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MICRO-CRITTING: Three More Illusion Crashers

January 30, 2012

NOTE TO THE READER:  There has been about a three-month hiatus since the posting of the previous chapter of “How This Critter Crits”.  Any new reader to the series should be advised that the entire series has been archived up to this present offering.  I hope he or she will find this segment interesting or instructive enough to want to go back and re-read the previous chapters.  To those stalwart readers who have  read all the previous postings and would simply like to refresh themselves as to the major points before beginning this one, I’d like to remind them there is,  before each segment,  a short review of  what went before.

TAKING THE PAST WITH US INTO THE FUTURE

The preface and the first chapter laid the groundwork for why I felt it was important for me to explain my method of critiquing (critting) and why I chose to call myself a critter instead of a reviewer.

The next two chapters of this series revealed the process I use to get an overview of the selection I’ve chosen.  The process is largely intuitive and is developed from the “weight” and the “movement” of the piece.  It is best accomplished with the eyes slightly out-of-focus.  I call this process Macro-Critting.

The last three chapters began the nuts and bolts of the process I call Micro-Critting.  First, we discussed “beginnings” and “endings,” and looking for the effectiveness of “hooks” in the openings of short works as well as in chapter endings of longer works.  Then, we looked at the importance of drama in fiction, and we introduced the obvious idea that nothing creates drama like dialogue.

Last chapter we held a magnifying glass on dialogue and explored the first of writer abuses in that area that can break the mystical bond between him and his reader.  Now, may I invite you to look at three more examples of writer abuses with dialogue? 

MICRO-CRITTING

THREE MORE ILLUSION CRASHERS

            It seems only yesterday that I posted the last chapter about those two illusion crashers, dialogue (or speaker) tags and unnecessary or non-pertinent dialogue.  I know it wasn’t just yesterday.  It wasn’t yesterday, or last week, or even two weeks ago.  I  know this because I have been frantically working my brain knuckles to the skull bone for at least that long, critting my colleagues’ creations to hone my critting craft, to hopefully help some, and to earn their respect — and, well, forty-two-point-three-eight member dollars as well as twenty-seven member cent pumps.  Fortified and funded, then, I’m ready to launch into three more examples of illusion crashers under the heading we’ll call Being Set Up.  Join me, won’t you?

Being set-up:  Suppose the writer needs to convey some information to the reader — information that is needed to further the momentum of the plot, for example, or add some insight to a character.  It’s his call.  The options are his … not all of them good.  He can, if he chooses, step in, as author, and lay it out all nice and neat for the reader.  Sometimes this is necessary to increase the pace of the narrative and to move the story from one physical place to another or back (or, I suppose forward), in time.  My main concern here is the transition into and away from dialogue.  It can be a distraction, an illusion crasher, unless handled adroitly.  If it’s too obvious he is trying to make something known to the reader, it is called author intrusion.  To this critter, the writer’s announcement could well be preceded by an “ahem,” as though saying, “May I have your attention, please?”  In the body of story it may look something like this:

“Why are you pulling away from me, Mary?  Just a moment ago you said you loved –”

“Please, let’s go a little slower, Mark.”

“Slower!  You want to go slower!  I knew you were the one I wanted since we slept on our mats together in kindergarten.  Come on, darling.  Just let me –”

“Don’t!  You’re scaring me!”

[Ahem…]  Mark had no way of knowing — Mary had never told him, but kept it her dark secret — that while she was away at college, and he was home waiting for her, a young man she thought she could trust had forced himself on her.  She thought he was her friend.  Now, she agonized over whether she should tell Mark.  Would he understand?  Would it be all over between them?

“Is there someone else?” Mark asked.

Yes, Mark, there is someone else!  It’s the author.  And, he’s a most unwelcome “someone else” to the story.

Another way the writer can translate important information to the reader is to get inside the head of a point-of-view character and let that character mull it over.  Assuming that character is Mary, this can be a bit subtler.  Unlike the “author intrusion” distraction, the reader feels at least connected with one of the two characters.  Nevertheless, when it is used to avoid dramatic action it has something of a “pssssst” feeling to it — certainly less stark than “Ahem,” but, nonetheless, inviting the reader to scoot over close and listen to something that’s meant for his or her ears only.  Observe:

Mary pulled away from Mark, still feeling the tingling impression his fingers had made on her arms.  She thought she was ready for this evening.  This room had to have set him back close to a hundred dollars.  Then there were the flowers and dinner.  Now, as she looked across the bed at him, all she could think of was [Psssst — Psssst –Psssssssst!] that night, a year ago, when Buford walked her home from the school library.  She thought she could trust Buford.  He knew she had Mark waiting for her at home.  Still, in the shadows next to her dorm he pushed her against the wall and forced himself on her.  How could she tell Mark now that the closer they got to the moment he was waiting for, all she could think of was Buford?

“Is there someone else?” Mark asked.

Was there someone else?  Mark, Mark, Mark — if you only knew!

And there is the rub:  If Mark only knew.  This scene is central to their fictional relationship.  Mark’s reaction, if Mary gave him the chance to react, would be crucial to the plot of this story.  The reader needs to be part of the unfolding present action of the plot.

While I am a big fan of being privy to the thoughts of the point-of-view character (I love getting right in there and swimming around all that gray matter), vital exposition comes out of the mouths, or the actions, of the characters who have life-changing interests in the outcome of the plot.

So, as a critter, I ask no more from the writer than to have the incantation of his words on the page so thoroughly engage me that I am oblivious to the tape and staples and glue that hold all the parts together.  If the writer leaps onto the page to flatly inform me of something that the characters should, instead, be performing in stereo and full color, on the screen of my mind, then the fictional illusion is shattered.  Even if the writer conspires with his point-of-view character to have her whisper in my ear that same information, the impact of it affects me similarly: I’m forced outside the story; I’ve become merely an eavesdropper!

But wait … the writer has come up with a third method of sneaking information to the reader.  Since I’ve developed a fondness for Mary and Mark, we’ll let them exemplify this distraction.  Only, I’ll have to ask that you forget all about Buford and that little incident beside the dorm.  It happened, all right, but let’s just say Mary worked it out with Mark.  Love was stronger than Mark’s wounded pride or manhood, or whatever is wounded in times such as these.  They marry and move on, have one child, Mariah, who grows up, falls in love — or rather, stays in love with a young man she’d known since kindergarten.  We’ll call him Marcos.  Mariah is going off to college.  But she pledges to stay faithful to Marcos, who secured a management position at the local Taco Bell.

This is the point at which the writer chooses to begin his story.  Just remember: this is a brand new story.  You’ve never even heard of Mary or Mark … or Buford — especially not Buford!  It’s all still in the writer’s head.  When he feels the time is right he will spring it on you.  As a matter of fact, it appears you won’t have long to wait:

“Darling,” Mark said, putting a hand on Mary’s arm.  “What a delicious meal.”

Mary couldn’t conceal her smile as she stood up, set his plate on hers and gathered up the silverware.  “Well, I did get my degree in home economics, you know.  I wanted to make sure when my husband returned from a hard day at Firestone he would have a comfortable home and a warm meal to look forward to.”  She took the plates and utensils to the kitchen.

“You’re a wonderful wife, Mary,” he said loudly enough that she could hear him over the running water in the sink.  “But, you know I don’t work that hard.  Remember, I’m a manager there.”

“I know, darling,” she said, wiping her hands on a dishtowel and sitting down again.  “It’s hard to believe you’re still working there.  You started there right out of high school.”

“Yeah, just when you left for college.”

“You waited for me.”

“Yes.”

And, now Mariah is going off to college.”

“Our daughter’s all grown up and going off to college.”

“I hope she’s grown up enough.”  Her eyes filled.

“You’re worried about her, aren’t you?”

Well … you remember what happened to me!”

“You mean what Buford did to you — that bastard!”  He put both his hands over hers.  “It wasn’t your fault, darling.  You fought him off.”

She sniffed.

“I know how hard it was for you, Mary….”

“Would you like some dessert, dear?”

Now, for those critters who actually took me at my word and erased from their memories the first two examples of the drama that took place between Mark and Mary and Buford, I set out in bold type the information the writer was trying to sneak into the dialogue.  I have a hunch, though, I needn’t have gone to the trouble.  It should have been as painfully obvious to read as it was simply painful for me to write.  In this case, perhaps just slightly more than the preceding two instances, didn’t you feel gaggingly set-up?

Admittedly, examples of being set-up are likely to be less obvious and less an assault on the reader’s intelligence than the three I’ve penned.  Some might even be so subtle as to slip past him in a cursory reading.  If he wants to be a serious critter, though, and especially if he aspires to be a serious writer, he needs to develop an ear and an eye at least as sharp as those of the editor he sends his story to.  He should train himself to look for dialogue in which one character says to another what is already known by both.  Signal words that seem to pop up at these times might be “Remember …” “As you know …” “I know …” or, “You mean …”  Not far from those words you might well find the information the writer wants you to have.

The serious writer knows that accurate and realistic writing is hard work.  To write well is extremely challenging.  The writer who sets his reader up, as in the ways shown above, is abrogating that challenge and his responsibility to the reader.  This is, of course, assuming he is not a beginner, unskilled in the rudiments of the craft –and Lord knows, we’ve all been there!  But, the experienced writer who still sets up his reader is almost always being lazy.  He is trying to get from point A to point B by taking the most direct route.  He has a story that is important to him, or he wouldn’t have a need to tell it.  He knows (or he thinks he knows) where it should begin and he knows, more or less, where it should end.

The problem is, our writer chooses to take the thoroughfare and drive straight away, looking neither left nor right … while the reader wants (read that as needs) to take the surface streets, to stop at a stoplight here and there, to slow down here to study a billboard, to hurry through that vaguely threatening part of town back there, to be alive to the surroundings, to pull over to the curb and take ten minutes, or an hour and ten minutes, to stroll through the park with his or her sweetheart.

To take the thoroughfare, on the other hand, to take the quickest way to get from A to B, the primary emphasis is to get his story told.  He elects to tell it.  The reader craves being shown what is happening in and around the characters.  The reader wants to slide in among them.  He wants to cavort with the characters, to laugh with them, perhaps even to cry with them.  Above all, the reader wants to fully engage his own brain and his own heart, to let both resonate with the thoughts and feelings of those characters who are let loose in their own created world.

“And, that,” as dear Robert Frost would — and did — conclude: “that makes all the difference.”

 

Pssst!  You made it this far so why not pop over to the right-hand side bar and subscribe to my FREE newsletter?  Until I get other people to voluntarily rave about it, I’m gonna have to be the first one you’ll read as saying: “Jay’s newsletter’s a hoot!” and “Chock-full of writing tips, it’s information rich, while entertaining and funny!” and “You’re gonna wanna jump aboard before Jay discovers how great it truly is and starts charging a huge subscription fee!”

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13 Comments
  1. These all involve backstory, which is incredibly hard to do. I like how you show different examples of how an author should/should not bring in the relevant parts which affect the story line. The examples help see the different approaches and evaluate them. Thank you!

  2. Thanks, Sue for responding to my post. I don’t know whether you know it or not, but this was posted on FS, chapter-by-chapter as a book several years ago. When I started posting them here on my blog I had to go through considerable explanation on how one scrolls down a chapter or a story (or I suppose a poem) and makes the determination on whether he will read it. It’s not really that different from reading a paper-paged book. One still makes decisions based on how long the piece is as well as how dense it is (in terms of its layout on the page or screen, i.e., paragraphing, etc.) I also had to explain the reward system on FS. In other words, I wasn’t aware, until I started adapting it for non-FanStory reading, how FanStorians seem to have their own vocabulary. When you have a chance (busy lady, I know!) you might enjoy reading the first few chapters of this blog to appreciate what I mean.

    In the meantime, thank you for supporting ALL my writing, including my blog.

    Blessings,

    Jay

    • So pleased to have you drop by, Jack. You made some generous comments, which I appreciate. I hope you come back soon and often. I’m not sure you realize it, but the series is archived and if you subscribe to my blog I will notify you when the new chapters post. Again, thanks for stopping by. See ya on FaceBook.

      Jay

  3. Really enjoyed this, Jay. Insightful and valuable observations. Thanks

    • Well, I thank you (belatedly, I’m afraid) for taking the time out of your day to read my blog. I hope to see you back here inthe future.

  4. Some exceptional interesting insight here. I’m going to go back and read the rest of the series, an then hope I haven’t broken too many of these in my own works. 🙂

  5. rittsend permalink

    I followed links from Twitter and stumbled on your blog. You are now in my favorites list!

    This particular topic is one I’m going to need to look at closely for when I do the rewrite of the novel I’m currently working on. The first half of the book is my main character finding out the layered secrets from her parents past that drove them away from home, the second half is when she goes back and rescues a long lost brother and confronts the bad guy for what he did to her family. So the first half of my book is reveal and set up, much of it in flashback or conversation. I’m still in the first draft, but I know that how I manage the pace and flow of that information is going to be key to keeping the confidence and engagement of the reader.

    So, I say that to say this: Thank you for being a resource I can mine for advice when it is time to launch into edits. I will surely need it.

    ~Deanna Rittinger (Ritt’s End)

    • I am SOOO glad you stumbled on my blog, Deanna. I hope you plan on reading the archived chapters as well. And, since I have a new chapter to be posting in about a week the best way to be assured of not missing it would be to subscribe to SeptuagenarianJourney and be notified by email when it posts. Your words are really humbling. It’s nice to think that the thoughts spawned from my mind can be used as a resource for your novel. Your novel sounds fascinating, by the way. Good luck with it!

      • rittsend permalink

        I’ve signed up, and yes, I will read the back chapters.

        *laughs at self* You showed interest in my novel, and so I launched into another two paragraphs talking about it before I came to my senses and erased them. You must get writers here all the time searching for help … and an ear.

        I’ve signed up for the posts and I will be back. Thank you for your kindness!

  6. Thank you, Rick, for your interest. I’m glad you’re going to start at this from the beginning. Also, I shall be adding the next installment in about a week [and now, wait for it! here comes his pitch] so if you want to subscribe to SeptuagenarianJourney you’ll be notified when it posts.

  7. Hi, Jay! As always, great info. Thanks for sharing it with us.

  8. I love to joke with you because you’re extremely intelligent and a darn good mischief maker!!! You’re the type of writer who makes reading ANYTHING interesting. You have one heck of a great gift!!!
    😀

    • We do have fun, don’t we, Vonda? Thank you for digging into the archives and plucking out one of my “How This Critter Crits” posts. I’m glad you enjoyed it. Thanks for coming by.

      Jay

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