Writer's Craft Article
Fiction Fundamentals: Writing Elbow Grease, Part 5D
General Revision Choices
by Karen S. Wiesner
Based on Cohesive Story Building, Volume 2: 3D Fiction Fundamentals Collection
In this three month, in-depth series, we're going to go over what could be considered the grunge work in building a cohesive story. Revising, editing, and polishing require a little or a lot of writing elbow grease to finish the job and bring forth a strong and beautiful book.
In the previous part of this series, we discussed editing and polishing introspection tips. This time we'll go over general revision choices, and we'll continue that for the three weeks.
Tip Sheet: Effective Revision Choices
• Sentence structures and lengths need to be varied. Like good music needs to have long and short notes, high and low, varying beginnings and endings, a good writer should never allow every sentence to start or flow in exactly the same way. Take the example below:
She needed to make a loaf of bread. She went to the store to make her purchases. She bought bread ingredients. She took her purchases home.
Sounds terrible, doesn't it? I wish I could tell you I don't see this very often, but the horrifying truth is that I see this careless sort of writing from both new and experienced writers. Vary sentence structures and lengths so the lines flow into the ear like music, as in this revised version:
She slammed the cupboard with a grimace.
I'm Old Mother Hubbard. No flour, no yeast. How do you make homemade bread with an empty cupboard?
Sighing, she grabbed her keys. At least the store was just around the corner. And she could get her dog some biscuits while she was at it.
A world better, isn't it? Pay special attention to the way every sentence begins here. There are a million different ways to start a sentence without a pronoun of some kind. Look at the variations in each sentence above, the variety of sentence lengths. When you're editing and polishing, these are exactly the kinds of things you want to fix.
• Does passive voice = boring; active voice = exciting? Most writers will tell you, yes, those equations are absolutely correct. But what exactly are these passive and active voices everyone involved in writing talks about endlessly? In Conflict, Action & Suspense, author William Noble says that "active voice with its direct and straightforward verb use rivets our attention....The passive voice works best to change the pace, to stretch and extend narrative, or to diminish emphasis on action and suspense." Therefore, both passive and active voices are viable, depending on what kind of scene you're writing. An action scene requires an active voice, while a dramatic, emotional scene may call for a passive voice.
What has most authors, publishers, and agents in an uproar concerns the actual words used--are the words active or passive? The most instant form of action is what propels a sentence. Learning to write in an active voice is important to the overall appeal and impact of your story. For instance, here's a paragraph from my romantic comedy novella, "Silver Bells, Wedding Bell," written in the most passive manner possible:
She was racing across the distance between her and the open phone kiosk. Luggage was being knocked over, small children were hurtled in her rush. The men and women who glared at her were side-stepped.
This was revised before publication so it had a much more active voice:
She raced across the distance between her and the open phone kiosk, knocking over luggage, hurtling small children, side-stepping glaring men and women.
How many times did you stumble over the passive use of the words was and were in the first version? Like music, words very much have sounds as a reader reads. The words can flow easily, or they can cause a sort of clumsiness as they're read. That first example above "sounds" very plodding, almost thoughtful, and the reader is really watching the action from a distance--none of conveyed what I hope. The second example reads fast, smooth, but with a punch, and the reader feels the rush and tumble along with the character.
Your editing and polishing needs to weed out these passively, plodding sentences, to be replaced with tight active sentences.
We'll talk about cleaning up the overuse of words like "was" and "were" soon.
• Never tell, always show? Another point that's harped on in writing circles is the necessity of showing, not telling. Showing is very much about creating an immediate scene. The characters are there, and the reader moves along with them. Telling is merely a secondhand report of what happened to the characters in play. While there are certain uses for telling versus showing (i.e., you don't want to write an entire scene to convey a single, small point), you really do have to consider that a story told is very much like a newspaper article--it contains all the facts, none of the emotions. It's dry and often monotonous. Therefore, a story told is one that has nowhere near the compelling, immediate action of a story shown. While I'm not sure if it affected the impact The Friday Night Knitting Club made on readers around the world, since the book turned into an instant bestseller, take a look at the writing style. A lot of the book is told rather than shown, it's almost like short newspaper articles fill most of the scenes. This is a literary fiction leeway that few other genres are allowed.
Unlike books, movies can't tell anything at all--they have to show. Books should be presented in much the same way because each reader forms a "movie" of the story in her head as she's reading. Your choice of active showing is what puts the movie in her head. It's unlikely that a told story will achieve the same effect. Here's an example of telling:
I went upstairs and laid him down on our pallet. I lay down beside him. For a time, his pulse beat fast, his heart pounding. But toward midnight, both faded away. I fell asleep with my baby in my arms for the last time.
While this is a perfectly acceptable means of conveying information if it's necessary to avoid writing a whole scene, the poignant way this scene was shown in Geraldine Brooks's Year of Wonders brought out every bit of heartache and anguish felt by this young, grieving mother who loses her child to the plague:
I crooned to him as I climbed the stairs and laid him down upon our pallet. He lay just as I placed him, his arms splayed limply. I lay down beside him and drew him close. I pretended to myself that he would wake in the wee hours with his usual lusty cry for milk. For a time his little pulse beat fast, his tiny heart pounding. But toward midnight the rhythms became broken and weak and finally fluttered and faded away. I told him I loved him and would never forget him, and then I folded my body around my dead baby and wept until finally, for the last time, I fell asleep with him in my arms.
The first time I read this in context with the rest of the book, I cried. I doubt many would have the same reaction to the told version preceding it.
While editing and polishing, you'll have your final opportunity to change these instances of telling instead of showing. Pump your story full of everything and anything that will get the movie rolling in your reader's mind as he reads.
Next week, we'll continue with the general revision choices.
Karen S. Wiesner is the author of Cohesive Story Building, Volume 2 of the 3D Fiction Fundamentals Collection
Karen Wiesner is an award-winning, multi-genre author of over 150 titles and 16 series.
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