Saturday, July 16, 2016

Physical Writing: Getting Into Character

Physical theater? No, I'm talking about physical writing.

One of the most abstract, difficult elements of good writing is cleaning up the narrative's point of view (POV). That was a concept that I had a hard time getting my mind wrapped around. Now that I get it, I spot this weakness in other books that I read too.

What does it actually mean?

Take this example:

The stray cat walked carefully around the corner of the church which was commissioned by King Henry in the 11th century. In the front of the church, the cat encountered a cheerful goat which was bleating with glee. The cat, unfamiliar with such a large creature, rounded its back and hissed. Upon hearing the car's threatening call, the goat became suspicious and looked silently at the cat.

Ok. Besides that I've dived into an impossible scenario with a cat and a goat, here are the problems with the paragraph's POV:

1. Who is telling us that the church was built in the 11th century? What entity knows this information?
2. We are feeling the cat's caution and fear.
3. But we are also feeling the goat's glee and surprise at seeing the cat.
4. We haven't chosen one POV.
5. We don't feel invested in any one character.

Let's try again.

"I have never been here before," thought the tabby on the fourth day of his travels. 

He was walking along the massive sandstone wall of the town's structure. He was thirsty. His front left paw was still aching from the skirmish he'd had with a hound in Rotenburg the evening before. From around the corner, he could hear the rippling of water, perhaps from a stone fountain. Water! 

Suddenly, he heard an animal's shrill grunt coming from around same the corner.

"A strange animal in a strange town!" the tabby thought. "I must be careful." He stared for a moment at his injured paw. "Yet I am in desperate need of something to drink."

He peered around the corner.

"OH!" he exclaimed. He felt his back tensing, all his fur standing on end. 

The noisy creature had long legs, wiry hair, and thick spiraling horns. And it was standing between the tabby and the stone water fountain. 

"Never have I seen such a frightening monster!" The cat took a deep breath and let out a long, penetrating hiss.

The creature at the fountain fell silent and blinked.

I know that's no masterpiece right there, but we've addressed the issues:

1. Leave out the info about the church. What we want to get across instead is the atmosphere that the 11th century church brings: a stone wall, a trickling fountain.
2. Obviously, I chose the cat's POV.
3. Therefore, we had to leave out the information about the goat's feelings. But keep the outer description of the goat's behavior, that which the cat could observe.
4. I went gung-ho with the cat's inner experience and upped the stakes by adding some urgency: He's tired and thirsty and was injured in a fight last night.

I have just added drama into a scene involving a cat and a goat. So I think you can do it between two human beings.

But how do you do this? You have to FEEL it. It's a whole-body experience.

In fact, for me it is such a physical sensation that I take the lesson from theater: While you are writing, you have to stay in character, just like an actor on stage does. After I have determined the POV, I use my imagination to go into that character's body, forming the back-story to make real emotions, reactions, modus operandi, and voice. And just like an actor on stage, you have to stay in character as you are writing. 

Many actors and theater hobbyists also know that to get your point across to the big audience, you have to exaggerate (without making a caricature, oh ha ha). My rule is that if the reader were to open my book to a random page, she should be able to tell who's talking simply from reading their dialogue. No dialogue attribution, descriptive paragraphs. In other words, each character has his own voice.

(I just stumbled upon Sunanda Chatterjee's brilliant post on the same subject. She gives fantastic examples.)

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