that there are some other things in the pipe-line....
Writing historical fiction is complicated and challenging, but my spirit lives in the past and I cannot imagine myself writing anything else.

Trencarrow Secret is scheduled for release on 10th June 2011
Available at:

Trencarrow Secret Blog:
Anita’s Blog:

Monday, June 6, 2011

Layering Your Scene -- POV

Last post, I talked about making sure that your scene shows, rather than tells the story as it unfolds. One of the most powerful ways that you can “show” is by making effective use of Point of View.
For those of you who need a quick recap, the principle types of POV are:
  • First Person – The narrator is the “I” of the story
  • Omniscient – The story is told from the perspective of an all-knowing narrator. Characters are referred to in the third person “he” or “she”
  • Third Person Limited , also referred to as Deep Third Person -- The scene is told from the point of view of one of the participants in the action, who is referred to in the third person, i.e., he or she.

Most writers these days use Third Person Limited POV (TPL). Omniscient is still sometimes used for thrillers, suspense or mysteries, but even these genres are shifting towards TPL.  YA often uses first person to heighten reader identification.

TPL is a powerful tool. Like first person, it allows an author to get into the head of one of the characters and enables the reader to identify closely with that character. But it gives the writer a little more scope for description than first person, especially in love scenes. It also facilitates the use of more than one point of view character much more smoothly than first person.

First, check your scene for POV consistency.
  • Have you started and stayed in one character’s POV?
  • When you switch POVs, do you lead with a sentence that flags to the reader you are now in a different character’s head?
  • Have you chosen the most effective character as the POV character for this scene?
Popular wisdom says to select the character who has the most to lose as the POV character in any scene. This doesn’t always work for the most effective scene. If your scene feels weak, try telling it from the following alternative perspectives:
  • the person whose scene goal is the most powerful.
  • the person with the least knowledge in the scene
  • the person who has a secret
  • the person with the least power in the scene
  • the person with the most power in the scene
One thing to be very careful about is too many POV characters. In fact, plural POV characters flag to an editor that a writer is a beginner.

Depending on genres, you can get away with one to three POV characters without editors making a fuss. More than that, and you’d better have a powerful reason to bring the reader into so many heads.

Third Person Limited, used well, puts you right in the POV character’s world. You see the world through their eyes. This has some major implications.

Anyone who writes historicals knows to be careful of anachronisms. But it goes beyond that.

First, as people we all notice different things. What we notice is influenced by the time period we live in, our culture, our social and economic background, education, how familiar we are with the setting, our job or position, our age, our personal limitations (including our weight, disabilities, language), and our world view.

Put someone in a familiar setting and generally they tend to notice less. They take the familiar for granted, unless something has happened, such as a loss or death, that gives the familiar new meaning. The widow who never noticed how her husband bunched his towel on the rack, so it never dried thoroughly, will notice it now that he’s gone and regret that she never straightened it so it could dry properly. The divorcee will notice the same towel with anger – no wonder their linens always smelled of mildew.

On the other hand, put someone in a totally strange setting and they will quickly go on information overload. When we first moved to China, it was all I could do to cope with startling new architecture, the sidewalks crowded with people and bicycles, the shops with their goods spilling out onto the sidewalks. Every street corner looked the same. I struggled to memorize landmarks. Two months later, all these strange sights were familiar to me and not only did I quickly recognize the difference between San Xi Lu and Er Xi Lu (3rd Street West and 2nd Street West), but I also noticed when a new shop opened or when the stationer changed his window display.

  • Ask yourself, what would my POV character notice?
  • What would he or she feel about it?
  • Cut or alter things that aren’t true to character.
For example, a florist could give you the scientific names for the flowers in the centrepiece on William and Katherine’s wedding banquet table – and their provenance. A member of a bomb squad might not be able to identify the flowers in the centrepiece, but he would check it for a potential bomb.

Take the time to fine tune your imagery (including metaphors and similes) to reflect the character’s time period, occupation, interests. In my Arthurian trilogy, my heroine’s family is famous for raising war horses. Her POV contains a lot of horse imagery.

Now, look at the situation itself.
  • A person with a specific job to do is much more likely to notice the details of the scene that relate to that job than those not related to the job.
  • A person in danger or in a challenging situation is more likely to be aware of those things which challenge or threaten him or her.
  • A character’s emotional state can also influence what he or she notices. In a well-structured romance, for example, the reader picks up on the little things the heroine notices about the hero long before the heroine admits to herself she’s falling in love.
  • People who have just received a shock or blow of some kind often notice irrelevant details. Everyone in the United States who lived through JFK’s assassination can tell you precisely what they were doing the moment they heard he was shot – even though the incident happened forty-eight years ago.

How a POV character sees the details depends a lot on their culture, socio-economic status, and world view. For example, let’s take several different people walking today through District 6 in Cape Town, South Africa. They stop at the bulldozed down ruin of a house.

The story of District 6 inspired the movie District 9. District 6 was a multi-cultural part of Cape Town that happened to be close to the harbour and one of the most desirable pieces of real estate in Cape Town. During the apartheid period, the area was evacuated and its residents moved to one of the settlements. Before the neighbourhood could be turned to financial gain for the dominant whites, however, world opinion turned against South Africa’s apartheid scheme and the empty homes were left to rot. Eventually things got so bad, they were bulldozed down. Nothing has been done with the area, which now remains of a reminder of the earlier regime.
  • One person looking at the house might have been a descendent or one of the original occupants. She might see in a bit of china sticking out of the ground a lost way of life.
  • Another person – a developer perhaps -- might notice the prime harbour view and consider the waste that 20 or so square blocks of highly desirable commercial land can not be put to use.
  • Another person may see nothing but rubble and feel shame that this ever happened.
  • And so on…
 People don’t go through life merely seeing things. They have feelings about what they see. Put those feelings down on paper and you’ve turned POV into a powerful emotional tool.

Next post we’ll look at the emotional level of your scene and how you mine emotional opportunities.