I attended the Southwest Washington Writers Conference this last weekend. On Friday, I attended two master classes offered by sci-fi/fantasy author Jeff Wheeler. The first class was on worldbuilding and writing the first chapter, and while I understand that aspect of our craft well, I enjoyed hearing his take on it.
The second master class was on the how of creativity. Those of you who follow my blog know how the subject of creativity fascinates me. If you haven’t read any of Jeff Wheeler’s work, here is the link to my 2013 review of his first book, the Wretched of Muirwood. It’s book 1 of one of my favorite fantasy series of all time.
The next day, I was privileged to be on a panel, What I wish I had Known, Four Veterans of the Indie Trenches. We talked about the pitfalls and pratfalls of our early years in this business and what we could have done differently.
But that is life. You learn from your mistakes and grow in the craft.
One of the seminars I attended on Saturday was offered by Lindsay Schopfer, From Body Language to Brawls. Again, I have a method for fight scenes, but as he pointed out, action is about so much more than mere brawling. That concept lines up with my theory that every scene is an action scene, even the quieter moments. Tempo and how we pace the intensity is as important as the plot-arc of every scene.
But Lindsay offered five questions about planning the action in each scene. They were different from how I normally think. I found them pertinent to the plot outline I am currently building for this year’s foray into NaNoWriMo.
First, Lindsay pointed out that thinking is an action scene, as are conversations. He asked what a character does while thinking. He pointed out that Humphrey Bogart had a way of tugging on his ear when thinking, a habit that carried over into his movies. A side character with a certain amount of screen time but isn’t the POV character can be shown as real when they have a small personal habit that appears from time to time.
Lindsay cautioned new writers to go lightly, and I agree. If you give one or two side characters an occasional personal habit, you won’t muck up the visuals with a barrage of personal tics.
Next, he asked what their body language betrayed about them when they were worried. I liked that he brought that up because if our characters aren’t worried, they should be. How do we show our characters’ individual ways of handling worry? We all exhibit signs of anxiety in different ways.
Lindsay asked three more questions: how do our characters look when they’re happy or excited? How do they look when angry? When depressed?
You can show these emotions with either a facial expression or a physical reaction, combined with internal dialogue or conversations.
For me, the most challenging part of writing is balancing the visual indicators of emotion with exposition showing the more profound, internal clues.
We need to offer the reader a hint, a gesture, or a fleeting expression. Their imagination will do the rest.
It takes work and practice to write a narrative so that we aren’t telling the reader what to experience. We allow the reader to infer what to feel. Remember, we are still in the inferential layer of the Word Pond, the layer in which readers draw conclusions from the clues we offer them.
I suggest the Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi as a good affordable reference guide to showing these emotions. Sometimes we hit a spot where we know what we need to say but not how to phrase it. This guide offers good hints for how to show what a character is feeling, someone to point the way.
However, I must point out that discretion is a good thing when it comes to showing emotions.
When a character’s facial expressions take over the scene, they become cartoonish, two-dimensional displays of emotion with no substance. A landslide of microscopic showing can make your characters seem melodramatic. All that physical drama doesn’t show a character’s emotions. What is going on inside their heads?
You must relay the thought process that led to those physical reactions. You can lay the groundwork with some crucial bits of exposition. Just a bit, not too much.
The trick is to use words that offer the most information in the least amount of space. It’s a trick I’m still trying to master.
I will stop reading stories where the author leans too heavily on slowly painting visual descriptions of the characters’ internal struggles. Creased foreheads followed by stomach-churning, gut-wrenching shock and wide-eyed trembling of hands are a bit too in-depth for me. Pick one indicator and go with it.
Finally, Lindsay pointed out something I have also said before. Word count matters in a fight scene. When I write an action scene involving violence, I ask myself how long it will take a reader to read that blow-by-blow description of the melee.
A war is one thing – it takes up page after page because it is the driver of the story. But when a fistfight or sword fight takes up three pages of description, I can’t suspend my disbelief as a reader.
Physical fights in real life are fast, violent, and finished in a space of minutes. It’s not humanly possible to go on and on with no rest. That is why professional boxers have rounds – fight a while, rest a while, and so on for 15 rounds.
If it takes me forever to read that running commentary, I will skip forward, or worse, set the book aside.
And this brings me to the core of this post. During NaNoWriMo, when I write new words as quickly as possible, I lean too heavily on the external, relying on a lot of smiling and shrugging. Conversations are action scenes, but too much “face time” is too much.
Those facial expressions and gestures are markers for the second draft, words signifying places where more work will be required to flesh out the scene. This is where writing becomes work.
If you haven’t seen this before, here is my list of surface emotions, code words I use in my outline to remind me of what action I should portray in a given scene:
- Ethical Quandary