It Once Was Much Worse)
At the end of my last story piece I mentioned that I had run into a little bit of trouble when transitioning from one scene to the next. It felt awkward even as I was writing it, and it sounded wrong when I reviewed it after the fact.
But let me be more precise about how it “felt awkward” as I wrote it. I think the best way to describe it would be that I felt detached from the experience. Where I usually feel like I am actively exploring the world with my characters, here I felt like I was simply typing out random words as a disinterested outsider.
And scenes that are written by a disinterested outsider are usually the least engaging ones to read as well. When an author is not connected to their own creation, then it is very hard for the audience to be.
I wanted to learn from this experience, so I decided to save the awkward segment for review. Here is how the scene originally played out.
The boy hesitated a few moments more, eyes locked on Tharol in distrust. Then he scrabbled about in the dirt, picking up each coin, then turning and running further down the alley and into a door at its end. Tharol shook his head and started to make his way back how he had come. He only made it as far as the adjacent alley, though, when he found his way blocked by a bearded and cowled man, peering at Tharol curiously and stroking his chin thoughtfully. Tharol shoved the money bag back into his side pocket, afraid that he had just met a more capable thief! "Well that was an interesting thing to do," the man said. "What?" "Giving that boy half your money after working him over like that." Tharol shrugged. "I suppose he needs it more than I do." "A strange sentiment to be sure. Most people feel they always need more of that stuff." "Well I didn't need those coins," Tharol said darkly. "If you must know, they were a bribe, and I didn't want to be tainted by them."
There are still a few typos and awkward phrases that I decided to leave for to keep this snippet authentic. But for a moment set those aside, and consider only the cadence and structure of the piece. Doesn’t it just feel off?
But why does it feel off? It’s all well and fine to know that a scene is bothering us, but if we can’t verbalize why, then we can’t correct it in an intentional way. All we can do is rewrite the piece over and over, hoping by pure dumb luck to find a version that works, with no guarantee that we ever will.
So I took the time and asked myself “why is this wrong?” And I found myself immediately gravitating to the first paragraph of the above section. It is made of of a flurry of rapid and excited statements in quick succession. Scrabbling in dirt, picking up coins, turning and running. Then I noticed this same pattern continued as I transitioned into the next scene. Finding his way blocked, bearded and cowled, shoving the money bag out of view. This sort of quick, dramatic phrasing doesn’t signal that we’re about to have a conversation with this new stranger, it seems to suggest that another fight will break out!
Of course it’s no wonder why I was writing it this way, I had just come out of a fight scene, where this sort of rapid pace was exactly what I needed. But now I needed to transition into something more measured, and doing so required me to pause and intentionally reset my own, personal rhythms.
Once I had done that, I ended up with the following.
The boy hesitated a few moments more, eyes locked on Tharol in distrust. Then, all at once, he scrabbled about in the dirt, picked up each coin, and ran down the alley, disappearing into its murky shadows. Tharol watched the dark corner that the boy had disappeared into for a few moments more, shaking his head back and forth. Then he took a deep breath, turned, and started to make his way back to the market. He hadn't gone more than five steps, though, when he heard a voice tsk-tsking behind him. Startled, he spun around and saw a tall, lanky man nestled into the corner where the two alleys ran together. There was no other entrance by which he could have entered without Tharol seeing, so... "You've been there the whole time?" Tharol demanded incredulously.
I still start off the same way, because I am still wrapping up a fast-paced scene, and I need to not shut it out too abruptly. So there remains the quick phrases about the boy locking eyes, scrabbling in the dirt, picking up coins, and running down an alley. But now I have a turning point with the final phrase of that sentence: “disappearing into its murky shadows.”
The transition here is subtle but important. This last detail is appended to a list of actions. But it is not an action itself, it is a description. Thus in the extent of a single sentence I am seamlessly shifting the reader from thinking about actions to thinking about the little details.
I complete the transition by then describing Tharol standing still, bringing a sense of closure to the previous scene, and a reset before beginning the next. Now when he encounters the thin stranger it was far more natural to write out their exchanges at a slower, more gradual cadence.
So there you go. What I wrote the first time wasn’t working for me, but there was a reason why I was writing it that way. Once I understood the reason, I was able to pause and shift my frame of mind. Then I could write the necessary transition more naturally.
The important lesson here is to be mindful and intentional while writing. It’s easy and fun to just enter a state of flow where the words run out of your fingers as quickly as you think them in your mind. But every now and again it’s important to pause, think, and write what you write intentionally. I’ll try to remember this approach as I continue with the next section of The Favored Son. Come back on Thursday and I’ll let you know how that approach went.