Last week we started an alphabetical journey through book killers. Book killers are the things for which agents and editors watch. Spot too many of them, and a book is dead. They are definitely things we want to edit from our books, but why wait for the editing phase? If we don’t put them in, in the first place, we don’t have to take them our later.
As they say on Sesame Street, this week’s blog is brought to you by the letters F through L.
Filtering is when we place a character between the detail we want to present and the reader. The term popularized by Janet Burroway in her book On Writing. How often do our characters see, hear, think, touch, wonder, realize, watch, look, seem, feel, feel like, can, decide, sound, sound like, or know?
The reason we don’t need these words is that we are inside the point of view character’s head. We don’t think, “I realize I have forgotten my purse,” and neither should our characters.
This passage is filled with filter words: Sarah felt a sinking feeling as she realized she’d forgotten her purse, and Melanie’s photograph, at the cafe. She saw cars filing past, their bumpers end-to-end. She heard the impatient honk of horns and wondered how she could quickly cross the busy road before someone took off with her bag. But the traffic seemed impenetrable, and she decided to run to the intersection toward the pedestrian crossing she’d spotted on her way to the cafe.
Here, the same action with filters removed: Nausea rolled in Sarah’s stomach. Her purse, and Melanie’s photograph, were at the cafe. Cars filed past, their bumpers end-to-end. Horns honked. Could she make it across the road before someone took her bag? Heart pounding and her breath coming in short, painful pants, she ran past the impenetrable traffic stream toward the nearest pedestrian crossing.
Flying eyes and other body parts doing impossible things
My favorite one came from the science fiction writer,Vonda N. McIntyre. At a science fiction convention years ago, she heard the line, “She strained her eyes through the view screen,” to which Ms. McIntyre responded, “Yuck.” A character doesn’t drop her eyes, she drops her gaze.
Head hopping from one point of view to another without warning
“The success or failure of our narrative passages … depends entirely on our clear under-standing of point of view. Whoever has the most emotional involvement, the most at stake, in a scene gets the point of view. Give our reader time to sink into one person’s mind and experience what’s going on there, before we yank them out and pull them into another mind.” ~Beth Anderson, writer
“There’s no secret to changing perspective. We must be clear and courteous to the reader, just as we would be to a guest.” ~ Jerry B. Jenkins, novelist and biographer
Information exchange is neutral. Neutral is boring.
“You’re telling me that Carla isn’t as dumb as she pretends.”
“Carla graduated with honors in chemistry, and no one remembers seeing her at the charity dinner Thursday night.”
Essentially the writer is telling the reader that Carla has means and opportunity. Boring. Having a secondary character have an agenda can add movement to an information exchange scene, but use this sparingly.
“Why do you hate Carla?”
“I don’t hate her.”
“You spied on her.”
“Checking someone’s LinkedIn page isn’t spying. It was right there. Department of Chemistry, University College London.”
“I bet you even looked up University whatever?”
“I went to their site, yes.”
“You’re so nosey.”
“All right, how’s this for nosey. Not a single waiter remembers seeing her at the charity dinner Thursday night. Long blond hair, tight black dress, diamonds and not one guy could place her?
Find a way to make the information itself or the characters’ reaction to it ambiguous or contentious. Force information exchange scenes through a funnel. A funnel means that this place, and this time is the only way the information can be exchanged.
Place the exchange in an ambiguous or contentious setting. Standard scene: set it in a bar, restaurant, or even a kitchen. Characters sit across from one another and talk. Boring. If characters must do this in a restaurant or a bar, there should be a reason that it is the only place they can exchange this information.
Information Exchange Cliches to Avoid
- One character can’t hear the other character because of a bad phone connection
- A character says, “I really can’t tell you this,” then tells the other character anyway
- A character says, “Meet me at the deserted warehouse at midnight and I will reveal all.” Raise your hand anyone who thinks that character will be alive by midnight?
Lack of character attitude
What’s happening inside the character’s head and heart is more important than what’s happening to the character. Let’s turn this one over to a master.
“It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark little clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars. ~ Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep
Chandler could have written. “It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid-October, looking like rain. The client I’d come to see was worth a lot of money. I rang the doorbell.” Fortunately, he didn’t.
Next Tuesday, June 24th, we’ll complete our trip through book killers by looking at major flashes to wishy-washy descriptions.
Thursday, June 19, will be Level Thinking, our continuing journey through what it means to be a writer. I’m not sure about the topic; I’m playing with a couple of ideas, so the topic may be as much of a surprise to me as it is to you.
In case you missed it last weekend, I’ve added a weekend photo blog called Art I Love. Each weekend I’ll post a photograph of art that I’ve made, art I’m in the midst of making, or occasionally, art I wish I’d made.
Looking forward to having you back frequently.