“The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.”
Mark Twain (and Zuri Soule)
I’d like to start by thanking everyone who commented or sent e-mails regarding Zuri’s health. The pills and a change in diet (fresh liver to increase his red-blood count) have helped. We have no idea how long he’ll be with us, but we treasure each day.
Now, about writing…
I follow Janet Reid’s blogs. (http://jetreidliterary.blogspot.com) . For several years she blogged as Ms Snark, and I loved her snarky responses. Then, a couple years ago I attended an agent/editors session during Bouchercon where she was on the panel. Again I was impressed by her wonderful sense of humor and industry savvy. If you haven’t visited her blog, take a minute and check it out.
This week she wrote about pivotal, important scenes and how those scenes (she used a movie as an example) can and should be longer. Her comments came when I was in the process of writing just such a scene for the third book in my PJ Benson mystery series. I’d already put down the first few paragraphs of that scene, but after reading Janet Reid’s blog, I reworked those paragraphs and continued writing with those thoughts in mind.
I really should have thought of this myself since, whenever I read a new writer’s work, I usually make similar comments. If the scene is important (one you couldn’t simply toss if your word count was too high), then don’t rush through it. If it is a pivotal scene, one which changes the direction of the story or the goals of the protagonist, definitely give it the time that it needs to be fully developed.
How to do this usually comes back to SHOW don’t TELL. In my case I was telling what was going on. The sheriffs’ deputies arrive, they have a search warrant, PJ wants to get a jacket (since the weather has suddenly turned cold), and one deputy goes with her into the house. PJ gets her jacket and returns outside. Blah, blah, blah. In a few sentences I’d said it all. What I’d forgotten was I needed to SHOW this scene (and what follows). I needed PJ’s reaction, her anger and confusion, and how others were reacting to her.
Besides making the scene longer, these scenes should involve a feeling of tension. TELLING what happened doesn’t create that feeling. The writer needs to involve the reader, make it seem as if the reader is there, experiencing the event. This is not the place for long, descriptive sentences or lengthy backstory. (But sometimes a quick déjà vu memory works.).
Make the scene longer, but the sentences shorter. Make the paragraphs shorter. Allow lots of white space on the page.
Dialogue will be clipped, maybe breathless or stammering. Use the ellipse to indicate the pauses, the stammering, or the breathlessness. Use the em dash to show speakers being cut off by either others interrupting or something happening that interrupts the dialogue.
Use body language to express emotional responses. Don’t tell the reader the protagonist is angry, show it through the stiffness of her body, his glare, her stomping off. Let action verbs keep everything moving. (Here’s the place to beware of “to be” helpers. No,”he was thinking” or” she was worried.”) We react to words. Use them to create the reactions you desire.
After you’ve finished the scene, read it aloud. Read it to others. Does the sentence structure create a sense of motion? Do the words express the tension and emotion?
If the answer is yes, then pat yourself on the back.