While digging out Christmas decorations this week I came across my first manuscript. Stored in a lidded box bought just for this purpose, it beckoned me to flip the lid. Which led to an hour of laughter mixed with moments of eye-rolling disgust. Yep, it’s bad on an epic scale, made worse now because I’ve learned so much since I wrote it in 2005 (For the love of God, conflict. Please!). Still, it’s my bouncing eight-hundred page baby. What worries me is that someday some unsuspecting soul may stumble over it. I’d like to think they’d recognize it for the train wreck that it is, and avert their eyes, but I suspect it’ll be damned hard to turn away.
I’ve considered purging that first effort from the earth, but the truth is, I’m proud of it if only because a) I finished it, b) it set me free in ways I can’t begin to describe here, and c) it vividly illustrates my progress. Every time I’m riddled with doubts, I’ll pull the old manuscript out and take a measurement. Which brings me to the present.
“I knew breathtakingly little about writing fiction. Even the simplest thing, like getting someone from one room to another, I had to learn.”
At the time, my brain stumbled a bit when I read that. Part of me wanted to know what she meant and part of me knew exactly what she meant. Physically moving my characters around on the page has always been problematic for me. I’m better at this skill than I used to be, but I still lean toward wordy, detailed sentences that focus on the mechanics of physical movement. For example (thought you’d get away without an example? Ha! Think again.):
Just as Reed stumbled into the kitchen breathless with panic, he saw a flash of movement outside the back window, ran to the backdoor, reached for the handle and yanked it open. Instead of River, he found himself staring down into Cheyenne’s worried eyes.
This passages moves Reed to the back door, but it’s boring and does nothing to advance the story. In fact, it pulls the reader out of it.
Attempt Number Two:
Reed stumbled into the empty kitchen, his panic relieved by a momentary glimpse of a bouncy, honey-colored ponytail outside the window. Relief turned to terror when he found an empty-handed Cheyenne standing on the back stoop.
Okay, that’s not perfect, but I think it reads better and keeps the reader in the story. It’s also more interesting because it does more. Now I have a fairly seamless transition to the next thing that happens which is an expanded outside search by C & R.
So, now I know:
- In most cases, using phrases that focus on the physical mechanics (he walked/ran/flew across the room, etc.) is telling. Telling is boring. Telling will pull the reader out of the story. Show. Don’t tell.
- Skip the details that can be assumed (if Reed opens the door, we can assume he reached for the handle).
Geez, two tips. That’s pretty pathetic. Help me out here and tell us what you’ve learned about moving characters around on the page. Better yet, take a crack at showing by writing your own passage (two sentences or less) that moves Reed from the kitchen to the back porch.