Monday, I wrote about making the shift from telling yourself the story in your outline or first draft to telling your reader the story. You want your reader to visualize what you have in mind, and we’re talking about how to do that. The first two elements I mentioned were discribe and emote.
This is what we started with:
Branson parked down the street from the crack house. Mary was in there somewhere, and he was going to get her out no matter what it took. He put the keys in his pocket and got out of the car. The house looked quiet, but he couldn’t be sure. He went to the side where the car was parked, put a hand on the engine. It was still warm, and hope rose in his heart. He pressed against a wall and listened at the window. He heard her pleading voice. The hair rose on his arm. He had to do something.
and here’s how far we got in our rewrite using the first two elements:
On the littered and pot-holed street, Branson parked a few dilapidated buildings away from the crackhouse. The once proud single-family residence now listed to the left under its burden of neglect and decay. Puke-green paint peeled from the wood-slat walls. The second porch step had already rotted away. The pillar nearest him no longer stretched from porch to ceiling, but hung precariously under a crumbling roof. A crumbling roof over a crumbling house sheltering crumbling lives.
He ground his teeth. Mary was in there somewhere surrounded by filth and filthy people. Just the thought of it made his skin crawl and his stomach curdle. He had to get her out of there.
Now we’re going to add more tension to the action, but first, we have to learn a little about who’s performing that action.
3. Knowledge, Imagination, Research
Generally, by this point in your manuscript, you know who your character is and can draw on that knowledge to round out his actions. Here we don’t know much about who Branson is, so let’s look at who he’s not, based on the information provided:
- He didn’t impulsively bust through the door, so he’s not a kid or a rookie.
- He didn’t change into a costume or stare through the walls with X-ray vision, so he’s not a superhero.
- He didn’t call for backup, so he’s not a cop on duty.
- He didn’t draw a gun or service weapon from an ankle strap or shoulder holster, so he’s not an active duty cop, a PI, a federal law enforcement officer, or military personnel.
What does that leave us with?
He could be a retiree from any one of those positions listed in #4. I like the idea of retired military because that allows him to be relatively young–perhaps in his 30s. Like I said, by now, we’d already know who he is, but for our purposes, I want to play with the idea that Branson is retired from the Spec Ops forces–and this is drawing from what we know.
Next, you imagine the scene. He’s sitting in his car, observing the crackhouse down the road a ways from him. He has had highly specialized training in his life, so what does he do? I doubt that he’d start by just walking across the street, so let’s imagine what a special ops guy would do first, which is to surveil the area.
As he does this, there are a few things you want your readers to see–what he looks like while he’s looking and, of course, what he sees, but also what mental preparations he makes for the mission ahead.
As you imagine the scene, you want to hone in on anything you may not be sure of. We didn’t give him a gun in this paragraph, but what if we had? Which would it be? Where would it be?
I got dinged in The Simulacrum because I made two mistakes that are apparently unforgivable to anyone who might be a former Marine. First, I called the POV character an “ex-Marine,” which, I know now, is definitely an offensive term. They’re inactive Marines, but they’re always Marines. Next, I gave my inactive Marine the wrong gun. I think I gave him a Ruger instead of a Glock–or the other way around, I don’t remember now–but that hit a nerve with the editor of the publishing company we’d submitted the book to, and the novel got rejected outright. The part that hurt is that this had been in the first scene. The editor didn’t get farther than the first page. Ouch.
So, if there’s anything you’re unsure of–or you think you know, but could be wrong, research it.
4. Provide the Full-Body Experience
Here, we take what we know about the character and scene and begin to paint the picture for the reader. So, what do you think? His heart is pounding in his chest, his mouth is dry, his blood is pulsing in his ears, his nerves are taut, his eyes dart all over the place, his palms sweat.
Remember that we’re dealing with someone who has had highly specialized training, so only a few of those above are likely to be true. The man is going to slip into a mode unknown to most civilians–he’s going to become a cold, deadly force. He takes deep breaths to calm his heart and stop his pulse from dulling his hearing. His eyes are going to be focused, not darting, because he has to examine everything. Once he calms his heart and his pulse, it’s unlikely his palms are going to sweat. What does that leave us with? Maybe a dry mouth, perhaps taut, alert nerves. We can use that.
What does he look like as he studies the scene? What is he thinking? How have his thoughts changed cadence?
5. Sentence structure, word choice, punctuation
Now we rewrite the scene, using everything we’ve considered before, and playing a bit with–awful as it sounds–grammar. But this is where we really wield our author’s paint brush like a pro. Everything in this category can amp up the tension, if used correctly.
Sentence structure–our character is calm while he’s in the car. He’s in “surveillance mode.” We can have longer sentences to illustrate an intentional calm, but . . .
Word choice–we still want the most active and forceful verbs we can get, we still want to present the tension and paint a picture.
Punctuation–as the action increases, do you want dashes or periods? How do you want to simulate the increased tension?
Short sentences and sentence fragments work to speed up reading and raise the reader’s blood pressure. Dashes can provide a sense of the character’s rushed thoughts and actions. Run-on sentences–done properly, of course–can provide a sense of pandemonium, of everything happening at once (a technique that won’t be needed in the sample paragraph). Strong, active verbs, always preferred in fiction writing, intensify the scene.
So, how would you use these all these tools to finish that original paragraph?
See ya Monday for the Grand Finale. Come by Friday for my fun day: Especially for Writers.