Making Word(s) Count #5: Reactions and Scale or “I’m Hit!” she said lightly.

Maya and Clancy-close

Maya Bohnhoff (and Clancy)

Among the many manuscripts I’ve critiqued or edited, I occasionally encounter writers who have a problem with scale.

I do not mean that their prose contains too many minerals and leaves a residue on the page (well, okay, maybe that’s part of the problem). I mean when it comes to the cycles of action / reaction in the story, the proportions are wrong. That is to say, the emotional reactions of the characters to events and reveals are out-of-keeping proportionally. This goes both ways. Sometimes characters react violently to things that seem … well, unworthy of the extreme angst. Sometimes characters react not at all, too little, or belatedly to major stimuli.

Once upon a time, I adapted several Japanese manga novels for an American market. My favorite was one in which a group of concerned friends spend several chapters rightfully ramping themselves up into a frenzy over a classmate’s imminent loss to Dark Magic. When the eve of her destruction arrives, one friend realizes that catastrophe is closing in on their buddy and calls another friend at midnight to reveal that the horrific event will take place at 2 am that very morning. This was exciting and heart-poundng stuff. I anticipated the friends would get together for a classic and exciting intervention. Nope. They decided they needed to be well?rested and really ought to go back to bed and get a good night’s sleep. Result: The friend is co-opted by the Dark Magic, and the friends spend the rest of the book working to get her back.

This was a major break with any kind of reality, even reality such as the author had already established it for this series. He needed to put off the big kick-ass confrontation between his group of teenaged paranormal PIs and the Big Bad and chose to simply have them not rush in to save their friend when they knew she was in grave danger. The editor in my soul shrieked, tore her hair and gnashed her teeth, but this wasn’t an edit or a critique, it was an adaptation. I gritted my teeth and adapted on.

Sometimes a scale issue is combined with a delayed reaction. For example, in one workshop manuscript, a character (we’ll call him Rock for reasons that will be clear in a moment) fell down a ladder and injured his shoulder. He then got up, marched out into a jungle teeming with inimical lifeforms and enemy combatants to rescue a friend. He does not react to the injury at all at the time it happens, but pages later, after he’s dragged his wounded comrade back to camp, set his broken leg and run to the radio room to answer a message, he staggers a bit as he makes his way back to his bedside. As if that were not enough, the same character later loses his helmet and breaks his leg. He reports both to his faraway commander with the same even tone.

These are not normal reactions, and not only do they throw the reader out of the story, but they rob her of opportunities to engage emotionally with the characters—to relate to them as people.

THE_WIZARD_OF_OZ-293I once fell and lost my shoe … I also broke my tailbone. I really couldn’t have cared less about the shoe, but the tailbone hurt like hell. I did not cry. I did not cry out. I toughed out the rest of the day at school, but I was suffering—I just didn’t let on until I got home. This character’s reaction was to call for backup and, a couple of paragraphs later, to take some morphine. The writer does not let us into the character’s head so we don’t know if he’s hurt and just toughing it out or simply lacks nerve endings. In any event, he is impossible to empathize with because he reacts to major event as if they were no more annoying than losing an piece of his uniform. The response is not proportional to the impetus, nor do we see a mechanism that allows this to be so (such as straw brains or artificial limbs).

Out-of-proportion, too, are the sheer amount of calamities that befall our hero. In my years of reading, I’ve only seen this level of battery in a Harry Dresden novel, but Harry is a Wizard (and more) so his resilience is accounted for. Rock, who has a bum arm and a broken leg, then has a missile (yes, a missile) hit his unbroken leg. He doesn’t react at all except to note that the enemy forces scattered. (I’ll bet that’s not all that scattered, I thought wryly.) It’s not until halfway down the following page that our rocklike hero tells us that his leg was blown off below the knee. Imagine that. I couldn’t, because Rock didn’t experience it.

Mainstream writer Anna Quindlen says, “Reality is in the dishes.” What she means is that the material we need to make a fictional experience real is in the details of the character’s experience. This means everything from the mundane, physical aspects of a situation to the complex emotions. If the details are real, the experience will seem real to the reader. In this context, scale is important. A character’s reactions need to seem realistic to the reader.

Puss n boots

This out-of-scale reaction can also play the other way. Rock and his stoic heroism are a case in point. The writer explained that this penchant for acts of heroism was not Rock’s normal MO, but was brought on by the loss of his pet cat.

Now, anyone who has ever lost a pet knows how emotionally overwhelming that can be. When a cat that we’d raised from kittenhood (after she’d presented her little Disney fur ball self to us on our welcome mat as if she’d been assigned to us by a Higher Power) got hit by a car, my husband and I cried ourselves to sleep for several nights running. But in the case of Rock and his pet, there was no groundwork done to allow the reader to experience the relationship. Whether the loss of a cat will work as a catalyst for a complete transformation of a character is open to argument. But even if the loss was the loss of a spouse, parent, child or best friend, the reader will not empathize with the loss if the writer does not establish an emotional foundation and framework that allows her to feel the sense of loss.

What if, when Rock thinks about his cat, he tells us about waking up with the fur ball curled up against his neck, or finding a dead rodent on his bunk. Perhaps he remembers the feeling of the cat’s warm, silky fur under his fingertips, or how like sandpaper its tongue was. This doesn’t have to be sentimental, but those details will give the reader a sense of what it is like to have such a pet and he will understand that Rock’s bond with his cat is quite profound, perhaps because he had little human companionship.

Here’s an example of a non-expositional way to give the reader a sense of the scale of Rock’s loss in a dialogue with another character:

“About a year ago, Sherlock was … I dunno—kidnapped or stolen or whatever. For biotech research, I think. A lot of animals went missing about the same time.”

The captain nodded. “Yeah, I heard about that on webcast. Rough, huh?”

Rough. “You ever had a cat?”

Cat psychShe shook her head; red hair swung like a silk curtain.

“He used to hock up furballs on my bunk, like, every day.”

“Furballs,” she repeated, raising a ginger eyebrow.

“Cats clean themselves by licking their fur. Then the fur gets into their stomachs and-“

“Yeah, yeah. I get the picture. Yuck. Sounds like a royal pain.”

“It is … a royal pain. It’s also … well, I guess there are tradeoffs.”

“So, why not just shave him?”

I laughed at the thought of Sherlock bald as baby’s butt. “Addicted,” I said. “The feel of a cat’s fur under your fingers—there’s nothing like it.”

She looked at me strangely. “You need a girl friend.”

Or words to that effect. As to the more esoteric stuff, there is no substitute for real reactions from the characters. We need those in order for us to believe their experience is real, and we have to believe it is real in order for us to suspend our disbelief. Especially in the genres of SF or fantasy, this job of filling in the critical human details is of paramount importance because the physical and cultural landscape may be completely alien. In this case, it’s even more important that we get the human details and the scale of action and reaction right.

Next time: Exposition—there’s a time and a place…

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Making Word(s) Count #5: Reactions and Scale or “I’m Hit!” she said lightly. — 1 Comment

  1. Wow, yeah. I expect a certain amount of abnormal heroics in certain kinds of heroic fiction, and especially gritting teeth and getting on with it. But it should look like the damage is an impediment – Die Hard’s broken glass. We should want to cheer when the guy gets up in spite of it or works through it.

    Because if it isn’t, at that point it’s not just the lack of scale, it’s stakes. There’s no stake in an injury that removes a leg that absentmindedly.

    Unless it’s a parody, where disproportion may well be the actual plan. In which case the question is, Why is this not funny? (Either way, the cat should still be established and us given some sense of the relationship. Because it would highlight the intentional disproportion of scale and make it more absurd.)