Monday, June 4, 2012

Law of Physics--er, Writing


"He eyed her from head to toe."

"She hit him."

"He smirked."

"She thought he called her a name."

Sounds like a scene in a novel, doesn't it? In truth, these lines are derived from different novels in which the author presented an unanswered action.
Every action has an equal and opposite reaction.
This, the third of Sir Isaac Newton's laws of physics, should be the first law of writing. Whenever a character does something, unless he's alone in the scene (and sometimes even then), there should be some sort of reaction.

The examples I've given were derived from novels I've read where the author left me hanging after an action was portrayed. The first one, especially, yanked me out of the story: "He eyed her from head to toe." Since we were in her POV, we should've seen her reaction (even if we weren't in her POV). Believe me, a woman reacts to being scoped, and how this one reacted could've solidified her characterization. The author missed an opportunity.

The next one, "She hit him," surprised me because she hit him hard in the legs with a metal object. At the very least, he should've said "ouch." He should've jumped up and down, holding one injured shin, then the other. He should've exclaimed something--anything--that would indicate pain. Should have, but didn't.

Pay attention to what you're writing. Picture your scene and the natural reactions your characters should have to the stimulus presented--in a natural sequence. I emphasize the sequence, because I've also seen something similar to this:
She whacked him on the back with the board she toted. She didn't mean to, she just wasn't paying attention. When would she ever learn? She was so careless, such a klutz. Even her mother said so. What would her mother say if she saw her today? Nothing good, no doubt.
"Ouch," he said.
Oversimplified of course, but it happens when writers aren't paying attention to what they put on the page. It may seem odd that an author wouldn't realize what she's writing, but if she's overanxious about getting to her next point or presenting a vital character quirk or whatever goal is on her mind, she's blinded to what she has written.

Many writing rule can be broken. Let me present a couple that shouldn't be:
  1. Every action has a reaction.
  2. Pay attention to what you're doing.
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23 comments:

  1. I cheated, I cheated! I'd forgotten that my post was due this morning, so I recycled one from my other blog, 777 Peppermint Place. Promise to do better next time!

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  2. But but but....this is SOOOOO good, Linda! It deserves to be read AT LEAST twice!

    I'll bet I do this TONS. and TONS. Something else to look for to make this NaNo mess readable. Thanks!

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    1. NaNo manuscripts always offer tons of editing challenges, but I can't think of a better way to *just get it written*--which should be Writer's Rule #1 in general!

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  3. This is one good reason why we need critique partners. We need someone to say "hey, but what about...".

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    1. Oh, absolutely. A good critique partner is vital, because we authors are notoriously blind to our own work!

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  4. Thanks for this reminder to pay attention to details!

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    1. You're welcome! All reminders on AuthorCulture are free of charge! :D :D :D

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  5. Excellent advice - and cracking examples, thank you! :)

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  6. I just wrote a blog post of my own addressing this same subject, so it's been on my mind as well. It's so easy for us to take for granted that readers understand the character's thoughts and reactions as well as we do. But they don't. We have to give them the clues they need, or they're, well, clueless!

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    1. I agree. We are so immersed in our stories and characters, we can picture everything. We tend to forget to show our readers what we see in our heads.

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  7. Great thoughts on remembering to keep things in order. I once had a scene where my character stepped on glass in bare feet... and just kept going. I was so intent on getting him to where he needed to be that I forgot to insert a reaction from him. My critique partner was kind enough to point that out to me. The little details are so important.

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    1. That reminds me of the comment Lisa Grace left on the original post: "Reminds of the infamous Dan Brown one, where he smelled his flesh burning. Smell? That was your first clue? So even when your characters have a reaction, it has to be a believable one."

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  8. The *headdesk* moments of reading...

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    1. Giggle! That's a great way of putting it!

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  9. Recycling is good... you're a "green" writer. That makes you very trendy ;) Enjoyed reading it, however many times.

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    1. Ha! Well, I'm glad I'm trendy about something!

      Thanks, Pegg!

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  10. Great article, so true and something that I don't think I'd thought about that much before. I love the example at the end with "ouch" thrown in almost absentmindedly hehe!

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    1. It was a bit extreme, but not too far off from some of the things I've seen. Always makes me giggle!

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  11. I don't know if I agree with your premise, at least as dogma that should always be followed. We don't need a physical reaction to most cases of "He smirked." A character can smirk before saying something, and the next paragraph can just be the other speaker responding to the statements, without description of his/her body language.

    There are many cases where an author should write a reaction, but there are plenty where we cut extraneous details. If one friend slaps the other upside the head jokingly, we don't need to see him sheepishly rubbing his scalp, especially if that sentence would break the flow of their goofing around. In your case, where a whole paragraph is devoted to the strike, it makes sense to follow up because the response wouldn't be extraneous.

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  12. If there's a "flow of their goofing around," then the actions have reactions, right? A "flow" indicates ongoing activity. "A" whacks "B" on the head, "B" reacts with a headlock and noogies "A's" scalp. "A" squirms out and wrestles "B" to a pin hold. Action, reaction. It doesn't have to be earth-shattering. But if "A" whacked "B," and "B" didn't respond in any way whatsoever, that would be strange. Like the guy getting his knees whacked with a tire iron, and not at least saying ouch.

    When noticeable actions are ignored--even things like "he smirked"--the results can be unfavorable, like missing a chance at characterization, as I said earlier, or yanking a reader out of the story because he expected a reaction. Whether it's nothing more than an acknowledgement of the action or a full introspection or physical reaction depends on the stimulus and its importance to the story, characterization, etc. If the action isn't worthy of reaction, should it even be in the story?

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  13. Thanks Linda, this is useful advice and a good reminder of what to look for when one edits. Because this is the sort of thing good editing should catch. As you say, these are opportunities at characterization that might be lost...I always think of it as stuff that "stayed stuck in my pen" - I guess I'm harking back to the pre-computer age when writers wrote long hand!

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    1. "Stayed stuck in my pen"--I *love* that! Thanks for sharing!

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