Neighbor

I went for the Feng Shui book. I always go for books. This time I was in a tiny antique store looking for items for a neighbor’s house. She was supposed to have come along. This shopping trip had been her idea and she’d insisted that I rearrange my schedule for it. Then at the last minute she found something better to do. Faced with a free afternoon, I went anyway. By myself. Better this way, cruising through stores without her.

So I bought this little book on how to design the living spaces in a home. I studied it, and on the weekend went shopping for her, without her. I didn’t buy much, just a few items as an excuse to get in her house and rearrange things. I told her the re-arrangements had been recommended by a French and Italian design firm. She was happy with that. Not happy enough to help me do the work, however.

I spent many pleasant hours with my Feng Shui book. I laughed a lot, thinking of that silly, bothersome woman in her rooms that I had set up exactly the opposite of the way the little book said they should be done. She claimed to love her house, and bragged about how much she spent on it. Yet within two months, she was complaining about not sleeping well, not feeling well. In three months, her house went up for sale.

My work was done.

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Fatherhood

I walked into my tiny house expecting a quiet evening at home. Instead, I found my past in the living room.

She was young, only nine, but had the sharp, honest tongue of smart kids a whole lot older. And she still had the bravery of girls her age. So I got an earful about her own past and my dissolute part in it.

I asked about her mother.

“She’s dead.” The girl spoke in a tone that blamed me for that, too.

She went on talking. Whenever she stopped to take a breath, I murmured whatever I thought best at the moment. I fixed her supper. She talked around the food in her mouth.

“I’m gonna live with you,” she declared. “An’ nobody from the govmint is gonna stop me.”

I stared at her with my mouth open. My life had no room for a kid.

She glared at me. “An’ I don’t care what you think either.”

She talked and talked until she fell asleep on my lumpy couch, and in her dreams she wailed, “Why didn’t you stay?”

Plum Crazy

Man, that gal is plum crazy. First she wants me to mow her lawn. I do that. Glad to. She’s been good to my ma since Pa died. But then she wants me to trim her peach trees. And fix that shingle on the milk house roof.

Then she invites me in to lunch, but I’m covered in dirt, so I say, “No, ma’am.” I eat on the porch. Then I follow her to the grocery and tote home her bags of food and we talk a bit. She ask me how old I am. When I say seventeen, she smiles a little and says something about me being a man.

So in the afternoon I feel grown up, and chop some wood for her even if I don’t like that chore. And I dig up that lilac bush that died near the front corner of her lawn.

It’s hot and I take off my shirt and wash down with her garden hose. She’s watchin’, with that little smile, so I spray a bit a water on her. She squeals and giggles and I forget she might be as old as thirty.

Then she asks me to come inside and mumbles something about plowing a field. In the house? So I say “no” and go home. Crazy woman. I don’t know nothing about farming anyway.

Critique Technique, Part 27— Narrative and Dialog

This post begins a series on narrative and dialog. Stated most simply, narrative and dialog are the tools writers use to tell their stories. They take different forms and serve complementary functions, but with plenty of overlap.

Writers use narrative to:

  • Describe—to show—action (“Bob ran down the street after Alice’s car”) or emotion;
  • Describe a person (“Alice’s hair was dyed souvenir-shop-coral red”), a place, or a thing;
  • Make connections between people, places, actions, emotions, or things; and
  • Provide the reader with whatever other information she might need.

It is the words not placed inside quotation marks or used for internal monolog (sometimes shown in italics).

While it’s true that dialog can do many of these same things, and often does, narrative is the better choice in many cases. Consider how awkward it would be to have characters discussing the details of every setting in order to present that information to the reader:

“Oh, look, Alice. This room has windows through which the sun is shining on a round oak table with two chairs set opposite each other.”

“Yes, Bob, and the far wall is nothing but bookcases filled with leather-bound volumes and the occasional knick-knack.”

Oy.

On the other hand, while it’s possible to write a story that contains little or no dialog—I published one that had only internal monolog; none of the characters ever said a word to each other—it’s rare and unless done well, hard for readers to stay engaged with.

One reason is that we engage in dialog every day: we talk to each other. Characters need to do that, too. Dialog:

  • Allows characters to interact with each other: to support each other, provide information or direction, deceive each other, etc.
  • Illustrates character. What a character says reveals what he knows, how she’s feeling, what he thinks about a situation, how she perceives another character, and so on.
  • Can build or relieve tension and conflict.
  • Lubricates the plot and the narrative and keeps them moving forward.

In short, dialog is all but essential to a story.

Much of what I wrote about in earlier Critique Technique articles dealt with problems in narrative. This next series will, too, because many problems in dialog appear in narrative, too, and vice versa. But there are also some problems that are unique to dialog, so this is where I’ll address them. Specifically, we’ll be looking at:

  • Awkward, choppy, and stiff or stilted writing;
  • Overused words, phrases, or text patterns;
  • Writing that is verbose or cryptic;
  • Inappropriate language, including but not limited to obscenities and vulgarities;
  • Unintentionally contradictory language and statements;
  • Imbalance between narrative and dialog;
  • Name-calling within dialog; and
  • Using dialog to blatantly convey information to the reader, including the “As you know, Bob” problem.

I may add other items to the list as we go along, but this is where we’ll start. What other problems would you like me to discuss in this section? Add your suggestions in the Comments below.

 

Critique Technique, Part 26—Tangents

Tangent lines and circles

Image courtesy Wikimedia

If you look up “tangent” in the dictionary, it takes a while to get to the definition like this one from Webster’s Universal College Dictionary: “digressing suddenly from one course of action or thought and turning to another.”

Tangents share a characteristic with excessive backstory and flashbacks: they start from the current story moment and then shift in time, place, point of view, or topic. As with a flashback, the author may mean to provide some kind of amplifying information, but then he forgets to stop after providing it and wanders not only off the beaten path, but off any path at all.

Sometimes that can be intentional, for example if she’s trying to produce a piece of stream-of-consciousness writing. The sneaky truth, though, is that while stream-of-consciousness writing seems to be unstructured and uncontrolled, it’s actually very tightly controlled when done well. A tangent, on the other hand, if unplanned is a sign the author has lost control of her work.

Back in Part 20, I used the following as an example of too much setting detail, but it’s overflowing with tangents, too: “…the three green sateen ribbons on the head of the second Pekinese from the left, the one with the ghost-grey patch of fur on its back that looks just like a giraffe if you look at it from the right rear, which was hard to do because the dog insists on spinning around, always clockwise, never counterclockwise, to face you, but is now asleep in the brown wicker basket with the braided handle that Rosalee bought for just 50 cents at the neighborhood garage sale over in Johnsonville from that nice lady wearing the darling sundress with the purple and gold iris flower pattern that went so well with her blond hair, that was now sitting on the linoleum with the orange and white pattern of squares and triangles and the 6” diameter water stain reaching out  from the far wall, in front of the oak veneer bookcase that Rosalee bought on sale for just half price at the dollar store because it was a display sample and they wanted to get rid of it, especially because the middle shelf was missing a couple of screws and so it sagged toward the back and she—Rosalee, not Janetta, the sales clerk with the gold teeth who always wears those big silver hoop earrings—hadn’t had time to go to Lowe’s to pick up the nickel-plated #10 by 1½” hex head screws that would be hanging up in the rack down toward the end of aisle 13, up where she’d have to stand on her tippy-toes to reach them, in the dark blue plastic pouch that she found so convenient if hard to open, meaning she’d have to find those Fiskars scissors with the pretty pink plastic handles her Gramma Gemma had given her when she was just six and working on her Kindergarten Christmas card project—the one where she spilled Elmer’s glue and silver sparkles all over the sort-of-brand-new kitchen table—and still had and they were still sharp after all these years, but even after she fixed the shelf the bookcase would still be wobbly and she doubted she’d be able to get her collection of The Great Books with their wonderful brown leather covers embossed with real gold and that still smelled real good, like an old saddle maybe, or Aunt Barbara’s fancy coat with the long sleeves that she wouldn’t wear in the winter because it would get wet, if you put your nose up real close, to stay in it because it would probably collapse in a heap.”

Yeesh. How many tangents does the narrator take us on in that mess? I stopped counting at a dozen.

Now, in the right context, that long sentence could be just fine, a clear if exhausting illustration of the manic and scatter-brained narrator’s personality. With or  without a larger context, it’s easy to see how each tangent splits off from the previous line of thought, only to have another tangent split off from it. That’s the problem with tangents: with every new divergence, we get farther and farther from the original storyline, until, as with excess backstory, we lose track of it entirely.

Tangents also disrupt a story’s flow. Even when the events of a story are chaotic, a tangent swirls the reader off into a whirlpool of confusion, perhaps never to return again, or to be brought back by a forced and awkward transition.

As a reviewer, the other problem you can face, especially when reading something for the first time, is determining the author’s intent. Is he, as I suggested above, illustrating something about a character or a chaotic situation? Is the use of tangents a stylistic choice that supports the story? You might have to wade through the entire piece and then look back on it before you can decide.

To wrap up, then, here are some questions you can ask yourself when you come across material that seems like a tangent:

  • Does the material support the larger story in a clear and definable way?
  • Where does the tangent begin?
  • Does it come back to the main storyline with a clear transition?
  • Does it come back to the main storyline soon enough that I don’t forget what the main story is?
  • Could the author use the material in the tangent somewhere else?
    • If so, how, or does it just need to be deleted?

How do you identify tangents and how do you help authors avoid them?

 

Critique Technique, Part 25—Misused Backstory or Flashback

A twisted red pencil

Image courtesy FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Backstory and its kissing cousin flashback are techniques authors use to provide amplifying information about a situation, a location, or a character. Flashbacks and backstory differ from “front story” in that the author jumps away from the story’s current timeline to relate them, then jumps back (but not backwards) to the story’s present to continue.

Jumping forward in time—a “flash forward”—can have the same purpose, and everything below also applies.

Flashing back is in fact a technique for relating backstory. A brief interruption of the story’s flow, it can be:

  • Initiated by the narrator to provide information not available to the characters;
  • A character’s memory; or
  • A conversation between two or more characters (“You remember when…?”), to name just three.

The words “flash” and “brief” are important here: flashbacks are over and done with quickly.

Backstory can be told more leisurely, as a stand-alone scene, for example, but doesn’t have to be. It might take the form of just a single, telling detail. For example, there’s this line in the recent Robert Reed novella “Murder Born,” which centers around a couple trying to bring back their murdered daughter: “But that didn’t stop [Lauren] from…curling up on the mattress cover that was washed every two weeks, the same as always.” That last phrase, “the same as always,” is the droplet of backstory that tells us so much about Lauren’s grief, expressed in her continuing care for her dead daughter’s bedclothes.

So while “backstory” encompasses all the background information that doesn’t fit into a story’s or article’s primary timeline, what I want to concentrate on here are four improper or ineffective techniques of presenting that backstory:

  • Starting with backstory;
  • Using backstory too often;
  • Spending too much time in backstory; and
  • Using backstory as front story.

We’ve all run into stories—maybe even written them ourselves—in which the author starts by explaining everything she feels the reader will need to know in order to “get” the story once it begins.

When a new member of my own writers’ group announced a few meetings back that he intended to start his novel that way, he was, shall we say, “counseled” against it. After a few repetitions of, “No, Jim,” “Don’t do it, Jim,” “You wanna get smacked up-side the head, boy?” (we didn’t really say that—so far as you know), he conceded the wisdom of our advice. We’ll see whether the wisdom stuck with him when we get chapter 1.

You know, of course, to start in medias res and filter the backstory in later.

The next three techniques have an important element in common: they cause the reader to lose track of the primary story line. And a confused reader is something you don’t want—unless you do for the purpose of pulling her through to the end, but that’s something else altogether. For our purposes here, confusing the reader is a bad thing.

Using backstory too often is another case of the author wanting the reader to know everything she knows about the story, characters, setting, situation, etc. This time, the desire gets manifested as flashbacks or backstory details being inserted at every opportunity, whether they’re necessary or not. “Necessary” is the key word here. You, as the independent reviewer, aren’t emotionally invested in the story, so you have the ability to look at a detail, a flashback, even a whole chapter, and ask, “Do I need to know that?” The more often you find yourself asking that, the more likely it is the author is using backstory too much.

Using backstory as front story and spending too much time in backstory mean the author isn’t clear on what information needs to be doled out in little pieces to deepen and enrich the story at key moments. Instead, he delivers info dumps, lectures by the narrator, or speeches by characters. Yes, deciding how much is “too much” can be subjective but again, if you lose track of the main story line, the author is guilty of this error.

If the author is suffering from either of these problems, the flow of the story will come to a grinding halt as it wanders off into material that isn’t relevant to the story’s current moment. (We’ll talk about tangents in more detail next time.)

Here, then, are some questions you can ask yourself regarding backstory and flashbacks as you review someone’s work:

  • If you’re reading the beginning of a story or article, did the author jump right into the action and fill in the backstory later, or did he start with background information that could have waited?
  • Is the author peppering me with so many background details that I get confused or lose track of the story line?
  • Is the author dumping information, either through the narrative or via her characters, and causing me to lose track of the storyline?
  • Is the author spending so much time in backstory that I can’t tell what’s backstory and what’s front story anymore? In other words, has he lost track of his story?

If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then you can start examining what information is necessary at that moment in the story, what can be told later, and what may not need to be told at all. Providing that information to the author will help her improve her work.

What other things do you look for when determining if backstory and/or flashbacks are being misused?

Critique Technique, Part 24—Unclear Transitions

This post begins a series on flashbacks, flash-forwards, and backstory: that ancillary material that fills out a story and its characters by introducing information that doesn’t fit into the piece’s main flow. As with so much of the other subjects I’ve discussed, this topic applies to non-fiction as well as fiction.

Before I get to flashbacks, etc., though, I need a transition: this post on transitions.

A transition is a bridge, a connection between two pieces of a story, such as when the story changes:

  • Time, that is, moves into the future or past relative to the current moment;
  • Location;
  • Point-of-view or focus character, in other words, whose eyes the story is being told through or whom it is focused on;
  • Mood or tone;
  • Topic (particularly in non-fiction); or
  • Any combination of the above.

This is not a complete list but focuses on the kinds of transitions you’ll most often see in fiction. Non-fiction transitions include such things as addition, comparison, effect, clarification, cause, and purpose, among many others.

Transitions come in two types: “hard” or “soft.” Hard transitions are marked by a scene or chapter break. The physical presence of that break announces that a transition of some sort is about to happen.

A soft transition occurs within a chapter or scene. Instead of having a physical marker, it’s denoted by either a verb tense change, an identifying word or phrase, or both.

Verb tense changes depends on what tense the story is being told in. If in past tense, then a flashback or backstory usually shifts into past perfect tense: from “Bob went to the store” to “Bob had gone to the store.” A present tense story would shift into past tense: from “Bob is going [or goes] to the store” to “Bob went to the store.” Flash-forwards can shift into the future tense, the present tense, or even stay in the past tense but at a time ahead of where the flash-forward started. That could be really confusing, though, and would need to be marked by a transitional word or phrase as well.

“Meanwhile, back at the ranch…” is probably one of the most famous examples of the transitional phrase–and one of the most clichéd—but notice how it marks both a clear shift in location and a subtle shift in time. “Meanwhile” indicates that something is happening at the same time as what we’ve just read, but there may be a slight shift back in time to catch us up to the same moment as we just left. Some other transitional words or phrases are: earlier, at (as in “at the same time” or “at [another location]”), after(wards), once, and before. You can find lots of other examples of transitional words and phrases on the University of Wisconsin, Wichita State University and Brigham Young University web sites.

There’s another important point here: a flashback/forward or backstory needs two transitions—one into it and one back out of it.

So what makes a transition unclear? Usually it’s one of the things I’ve been discussing: failing to insert a scene or chapter break or transitional words or phrases, or to change verb tense. As a reviewer, you’ll know the author messed up a transition when you find yourself confused by an unexpected shift. It’s a good bet this happened because the author knew what had changed but forgot to signal the reader.

When you have one of those “Wait…what?” moments:

  • Find and flag the spot where the story changed time, place, point of view, focus character, mood, tone, or topic without warning;
  • If the change is into backstory or a flashback/forward, look for the place where that diversion ends or should end to see if there is a transition there, too; and
  • Identify what kind of transitional device(s) the author should have used.

Transitions ought to be easy to get right but they can catch even skilled writers from time to time. What else do you look for to spot unclear transitions?