Monday, July 12

Real Life Diagnostics: Is it Me, or My Character?

This week's volunteer asks...

Am I presenting this through the characters motivation and reactions or am I as the author intruding and telling about them?

Original Text

Concealed by a eucalyptus tree Pryor observed the boar as it rummaged amid some thicket up ahead.

Calculating whether or not he could obtain a clear shot from his position he concluded he would need to advance to a spot closer to the pig.

He scanned the area below and to the left of the thicket. He found a suitable tree which he estimated to be ten meters away give or take, but this idea gave him cause for concern because there was a strong possibility the boar would hear him moving and scamper, and the last place he wished to be was out in the open with a startled boar. However, he decided it was a risk he was willing to take so determined was he not to miss his opportunity at what he deemed his best chance at a kill shot.

He gripped the stock of his rifle and steadied himself. He took a deep breath and focused his mind only on the tree, then off he ran. His legs pushed him out onto the open ground and he quickly became aware of the noise he made as the undergrowth crunched underfoot. Certain the boar would get spooked he moved faster perhaps a little carelessly as he practically sprung over a fallen log, but as he landed his boot slid on the uneven terrain and he lost his balance, his arms flailed as he nearly went down but fortunately he managed to correct himself and remain upright.

My Comments In Purple

Concealed by a eucalyptus tree Pryor observed the boar as it rummaged amid some thicket up ahead. The "Pryor observed" here puts this outside Pryor's head and into a separate narrator. Someone else is watching Pryor and relating what he's doing. Since the boar is in the "thicket up ahead" it's possible the narrator is also relating what the boar is doing as well, putting more distance between reader and narrator and characters. As for motivation, the only motivating words here are "concealed" and "observed" suggesting Pryor is trying to hide and watch the boar. The distant narrator makes this motivation feel more like author (or narrator, as it could be either from this) than character. We're being told what Pryor is doing and why, not seeing Pryor acting and surmising the why by his actions. A simple tweak would put this back in Pryor's head. (A)

(A)
Pryor hid behind the eucalyptus tree and observed the boar as it rummaged amid some thicket up ahead.

Very minor, but it puts Pryor in the acting role. He's doing something, not having something done to him. Pryor "was concealed." The tree was doing the acting there. You could get even closer with something like...

(A) Pryor hid behind the eucalyptus tree. The boar rummaged amid some thicket up ahead.

Adding some internalization here would solidify Pryor as the POV.

(A) Pryor hid behind the eucalyptus tree, his binoculars pressed against his eyes. The boar rummaged amid some thicket up ahead. Nasty animal, all bristles and teeth.

Calculating whether or not he could obtain a clear shot from his position he concluded he would need to advance to a spot closer to the pig. Ditto here. There's no sense of Pryor yet. We're not in his head and knowing what he thinks, we're being told what he thinks and what's he's doing. This could work as an omniscient narrator, but there's also no judgment of the events, which you often see in omniscient, so it feels more told. The narrator is someone outside looking in, not the character looking out. To get closer, you could try... (B)

(B) To obtain a clear shot he would need to advance closer to the pig.

He scanned the area below and to the left of the thicket. This feels more in Pryor's head now. He's acting. He found a suitable tree which he estimated to be ten meters away give or take, Starting to pull away, but I can see him thinking this. [but this idea gave him cause for concern because there was a strong possibility the boar would hear him moving and scamper, and the last place he wished to be was out in the open with a startled boar. However, he decided it was a risk he was willing to take so determined was he not to miss his opportunity at what he deemed his best chance at a kill shot.] We're back to the distant narrator. The bold words are what distances this from Pryor and makes it read like someone else is describing the scene. A good way to test this is to cut those out. The sentence reads fine without them, and actually feels more in Pryor's head (C).

(C)
He scanned the area below and to the left of the thicket. He found a suitable tree ten meters away, give or take. There was a strong possibility the boar would hear him moving and scamper, and the last place he wished to be was out in the open with a startled boar. However, it was a risk he was willing to take so not to miss his opportunity at his best chance at a kill shot.

Same words, only without the author/narrator butting in. It's clear that he's making these decisions and determining these things.

He gripped the stock of his rifle and steadied himself. He took a deep breath and focused his mind only on the tree, then off he ran. His legs pushed him out onto the open ground and he quickly became aware of the noise he made as the undergrowth crunched underfoot. Certain the boar would get spooked he moved faster perhaps a little carelessly as he practically sprung over a fallen log, but as he landed his boot slid on the uneven terrain and he lost his balance, his arms flailed as he nearly went down but fortunately he managed to correct himself and remain upright. The bold words pull this out of Pryor's head and into an author/narrator again. Some of them, like fortunately, are right on the border, but if you're aware enough to think how fortunate your action was, chances are it's not you thinking it as it happens. (D)

(D) He gripped the stock of his rifle and steadied himself. He took a deep breath and focused his mind only on the tree, then off he ran. His legs pushed him out onto the open ground and the undergrowth crunched underfoot. He moved faster, perhaps a little carelessly as he practically sprung over a fallen log. As he landed, his boot slid on the uneven terrain and he lost his balance. His arms flailed as he nearly went down but he managed to correct himself and remain upright.

To put things more in Pryor's POV, I'd suggest eliminating the distant, tell-type bold words and adding some internalization. How does Pryor feel about what's going on? There's a little of it when he talks about being willing to take a risk for the kill shot, and there I start to get a sense of who he is and what he wants. To make a character come alive readers need to connect with them on an emotional level, and knowing how they think and feel helps create that connection. That would also give the sense that he's making decisions based on his own judgment and his opinions are what's motivating him to act.

There's also a question of voice here. I tried not to mess with the author's very formal and almost historical voice. From the tone, I get the impression that this is set in the past, almost a Lewis & Clark type expedition by gentlemen off on safari. I could be totally wrong of course, but the formal voice lends itself to that. A more distant narrator often gives that feel, because stories written a hundred years ago have that tone. It's a "proper" feel vs the voice of the character coming through. I have no idea if this is accurate or not, though.

Thanks to our volunteer for submitting this piece to pick apart.

6 comments:

  1. And nice job, Ms. Hardy, at copyediting that without touching the writer's style whatsoever. That's hard.

    To the writer who boldly submitted the snippet where it had never gone before, being able to tell that something specific might be wrong with your writing, so you can ask for input, isn't easy, either. :)

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  2. Thank you Ms Hardy and your volunteer. I love this. It's very helpful. These are things I can only understand by seeing them in process.

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  3. As someone who appreciates it when someone lets me know my slip is showing, I'd like to mention you misspelled "diagnostics."

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  4. Thanks Marilynn! I try to fix those typos but they always sneak in anyway.

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  5. Wow, this is really helpful. It gives me a new way to look at my work.

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  6. Great Post. Thanks, brave volunteer, for sharing!
    I use a ton of the same "Bolded" words in my writing. After every chapter I write, I go back and cut them all out, along with all those other pesky words I like to use, such as: "that" "had"
    "has" and so on. (well, I cut most of them out) they're so hard to part with for some reason. LOL :)

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