By Sharla Rae
I'm fudging a bit and bringing back an updated craft blog that has been referred to several times at our critique meetings here at WITS. For our new readers and even for our long-time followers, I believe it bears repeating.
I preach Like With Like to my critique partners all the time and once in a while, they remind me to practice what I preach. So what do I mean by like with like? It’s not as easy to explain on paper as it is to point out the mistake in a WIP but here goes.
Like with like has to do with story flow.
I’m certain we’ve all read drafts and discovered that a certain tidbit of information was in the wrong place. It interrupts the flow of the scene and the action. Think of this interruption as a speed bump in the middle of a racetrack. If a race car were to hit one it would spin out of the action.
These speed bumps are not to be confused with a data dump, sections of lengthy description, background or character internalization that detour a reader off the path before returning them to the action.
Speed bumps are misplaced bits of information that amount to a word or a couple of sentences that need to be cut and pasted elsewhere. They’re more jarring than data dumps because they pop up out of nowhere. Readers may even reread a section or two because they feel they might’ve missed something.
So what causes speed bumps?
Here’s the kicker. To avoid data dumps, writers are told to dribble information throughout the story. However, dribbling it into the wrong spot creates a speed bump.
Example: Let’s say a scene opens like this – excuse the paraphrasing:
Tom the race driver settles into his car. As a reader we’re riding shot gun, hearing Tom’s thoughts, seeing the inside of his car and watching him perform all his checks before the race. Then he takes his place on the track. The flag is waved and we’re off!
Tom is dodging spinouts, speeding faster and faster and trying to get around Don Dingbat in car number 4. Tom thinks: Dang, that Don. The man will do anything to win, even if it gets another driver killed. Last month, he caused a three-car pileup that put two drivers in the hospital.
No, the car didn’t crash. Tom is still flying around the track. The reader, however, was thrown through the windshield -- figuratively speaking.
Okay, It's a silly example, but you get the picture. This is an “action” scene. Readers would have remained in the car for the thrill of the ride, but segueing into Don’s character background tossed them out of the action or in this case the race.
If Tom had seen Don strutting past his pitstop before the race or during his systems check, the info wouldn’t have been so jarring. Don Dingbat needs to make an appearance at the beginning of the scene along with the rest of the set-up information. Like With Like. Another solution might be to paste the rivalry between the two men at the end of the race where perhaps they air their differences.
Let’s try this again:
Tom settles into his car and is checking out the dashboard like the cockpit of a Leer jet. Through his windshield he spies Don Dingbat getting into his car to do the same. Tom Thinks: The man’s a wild card, a danger to every man on the track. He’d do anything to win a race and usually got away with it too. Last month, he’d caused a three-car pileup that put two drivers in the hospital. Tom scowls and yanks his safety belt across his body. This is one race Don Dingbat will not win.
The flag is waved and we’re off!
Tom dodges spinouts, speeding faster and faster as he tries to pass Don in car number 4. Don swerves back and forth across the track trying to hold his place. Tom races around hairpin curves, steadily moving ahead of the other drivers. It’s an exciting ride and in the end Tom flies over the finish line ahead of Don, and this time, the reader is still sitting right beside him.
In the second example we pasted the speed bump into the set up scene. Doing so actually enhances the action because now the reader is invested in the race. He/she wants to see Tom win and Don lose. The actual action/race was not interrupted. Details about both men can be dribbled in as the story proceeds. No data dump and no speed bumps.
In every scene something is happening. Conversation/dialogue and internalization may not be as exciting as a thrilling as an action scene, but they are a form or action and speed bumps are just as jarring in these types of scenes. Be on the lookout.
Split descriptions are one of the most common and overlooked speed bumps. Let’s say the scene begins in the POV character’s head -- we’ll call him Harry. A second character, Bob, walks into the scene. The writer describes Bob through Harry’s POV. A few paragraphs later, another description of Bob is inserted that really could’ve been linked to the original. It surprises the reader because it pops up out of no where and interrupts the current action, dialog, thoughts etc.
An out-of-place scenic description or the detailing of a room or building can cause the same kind of speed bump.
On top of their jarring nature, split descriptions often steal the power of the scene or words.
The air shifted and teacher, Peter Hunk, glanced toward the door. A woman stood there, scanning his classroom. She was so beautiful she seemed a figment of his imagination. A gossamer dress better suited for a wedding than a classroom draped her petite form and short jet hair cupped the perfect oval of her face. Then her head jerked in his direction, her unusual eyes flashing with anger . . .
Blah blah blah . . . the woman gives Peter a piece of her mind, and he doesn’t understand what she’s talking about. Down the page we go. And Peter Hunk thinks it’s a shame she sounds so nuts because under different circumstances, he’d definitely ask her out. He hadn’t even heard her first words because he’d become lost in her eyes, eyes so striking they were almost spooky. It was like looking upon lovely blue lace curtains, then green and no, brown. But how could that be . . .
On the first read, this type of speed bump isn’t always as noticeable as the one in the race car example, but a smart reader, will stop and say, “Huh? When did that happen?”
Remember, the revelation about the woman’s eyes is half a page or more from the paragraph where she walked on stage. If the woman’s eyes had been normal, when she walked into the room, Peter wouldn’t have noticed them except for maybe their color and their angry expression. That wasn’t the case. Peter did notice they were unusual. So we must keep like with like.
The air shifted and teacher, Peter Hunk, glanced toward the door. A woman stood there, scanning his classroom. She was so beautiful she seemed a figment of his imagination. A gossamer dress better suited for a wedding than a classroom draped her petite form, and short jet hair cupped the perfect oval of her face. Her head jerked in his direction and he started. Anger flashed in her eyes, eyes so striking they were almost spooky. It was like looking through lovely blue lace curtains, then green … no, brown. But how could that be? Who was she? . . .
He started, realizing the woman was yelling gibberish at him . . . And now Peter Hunk listens to the gibberish and we get his reaction and so forth without interruption.
Moving the eye description delivers a more powerful description in that it screams to the reader, “Whoa, there’s something woo-woo about this woman.” Keeping like with like also prevents an interruption of the woman's actions.
The good news about speed bumps is that they’re an easy fix. While not all of them will fit into a set-up scene, most can be eliminated with a simple cut and paste to another location.
I hope my examples, silly as they are, illustrate how keeping like with like improves the flow of a scene. If you have examples of your own or questions to share, I hope you'll join the conversation with some comments.