See My Head Explode

PatRice_AllAWomanWants200Lately, I’ve been talking with two other writers about craft. Our styles are widely divergent. We, naturally, each insist our own way is best…but what we really mean is that the way we write is best for US, not necessarily for anyone else. Anyone who thinks craft can be taught ought to hear us argue.

So, for the sake of discussion, the three of us tore apart my appallingly drafted manuscript. I started writing in the days when we mixed head-hopping and author narrative with impunity. I’ve spent the last thirty years trying to weed out bad habits developed in those wild west days. When I’m writing fast, I tell—I tell the readers what the characters look like, who they went to bed with last night, how they felt about their dead spouses and parents, yadda yadda ad nauseum. Granted, all this information will become necessary in my story at some point. But basically, this is using author narrative rather than showing the character. At least I’ve quit hopping heads—although multiple POV really does have a purpose, I will argue another time.

So my one friend tells me I have to cut out all the could-he, should-she, what-ifs and start adding dialogue—which is precisely how she writes. Brilliant dialogue carries her novels.

The other friend says she has no problem with the draft except it needs details. We need to know why he did this and she said that. Which kind of adds in all those could-he, should-he thoughts that I’d just started cutting out.  Guess what? This friend writes beautifully detailed prose where everything is explained in perfect order.

Unfortunately, detail ain’t me. I write for the characters. I could spend an entire novel just playing them off each other. Wait a minute…I probably have. Action bores me, so it happens off stage. Details take time, so I happily step right over them. I want to see the hero and heroine fall in love, and that’s what I write.

And all three of us are both right and wrong. The use of the subjunctive (if I were a rich man…) drags readers inside the heads of our characters—which is fine occasionally, but basically, that’s a dark and lonely space. A character comes alive when he starts talking and acting. Unfortunately, we can only supply our characters with so many valets and best friends with whom they can discuss their deepest darkest secrets. At some point, my hero has to actually think for himself. And in this particular book, my hero has lots of secrets, and he loves plotting and planning, so it’s really tough to produce appropriate dialogue and action. “Let’s steal a princess,” just won’t go over well in most circles.

So that leads me into details. ”I need to steal a princess because…” Really, does he need a reason? Must he explain it? Isn’t it obvious that princesses are very handy to have around? (I can and will argue anything. See multiple POV suggestion above.)  But yeah, the reader needs the reason on the page, preferably in dialogue and action and not because the bum is lazing around one day and a princess catches his eye. See me sigh in frustration. And I probably ought to show him stealing the princess and not have him just show up with one. But do I really need to see the princess lounging around her bath, nibbling croissants, and waiting for a rogue to come by and steal her? Unless that scene in some way ups the tension and conflict, those are details I can forget about writing. Or edit out later because it’s probably the kind of detail I might actually write.

Writing—it’s all a balancing act. And there are people out there who want to teach this? Watch  my head explode at the thought of explaining why what works for one writer or story doesn’t work for another.

Can you see your own flaws? Are they also what gives your stories voice?






See My Head Explode — 8 Comments

  1. Well, omniscient narrator has a long and venerable history. But it did fall out of fashion early in the twentieth century in favor of cinematic third. (Sometimes distant, sometimes in close.)

    I really like omni, but I think that one of the keys to controlling it is to think of the narrator as a character. What is the narrative goal? Why does it slide into this character’s POV in this paragraph, and that character’s in the next, but leave out the thoughts of characters three through four? (If the narrator entered every head, the novel would never end!) Watching closely how the greats of the nineteenth century is a real eye-opener, at least for me.

  2. I hadn’t thought of making the narrator a character, but yes, that’s ideal. I enjoy omni POV but genre readers seem to want to sink into one character’s head and stay there. Or they do now. Early Regency readers didn’t seem to care if the horse had thoughts about the whole scenario!

    • Early Regency readers were craving more Heyer, whose style emerged out of the nineteenth century silver fork tradition. Definitely omni voice then.

    • I’ll read any point of view, if it’s well done. (And I know that I’ve read genre books with omniscent POV and head-hopping, but it’s so far below the radar for me, unless I’m deliberately paying attention, that I couldn’t tell you what.)

      To answer your other question, I like characters. I like characters interacting. And I think that character motivation, interaction, and dialogue is one of the things I’m good at . . . and I spend at least two drafts cutting out all of the extraneous characters who keep showing up in the process.

  3. I’ve found that a good way to convert detail and data dump into character is to have the characters fight about it. “Well, of COURSE Hurricaine Katrina devastated New Orleans because of the sinfulness of the population. All that drinking, homosexuality, and fornication? What do you expect, but smiting!” “I disagree, you bigot — it was the fault of the Army Corps of Engineers. Did you see those levees?” “You two obviously are idiots. Nobody of sense could blame anything but global warming!” And away we go.

  4. My drafts tend to be packed with telling. Which is why they are drafts. They get the story down, and then I fix all the issues like telling, plot holes and crappy writing during the revisions. 🙂

    But I’ll try Brenda’s way of adding detail into the story since it appeals to me. ( And I have read some science fiction novels recently that could have benefited from a that piece of advice..)

  5. I’ve read some literary fiction that would have seriously benefited from Brenda’s advice. I’m trying very hard to remember to use dialogue where possible, but if I get seriously inside my characters’ heads, they go off on insane tangents and what would have taken a paragraph of “telling” ends up being a couple of pages of insanity. Dangerous inside other peoples’ heads!

  6. Some characters are capable of a great deal inside their heads — though I find it’s useful to have them doing something, however trivial, while they are thinking. Walking some place, for instance.