Thursday, September 10, 2009

THE EYE OF THE BEHOLDER: Vivid Imagery in Your Narrative

CURRENT WORK: Finishing up a cover art project today.
MOOD: Is groggy a mood? Read a book too late last night.
UPDATE: Hubby bowled 623 in 3 games last night. He's not so old after all!


I'm reading a great book right now that totally hods my interest. I'll tell you all about it later this month
, but right now, let me just say it's IMMORTAL OUTLAW by Lisa Hendrix, and it's an excellent example of my subject today.

I've read a lot of manuscripts lately that ought to be wonderful, at least in having a good plot and intriguing characters, yet somehow don't excite me. Personally I think that's fixable, where a story that has no conflict or character growth has to be completely re-thought. The story with the right skeleton can be fleshed out but a boneless body really can't move much, no matter how pretty the flesh. So let's talk about how to make the writing more exciting.

The first thing that comes to my mind
is passive writing- I think because I've also seen a lot of that lately. I've caught myself doing it, too. I think it's something most of us do because it's part of everyday speech.

An explanation: Passive writi
ng, passive voice and passive verbs are not the same thing, but they're related. Passive verbs are verbs that don't do any action, they simply "are". Zen-like. Passive voice occurs when the sentence is "written backwards" so to speak, and the subject is treated as the object. "It was written by me." instead of "I wrote it." Again, the passiveness takes over and makes the first sentence feel flat.

Passive writing involves all of these things and more. The work
takes on a Zen-like inactivity. (Zen has its value as a state of mind, but genre fiction needs its opposite, action, to achieve its purpose.) Conflict is softened. The Black Moment is mitigated until it is sort of dove gray. The story loses its tautness and meanders, as if it can't find its purpose.

To me, passive writing
also includes choosing words that lack a vivid sense. This includes verbs, nouns and modifiers. We can add our modifiers to them, but it's better if the main word bears most of the load. Often when I can't seem to get a visual of the scene, or the characters don't dance before my eyes, its because nothing in their descriptions has caught my imagination. They "move", but they don't "frolic". There's often a lot of thinking going on, but little of it is recollection of vivid scenes.

Sometimes those mental gyrations can be made vivid. As I was writing this, I remembered this scene as an example. Instead of Ned thinking about his twin sister's death, he recalls this scene:
Ned saw in his mind the newly green slope of parkland that ran down to the brook. Cecily laughed, no, giggled, as they ran together, each with a homemade kite, and she could not get hers into the air. He'd had to stop and do it for her, while she held his. But the minute he had her kite airborne, she squealed with delight and forgot about the one she had been holding for him. It slipped from the sky, tumbled limply downward and crashed against a rock.
Lots of internal thought is very hard on a story. That's because it lacks action. It lies either in the past or in the future, and so it doesn't have the intensity of the present. But in a scene like this, the memory Ned has of Cecily is one of action, so it SHOWS the memory as if it were right now, not so many years ago. Never does he think how much he still loves and misses his twin. But we know.

Adrienne de Wolfe once told me, "Enough of the brown horse! We know he's brown. You only need to say it once." Yes, every time I'd mentioned the horse, he'd been "brown horse". But it was not another word for brown I needed. Think about how much more vivid it would have been to show things about the horse's unique way of moving, the way it tossed its head, or plodded. The horse was no major actor in my story, but he could have added to the dramatic vitality of the knight who rode him if I had not portrayed him like a horse in a child's coloring book.

SHOW, DON'T TELL is the best way to make a story vivid. But I neglected some really important things in the paragraph above: the other four senses. We can see the mane tossing in the wind. But we need sprinklings of the other senses as well. Horses make all kinds of noises. Our hands running over their coats feel their sleekness, but if we rub the other way, they become bristly. We can scent them, for horses don't smell the same as pigs or cows. We can smell the dust their hooves churn into the air as they run. Dust, we can even taste. Use of the other senses beyond sight and hearing need to be used more sparingly, and all such details need to be chosen carefully and not over-used. I try to avoid more than one detail at a time because too much description can over-load a scene and bog it down.

Women, I think, write this way more often than men, but I could be wrong. I read mostly women's work. But I think we go overboard trying to get our points across. We seem to be afraid we haven't got our point across so we try to re-phrase it. Then we explain it. A recent paragraph in a manuscript I read had the heroine first think about what she was going to say, then say it. Then she showed her thoughts with her body language. Then she had a narrative paragraph following explaining why this had happened. If you want to bore me, this is how to do it. ell it to me once, one way, then get on with the story.

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I write write write. Sometimes I travel. Then I write some more. And I have a great family who understand that I write write write.