Kat: Bodies in Motion

communityWhile 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.

A few weeks ago, I read an interview by NYT Best Selling author, Marisa de los Santo. In it she said this:

“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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.


8 thoughts on “Kat: Bodies in Motion

  1. The biggest lesson I’ve learned is I don’t necessarily have to move them. You can just say they were here, now they’re there.

    I’ve also learned to mix the action up with dialogue, internal monologue, and setting. Even visceral reactions. If you imagine each of those things as a different color, then write so that you create a rainbow. This I learned from Margie Lawson.

    I still have a lot of problem with action, too. *sigh* The current chapter I’m wrestling with has two ladies sitting down talking. Not much action there, nor can I give them a lot, because they’re hiding in a corner of a small room. I have to think hands, facial movements, tossing hair, looking away, etc. Not big movements, but little ones. It’s hard. A lot of times, I close my eyes and pretend I’m a movie director, visualize it, then try to capture what I see in my head on paper. Still, it comes up pretty lame sometimes!

    As with everything, though, practice makes perfect. Here’s to practicing some awesome action sequences!

    • You make a great point. We need to carefully consider what we choose to show. Some things are better condensed and simply told. In the example above, for example, I could have just said, “Reed checked the house, while Cheyenne went around back…” or some such thing.

      And I wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss a scene that’s primarily dialogue. Characters can also be taking firm action in a conversation (a friend decides whether to tell another friend she saw her husband with another, for example). I do believe however, that less is more when it comes to stage direction. Choosing one powerful (and appropriate) gesture can be incredibly effective.

  2. Your tips are right on. You really only need two, because a lot the description of getting people from room to room is pointless. Readers understand basic motion without being told, so leave it out unless it helps to show character (like if someone paces a lot) or advances the plot (they don’t leave the room, and so miss out on…).

    But—and I hate to be a wet blanket, but here goes—I liked your first example better. You don’t need all that detail of Reed’s every move, but he’s got agency here. He is “breathless with panic.” I like that! But in the second example, his “panic is relieved by…” so now the ponytail has the agency (or maybe the panic, I’m not sure, but it’s not Reed), and the panic is already dissipated, and the phrase itself in the passive voice. Take a look at this and see what you think: in your first example, put a period after “window.” Then “He yanked open the door.” And then continue with what you have. I just think “breathless with panic” shows it better.

    • You’re right. It’s definitely in the passive voice. And I’m not sure I’ll even use it at this point. It may be better in this particular instance to simply say, “Reed checked the house, while Cheyenne went around back…”

      It’s a work in progress 🙂

  3. Not pathetic at all, Kat! Lots of good things in here — three tips if you include the “keep your first in a box, and see how you’ve grown” (-:.

    I remember my first real stories. They were mostly written in the back of notebooks, but there was one I did in junior high with collaborators. I did the typing, and typed them on little half-sheets on a manual to make them look “more like a book”. I wish I still had that. I remember what fun they were, and how I had such crazy plot twists (at one point, a 14-year-old was giving birth in the locker room during gym class . . . ). They’d probably be excruciating to read now, LOL.

    I learn stuff with each story that I write — more with the ones I complete the first draft of. Right now, I’m trying to learn the trick of tossing in a little historical flavor with a light one-liner, a special word that reminds the reader, “Oh. Not from Now.” I don’t want to pound my readers over the head with the time-travel stick, but I need to anchor the characters in their own Now.

    Not sure if I’m getting it right yet . . . not ready to show people, either. But, maybe next summer it’ll hit the beta-stage.

    • How about ‘keep your first in a box, because you might want to re-write it some day’? Never say never. If I remember correctly, Bet Me was Jenny C’s first manuscript. She said it stank and she never intended to query it. But her agent sold it, and Jennifer Enderlin bought it, on the understanding that Jenny would re-write it. She did, and it’s her most popular book.

      • Hmm….some time ago a friend suggested that, too. I can’t imagine trying to turn that monstrosity into a coherent story, but you’re right. Never say never.

        If nothing else, I’ll use it as an example (when I’m published and famous!) to inspire others to stay with it.

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