May 24, 2008

Character Acrobatics - On Being a Professional Amateur

Sloppiness, language abuse, mixed metaphors… what’s next? Character acrobatics. Maya gives us another element of craft to watch out for. Unlike the previous entries, though, this one isn’t about sentence and paragraph structure, but about visualizing and tracking our characters…

Character Acrobatics
By Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff

Do you know where your characters are?

No, seriously. In any given scene, do you know where your characters are and what they're doing? Does your reader?

In one manuscript I edited recently, our hero was walking, then he was on horseback, then he was walking again. First he had a rifle, then there was no rifle, then there was... (No, wait. Isn't that a song by Donovan?)

Will-o-the-wisp characters indicate the scene is not written vividly enough to fix such an important detail as where the characters are in the writer's mind. If you can't picture where your characters are, your reader won't be able to either.

How does it happen? Sometimes the writer induces errors in logistics during the editing process, unintentionally deleting a line and leaving the heroine sitting in a chair by the window when he meant her to stand and cross the room to confront the villain. It's a shock to the reader when she suddenly slaps the villain across the face. You can just imagine how the villain feels.

Sometimes the writer simply loses track of where the character is, either because he wasn't paying attention when he wrote the scene or because he wrote the scene over a period of time.
In any event, the problem is careless editing. The writer never goes back and carefully rereads the scene. I know a number of writers who hate rereading and editing so much that they will do almost anything to avoid it (even paying me to do it for them). Why? I don't know. Personally I find editing as much or more enjoyable than writing. It's where I get to mold the details of my story. It's where the characters develop nuance of personality and mannerism. It's where the plot takes on new subtlety.

The antidote to this is careful editing, visualizing the scene as you read it, rather than allowing the image in your head to set the scene. Remember, your reader can't read your mind—only the words you put on the page.

I better go back over the last short story I wrote… In the meantime, stay tuned for the next segment of Maya’s series (on properly setting the stage for a scene). Thanks for stopping by!


J Sherer said...

I've noticed that another thing I occasionally have to watch out for is "over-description." Something like:

He got out of his chair, bent over, looked at his watch, and then walked across the room. There was nothing going on across the room, so he walked to the bed. The bed was cozy, but he walked to the dresser.

Maybe that's warranted, but generally the reader ends up thinking, "What is wrong with this guy? He has no life!"

But, Maya's advice is absolutely true and underscores the importance of editing. What are some of the things you guys have noticed being wrong with scenes?

We notice them in movies all the time. "Wasn't that door behind her just it's shut." Or, a common one: "He's sweating profusely. Oh, he's dry. Wait, he's sweating again, and now his scar is back!" Can you think of examples in literature?

Sherer said...

Jay, thank you for bringing Maya's advise on this. I have read countless books which seem to really focus on detail that seem of little importance, then suddenly you read something and think wait a second I have been visualizing this scene totally wrong. Then have to go back and read it again. Sometimes upon reading it again you find your first visualization to be happening again - and the scene makes no sense.

Steph said...

I love editing. My friends think I'm crazy, but I really do. Writing is wonderful; it lets me explore the things that would just get pushed to the back of my mind, and I love it for that. But, there's nothing near as satisfying as making those overwritten, choppy, adverb-bogged paragraphs into something worth reading.

By the way, I found your blog on and since you're obviously into writing, I wanted to let you know about a new e-zine that me and a few writer friends are putting together.

It's called The Oddville Press.

You should check us out if you're interested--or better yet, submit something!

Thanks a bunch! Your blog is quite insightful, so I'll definitely be poking around here in the future to see what useful tidbits you've posted. :)

Sherer said...

When are we going to have some J Sherer Originals?

J Sherer said...

Thanks for stopping by, Steph! I appreciate. I'll definitely check out your site.

Also, in response to you, Jesse ("sherer"), Maya's series will run for about a week and a half, and then I'll be writing another series myself.

Thanks for the comments!