Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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April 3, 2013

5 Ways To Practice The Art of Double-Duty Writing

by Susan Squires

As I was preparing a workshop for the California Dreamin' Conference, I began to think about the concept of making one element of your work, whether scene, sentence or character, do double duty. I've decided that this concept may be one of the "secrets of the writing universe."

First I'll show you five ways that Double Duty can be introduced into your books. You can probably think of others. Then we'll talk about the effects that it can have on your finished product.

1. The simplest form of double-duty is probably the kind you use for attributions of dialogue.

Instead of saying, "he said," or "she expostulated" after a line of dialogue, you leave off the attribution and start a new sentence that implies who is speaking, such as:

"'I can't believe you said that.' Her voice broke and she turned away."

If this is a scene between a man and a woman, we know the woman was the one who spoke, even though we are not technically given an attribution but an action description. Of course you all do this already. It's great for varying the sentence patterns in your dialogue scenes.

What it does: Great for pacing. Speeds up your book and makes it a page-turner.

2. That pair of sentences I just made up does double duty in another way. The description of the action tells the character's emotion as well as describes the action, as well as tells you who was speaking. Without it, the character could be only angry rather than also deeply hurt.

What it does: Shorthand description--great for pacing. Also deepens the reader's perception of the character.

3. Scenes can do double duty as well. As a matter of fact, they nearly always should.

Examples are: introducing the villain and showing the protagonist's internal dilemma in the same scene. Or, an action scene that advances the plot, and shows the heroine that she has to take responsibility for her mistakes. You get the idea.

What it does: Keeps the book from dragging. Excellent for tight middles. (And who doesn't want one of those?)

4. One of the skills that make an actor great is being able to show more than one emotion at once.

To take a recent example, Daniel Day Lewis as Lincoln had a great scene with Sally Field who played his wife. He showed clearly that he was exasperated with her for not getting over their son's death, that he loved her anyway, and that he was guilty over his role in their son's death and his ability to push it to the side to focus on the national interest. Wow. Oscar time.

Your characters need to have more than one emotion simultaneously too. You can do that in description of their complicated feelings. Or you can do that by showing what they feel while they are talking, which can be very different than what they're saying. This doesn't mean you need to show every emotion in great detail. Just hint that two things are going on at once. Readers love to be "in the know."

What it does: Deepens the character and makes them more engaging. Involves the reader, because they "figure out" what's really going on.

5.  Characters can be made to serve two purposes.

Some books need lots of characters, like family sagas, or sweeping historical fiction. That's their nature. But if you have two characters in your book that serve similar purposes, the book is often improved by combining them.

Donald Maas takes it one step further in his advice in Writing the Breakout Novel. He thinks you can combine characters who have very different purposes into one character. I did that on two occasions, and it works.

Try asking yourself whether characters can be combined. Can the mentor role also be the betrayer? Can the hero be the one that precipitates the twist instead of the best friend's mother? You see what I mean.

What it does: Makes characters more complex and thus engaging to the reader. Speeds up the book because you don't have to introduce and pay attention to another secondary character.

So, you probably sense a theme here. Making various elements in your book do double duty speeds up your book and creates a page-turner, which is just what we all want as authors. It makes your characters deeper and more compelling, and it engages your reader in figuring out what's really going on--a deeply satisfying experience.

In short, it is a key to making your book thrill agents, editors, and readers. That definitely qualifies it as a "secret of the universe" for me.

Do you use double-duty writing? Which of the five above is your favorite? Do you have questions for Susan? What else do you think makes for a faster read?

About Susan:

Susan Squires is New York Times bestselling author known for breaking the rules of romance writing. She has won multiple contests for published novels and reviewer’s choice awards. Publisher’s Weekly named Body Electric one of the most influential mass market books of 2003 and One with the Shadows, the fifth in her vampire Companion Series, a Best book of 2007.

Susan's latest book, a novella called Your Magic Touch (part of the Children of Merlin series), released last month. All of her books are available at Amazon and other booksellers.

Susan has a Masters in English literature from UCLA and once toiled as an executive for a Fortune 500 company. Now she lives at the beach in Southern California with her husband, Harry, a writer of supernatural thrillers, and three very active Belgian Sheepdogs, who like to help by putting their chins on the keyboarddddddddddddddddd.

0 comments on “5 Ways To Practice The Art of Double-Duty Writing”

  1. Susan -- One of my favorite (and easiest) copyedit assignments for Dorchester was your BODY ELECTRIC. Now, with three manuscripts of my own to revise, I will take your double-duty advice especially to heart. Thank you! -- Johanna Bilbo Staton (Jody)

  2. Wow. You deserve the Oscar for offering such key writing advice so succinctly!

  3. This is an excellent post. It may have taken too much space, but I would have enjoyed an example of No. 4, showing more than one emotion at once. One of my favorite movie scenes is from The Untouchables in which Robert DeNiro was crying as he listened to opera and laughing at the same time when told that Sean Connery's Irish cop was dead. I've studied that scene and wondered how I would have written it in prose to capture both emotions.
    Thanks for challenging us as writers and continued good success in your career.
    Happy Trails,
    Bob Stewart

    1. Okay, so I meant to add an example for number 4 earlier, but after the dogs got walked the tax guy called with a question, and I have a novella out this week in the Children of Merlin series, (Your Magic Touch) and I had to pay attention to that for a minute. The way of the world for writers, I know.

      Rather than comb through books for examples of characters meaning two things at once, let me just make one up. You’ll be able to think of your own, better, examples too.

      The primary way you show two things going on at once is by contrasting character’s thoughts, description of action or demeanor, and dialogue, or some combination thereof.

      Here’s a little made-up scene: We know the heroine is very upset with the hero over something from the last scene, which was in her point of view.

      “You know we need to talk.” Her tone was flat, but he wasn’t fooled.
      What did she want from him? “Damn it, Sally. It’s not my fault your little brother can’t hold his drink.” True, as far as it went.
      “No.” She just stared at him. Way too calm. He liked the yelling last night better. “That’s not your fault.”
      “If you think I care what you think of me, well, think again.” He ran his hands over his three-day stubble.
      “You’ve made it very clear that you don’t care what people think about you.”
      “Then you know what to expect from me now.” He picked up his jacket and pushed out through the screen door, letting it bang behind him. Christ Almighty. Now he was going to have to go bail out Junior, or risk losing the good opinion of the one person in the world he cared about.

      Pretty pathetic as a scene example, but I hope you get what I mean. As you revise your work, you can layer in even more complexity.

  4. You're right, Susan, that this is THE secret to the Writing Universe!

    I've been stuck in the quagmire of my "getting to the end" part (I don't have sagging middles, it's farther in,) and I just used the hero's little sister to show the heroine herself, at a younger age, and how her reaction to the girl wanting to enlist in the service helps her realize that she doesn't want to go back to the war.

    I feel so brilliant when I do that - now, if I could just do it on PURPOSE! Great blog - thank you!

  5. Jody, how good to hear from you! Body Electric was a real challenge for me. It was the third book I wrote, but the first in a modern setting...even worse, the near future. Scared me to death. I was new to the publishing process then, and you helped introduce me to the wonderful role of copywriters. MANY thanks. That's still my husbands's favorite book, I think.

    Bob, good point! I didn't give a writing example, did I? After I get back from walking the dogs, I will remedy that. Stay tuned.

  6. I use the dialog "double duty" by ending dialog with a sentence that describes the talker's actions/feelings. "Oh, really?" Meri fiddled with her skirt hem, not wanting to look him in the eye.

    I also think what makes for a fast read is a cliff-hanger chapter ending. When I'm trying to go to bed, I hate them, but I love them, too! 😉

    1. I totally agree with your approach to attributions, Lorna. It's a really good way to offer variability in the way you attribute dialogue. You can't use it all the time or it becomes monotonous. But sprinkling them in along with "he said," or "she yelled," makes for effective writing. And I love cliff-hangers, or surprises or threats of some kind at the end of the chapter.... my favorite emails from readers start with some form of "I hate you." But then they continue, "You made me stay up way past my bedtime," or some such. Music to my ears.

  7. Susan, I like the way you outlined your tips in such simple terms. 🙂 I esp. like the idea of a double duty character. In my recent book, How To Fell A Timberman, one of the characters is a handsome rogue I set up to be loved but he also betrayed the hero of the story. I provided little hints so the reader wouldn't be turned off in the end and yet this character remained somewhat sympathetic to the end.

  8. I long ago adopted the mannerism of leaving off speech attributions. It's a fun challenge to get through entire books without once writing "she said." I'd never thought of it as efficiency. Now I love it even more!

    All your advice about complexifying characters is excellent. By thinking the practical idea of double-duty, we can add layers of depth so we're not writing paper dolls.

  9. The "he said" "she said" issues have always troubled me as I write. I love these suggestions and will put them to use. Thanks for sharing a great advice.

  10. I just have a simple question after reading so many pieces of advice about "how/what to write"...WHO sets these "guidelines"... by virtue of what? I may be totally incorrect here, but I write what I write... I don't follow guidelines, I don't have some degree involved with writing, I don't follow "rules" for things like appropriate grammar, punctuation, etc."... I simply write... others read and accept or reject...NO RULES...they enjoy or they don't... and quite honestly, I'm asked to "keep writing more"... they don't care if I occasionally misspell, or use the wrong punctuation marks, or fail to follow someone's "guidelines" or "rules" for "acceptable" writing... they simply accept or reject! I don't look to "make monies" from my writing...all royalties from what I write/sell go to my daughter/my "legacy" to HER... & my writings SELL with no professional "guidance" or constraints on what I do! I keep reading all these pieces of advice about writing... I find little, when at all, useful to me for one reason... I have little regard for "rules" about writing... if it comes from your Heart, your Soul, your very reason for existing...JUST DO IT... it works or it doesn't...it sells, or it doesn't...NOT by virtue of "rules of writing" but rather because PEOPLE WANT TO READ IT OR THEY DON'T! Life is too constrained by ACCEPTABLE TO OTHERS RULES...just WRITE & let the words fall where they may, on ears & eyes willing to hear/read them...THEN & ONLY THEN are you a GREAT WRITER no matter how the publishing world (with all its ego-based rules) sees you!!!!

    1. Roxanne,
      I have written for New York publishing houses and self-published several books as well. I always think books have to come from your heart. You're right, there are no rules. I know my first book published was one that everyone said would never be accepted, and it was rejected a lot! But all depends on your goals for your writing. You were very clear in your post about your goals. My goal was always to connect with as many readers as possible, so I was always looking for ways to make that happen. Over the years, I began to find things that seemed to work in my stories and for my writing style that made it easier for readers to connect. At some point, you just want to share what you think you've learned, to see if it works for others too, and help them shortcut some of the painful lessons you learned, if their goals are the same as yours. No one has to accept those opinions, if they don't seem to work in the context of that individual person's story and style. Much luck with your work. Write on!

    2. Write for others as you would have them write for you. For me, that's writing with clarity, and with grace. And there are good lessons for that in Joseph Williams' STYLE: THE BASICS OF CLARITY AND GRACE. Readers deserve to be spared the inconsistencies that interfere with clarity, and the awkward sentences that detract from grace. I'm not a perfectionist, just an improvabalist.

  11. Great post!
    I try to double my value by asking myself the following questions: Does it forward the plot? Does it illuminate the character? Does it achieve both objectives?

    With that in mind, less wasted words.

    1. We all plod, Autumn. Or at least we think we are plodding as we write it. But doesn't that make those moments of soaring precious? And I've notice that if you wait a while, and re-read, you end up thinking, "Darn. That's not bad!" The writing cycle I was in at St. Martin's Press, they always seemed to come back with galleys for me to proof right as I was about 100 pages into the new book. For me that's about when I'm realizing that I don't REALLY know the characters, or even what the book is REALLY about (not usually what's on the surface), and that there will be lots to rewrite later on. In short, almost despair. At least in need of a serious reboot. Then I'd get the galleys. I re-read a book that had had several drafts, editorial comments, a copy-edit version, and I'd say "Darn. That's a pretty good book." But my next thought was always, "Who wrote that? It couldn't have been me. And if it was, I'll never be able to do it again." But we do. We plod through another one, and regroup at the 100 page point, and get a chance to rewrite, and Voila! "Darn, that's not bad."

  12. I always enjoy reading scenes where there are layers of emotion and where what's going on on the surface is not what's going on underneath. I'm in the middle of editing my first novel and you've given me a lot to think about in terms of how I can enrich my own writing this way. This could be THE answer to a particular scene that's troubling me. Thanks!

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