Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Pacing Emotion

The man’s chest was not moving; he was not breathing. Nick leaned over him, the pistol now dangling in his left hand by his side. He placed his right forefinger on the man’s throat and felt no pulse. This was no surprise; the staring eyes had already announced that the maniac lay dead.

He’s dead, Nick thought. I’ve killed him.

He was suffused with terror. I killed this guy. Another voice in his head began to plead, defensive and frightened as a little boy.

I had to. I had no choice. I had no . . . choice.

I had to stop him.

Maybe he’s just unconscious, Nick thought desperately. He felt the man’s throat again, couldn’t find the pulse. He grabbed one of the man’s rough, dry hands, pressed against the inside of his wrist, felt nothing.

He let go of the hand. It dropped to the ground.

He poked again at the man’s chest with his toes, but he knew the truth.

The man was dead.

The crazy man, this stalker, this man who would’ve dismembered my children the way he butchered my dog, lay dead on the freshly seeded lawn, surrounded by tiny sprouts of grass that poked out sparsely from the moist black earth.

Oh, Jesus God, Nick thought. I’ve just killed a man.

He stood up but felt his knees give way. He sank to the ground, felt tears running down his cheeks. Tears of relief? Of terror? Not, certainly not, of despair or sadness.

Oh, please, Jesus, he thought. What do I do now?

What do I do now?

(Company Man, Joseph Finder, St. Martin's Press, 2005. Reprinted with the author’s permission.)

You’ve heard of giving a fast pace to your high action scenes by using shorter sentences and words. This isn’t a high action passage. The action occurred in the pages before, in Nick’s heart-thumping account of discovering an intruder. Of trying to make the intruder stop his advance, to make him leave Nick’s home where his children slept. Of the bullet that hit it’s mark, and the subsequent rise of the downed enemy. And of the last shot that put the enemy down permanently.

But this scene is raw emotion, adrenalin giving way to stunned panic, and it’s illustrated the same way–short, choppy sentences, short words, lots of white space on the page. The entire structure of this excerpt shows the main character’s inner turmoil.

Notice the first paragraph. Each of the sentences are longer. Finder even uses the supposedly taboo semicolon to avoid a choppy sentence structure. This paragraph comes immediately after Nick realizes the bad guy isn’t going to get up again, and it illustrates that instant of lucidity before the stronger emotions set in.

From the moment Nick realizes he killed a man, the pace changes. Finder uses a couple of “telling” sentences to mark the shift from lucidity to panic. In the paragraph beginning, “Maybe he’s just unconscious,” Finder installs two complex sentences and omits the conjunction. “He felt the man’s throat again, couldn’t find the pulse. He grabbed one of the man’s rough, dry hands, pressed against the inside of his wrist, felt nothing.”

There are no italics, no quotes around Nick’s internal thoughts, nothing to distract the reader from the progression of emotion Nick is experiencing. Just the progression itself is illustrated: from stunned to defensive to disbelieving to self-justification to pleading with God. This is another wonderful lesson from this passage. Not only can you pace the writing to show emotion, you can pace the emotions themselves from bad to worse. Draw them out, intensify them. The pace of the scene, combined with the progression of emotion, produces the page-turning tension that is the goal of every writer.

A critical eye on the excerpt can find violations of conventional writing wisdom in the text. As I typed it from the book to this page, I found seven such violations that I didn’t see when I first read the scene. Unlike other books I’ve read, Company Man kept me so engrossed that I wasn’t distracted by little things the “powers that be” consider rule-breaking. I have no doubt Joseph Finder knows the rules, but more than that, he knows the craft. And because he does, Company Man was a New York Times best seller.
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  1. I'll put this on my reading list.

  2. It's a terrific, high-emotion book with lots of passages that would make good teaching examples. Just be warned if you're sensitive, there's some rough language in it.

  3. Oh, I don't think the semicolon is taboo. I love the semicolon! It's such an elegant piece of punctuation.

  4. I like the semicolon; it's getting a bad rap.

  5. I agree with Katie and Lorna, though it's possible I overuse it in some places. My rule of thumb is: if the two sentences happen almost at the same time, the semicolon makes the drama come alive. If they're separate actions, a period appears and a new sentence follows. Not saying I always wind up doing it this way, but I tell myself I do. LOL!

    ~ VT

  6. My "lesson" on semicolons was never to use them in dialogue. I still try to minimize usage in narrative, though.

    However that's a peripheral issue. Good information on writing emotional scenes. Action doesn't have to mean violence.

  7. I wish I could remember where I read that semicolons and colons are falling from grace. All I remember was thinking "that's nuts."

    @ Terry: Thanks for your comments. I'm glad you appreciated the article.

  8. this post was very helpful thanks