Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Reducing Redundancy When Writing Fiction

Yesterday on Randomness and Lunacy I shared a laundry list of stuff going on in my life. Some work related, other stuff on the personal side. For one thing, Ripple the Twine is now available at a library in Massachusetts (HOORAY!). I also talked about a term that I’ve dubbed the double reveal.

A writer friend of mine asked if I could explain more about what I mean by double reveal. So here's a page from my personal lexicon right now.

Double reveal, what does it mean?

I’m sure there’s an actual, technical name for this particular writing device but I have no clue what that term is. That’s why I made up my own.

Essentially, it means to tell the reader the same thing in dialogue and narrative in close proximity within the story. Narrative is the way we get inside the character’s world while dialogue is how we get to know their inner thoughts personified.

Here's an example**

I turned around and looked at the building. With reflective blue glass windows I couldn't see what was on the inside. That made me nervous to take one step past where I was standing, let alone go through the front door ill prepared. My partner seemed just as nervous since he was pacing around and biting his fingernails.
"That reflective glass makes me nervous. Can’t see what’s inside."
"Yeah, me too. I can't stop biting my nails."

Though it will expand word count, the reader doesn’t need to hear the same information come from the character’s mouths when they just read it in the scene description.

The dialogue should move the story forward and reveal character traits instead of repeating what we already know.

Here's a better way to approach that scene:

I turned around and looked at the building. With reflective blue glass windows I couldn't see what was on the inside. That made me nervous to take one step past where I was standing, let alone go through the front door ill prepared. My partner was pacing around and biting his fingernails.
"Only one way to find out what we’re up against in there. Let’s get back to the car, pack some heat then head inside." I said.
"Are you kidding? I say we call the cops right now and get out of here. Who knows who’s watching us!" My partner responded in a low voice as if people on the other side of the mirror could hear his every word.

By shifting the dialogue the reader still knows the two people are in a precarious situation that makes them nervous but we also know exactly who they are – character 1 is a badass full-steam-ahead type while character 2 is cowardly and paranoid.

This rewrite gets scene and character on the page while still increasing word count and not being redundant.

My friend wondered how to approach this issue when the reader knows information before another character finds out.

He asked:

Let's say a character has cancer, but his girlfriend doesn't know it. If halfway through the story he reveals to her what the reader already knows, is that going to insult the reader?

I’d say no. These are two different things but it needs to be executed properly.

First, review how the cancer is revealed to the reader. Next, determine what the desired emotional response is from the girlfriend in the scene where she finds out. Finally, bring a twist to the situation when the girlfriend learns the truth.

For example, if the situation is revealed to the reader with a hint of vulnerability, but the character internally struggles with revealing that same vulnerability to the other characters, the scene might read like this:

“We haven’t talked in days! What am I supposed to think, John? I know you’re cheating.”

“Whatever, Brittney. I have cancer.”

Brittney stopped talking immediately. Her jaw hung open until she slammed it shut and pulled her lips into something resembling a snarl. She darted her eyes back and forth across mine but didn’t open her mouth to speak for a full minute.

I was uncomfortable; I knew she was mad at me for the way I told her. Of course she was. I was such a jackass sometimes. Why was I so callus and mean to the people I loved most? The silence was too much. I cleared my throat but before I could say a word she slapped me hard across the left side of my face. It stung. I deserved it.

“Ooh, cancer. What, you want a medal or something? You and everyone else these days, so save it. That still doesn’t change the fact that you’ve been avoiding me all week at school.”

A novel that deals with cancer will have characters that react to the character with the disease. Every revelation and every response will be different.

Maybe he and his girlfriend are fighting and he just blurts it out like the example above. It’s selfishly motivated as he thinks this will end their fight. But the girlfriend reflects his selfishness back with her own cold response and keeps fighting.

We start to see depth in these characters.

Or maybe the characters are out on a date having a great time, comfortable, laughing, happy, and by chance it sneaks into the conversation for the first time. This would show the comfort level of the character’s relationship and in an everyday type setting.

The dialogue will reveal the reaction and that’s where the nature of the character comes to life. Will she react: mean, soft, sob uncontrollably, walk away, hug him, something else? Depends on the characters.

And as the writer it is our job to decide where to place tension and when to bring it down.

The character’s cancer in this situation is a big deal, a huge plot point. It's also the writer’s job to set the tone, the mood. We steer readers through exactly how to feel about the character's struggle.

How would you write it?

What if the reader also knew that the teen in the example above was a murderer? Does it make you feel more or less understanding for how cruel he is? Would that bring sympathy for her even if she had the exact same reaction?

Paying attention to the intricacies of the character and how they react will allow the writer to push the story forward through the narrative and dialogue without needing to rely on a double reveal to increase word count.

**All fiction blurbs in this post were written by me specifically for this post

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3 comments:

Judi FitzPatrick said...

Very interesting information; as a reader, not a writer, I've never given this any thought until now. Thanks!
Peace, Judi

Insomniac #4 said...

Thanks for explaining this for me. I'm not in danger of revealing anything in the same paragraph (or even the same chapter) but I'll refer to this after my first draft is done, just incase I'm accidentally redundant. Also, I have to learn how to convey emotion though dialogue. I think I use narrative as a crutch sometimes.

My advice to Chris would be to review how the cancer is first revealed to the reader, what the desired emotional response is from the girlfriend in the scene where she finds out, and to be careful not to use the same wording or situation to tell the girlfriend as when the reader found out.

That's what I have to be more cognizant of, especially in draft #2. The motivations and "desired emotional response" of each character in each moment. And your 'reveal' scene is actually kinda close to what I wrote last week: Maybe he and his girlfriend are fighting and he just blurts it out. Yup, pretty much. And in my original screenplay version, Charlie does get a slap in the face. But that was basically a different girl so the situation/reaction is different now. Let's just say that Amber is not in a sympathetic mood when she finds out ;-)

It's always fun to watch a fellow writer friend play around with one of my ideas, and I learned a lot in the process. You've given me a lot to digest and consider, especially with regard to setting and separating the tone, mood, and method of revealing key info. Thanks again!


p.s. I LOVE Newbury Comics, and I did make it a point to stop there when I was in town. That will be in part 2 :)

Jenn Flynn-Shon said...

Not a problem! Like I said I'm sure it has a technical name & maybe my not knowing that name kind of negates the benefit of my advice but I hope not! I know your book is going to be awesome & I definitely look forward to reading it whenever its complete :-)