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Anyone can go through the motions of getting their characters to move around the stage of their story, chuck in a big action scene, and kill the baddy. It doesn’t necessarily result in a satisfying experience for the reader, however.
What a lot of writers don’t understand when starting out is that there is more to it than the mere pedestrian experience so often offered within a story’s narrative via mundane, lackluster details.There doesn’t need to be boring bits between the exciting bits, and I’m not talking about writing fast-paced action scenes on every page, either.
Two important aspects that sell writing to the reader are drama and syntax.
Instead of calling ourselves fiction writers, perhaps it would be more helpful if we replaced the word ‘fiction’ with ‘drama’. For that is what fiction – and creative non-fiction – is. Or should be. But when au milieu of the creative throes in constructing a story, we often overlook drama and syntax in a bid to keep the story moving and get our characters from A to Z.
Somewhere out there I think I hear, ‘but surely a big fight scene is drama in itself?’ Well, not necessarily. Action doesn’t automatically equate to drama. Too often even action can read rather blandly, and remember any of those descriptive passages you read that were so boring your eyes glazed over or - gasp - you outright skipped them? Thought not.
Closer attention to syntax can help deliver on a more dramatic reading experience for the audience. Where the action has lulled, the composition of the sentences can create tension between the words themselves, and set the tone for events yet to come.
The author, Lee Child, is renowned for his bold use of Telling as oppose to the worn-in (out?) mantra of a Showing preference, and the role of syntax hit me when reading one of his short stories online about Jack Reacher. Much of it is told in narrative summary, but it still captures the attention. Here’s a passage from the story as an example of what I mean:
He said big cities, small towns, he went about his business and nobody knew. He said he ate his meals, and slept, and showered and changed, and saw what he saw. Sometimes he got lucky with an hour’s conversation. Sometimes he got lucky with a night’s companionship. But mostly nothing happened. He said he had a quiet life. He said he could go months between days worth forgetting.
Nothing happens in this paragraph. In fact, all it tells us about is how nothing happens! Yet, it is still appealing to read. Not because it is Showing us anything in-scene, but because the arrangement of words sparks interest. This is the kind of thing we mean when talking about effective Telling.
Jack Reacher stories may not be for everybody, but if you’ve ever wondered what the appeal is, I’d say a lot of it boils down to syntax.
Child studied law at university, then had a lengthy career in television and advertising – this guy knows how to use language in its punchiest, most persuasive forms. And maybe that is the kind of training we writers need but wouldn’t think to have – copy-writing, sales savvy, learning how to sell a product or an idea. Perhaps we would, in effect, learn how to sell our own words to the reader.
But let’s now have a look at how he adds a touch of drama to this section of the story. Whereas many might introduce an important character in a shopping list kind of way – describing what they are wearing, hair colour, etc. (yawn) – with little to no consideration as to what opinion may be formed about that character, look at how Child does this by firstly foreshadowing the significance of what his villain is doing (which, in the sample (2) below, is merely sitting):
(1) Because no one ever says anything. They look instead. It was all about the looking. The looking away, to be precise. There can be a guy people are looking away from. Maybe alone at the bar, or alone in a diner booth or at a restaurant table. People are partly shunning him, but mostly they're scared of him. Some kind of a bully. Unpopular, and he knows it. He knows people go quiet around him, and he knows they look away, and he loves it. He loves the power…
(Also note in these examples the use of repetition and how they affect the narrative.)
When he comes to introducing the villain into the scene the explanation of his features is brief, not over-done. And in fact, it is the man's presence that holds more weight than if Child had described his physical appearance at length. It’s further backed up by Reacher’s instinctive reaction to him and his musings of an imaginary fight:
(2)…Then he had watched the man at the bar. He was a heavy-limbed guy, tall, with dark, vivid features, sitting there commandingly and complacently. With everyone else looking away from him. Reacher defaulted to his instinctive position, which was to hope for the best, but plan for the worst. And the worst with a guy like that wouldn't be too bad. He would come off the stool into a yard of clear space. There would be a certain amount of huffing and puffing…
This fight hasn’t even taken place, and yet it adds a touch of drama to the moment when Child introduces this major player in the story’s mechanics, so that we know to pay attention, that something more is to be expected of this guy. It piques our interest.
Child could have written: He had watched the heavy limbed man at the bar with the vivid features. No one else paid him any attention but Reacher wondered how he would fair in a fight.
Not quite the same. Child wanted to draw attention to the man’s solitude, that it wasn’t normal, that it wasn’t just a run-of-the-mill guy sipping beer in the corner. And intricate details of his appearance would not have achieved the same effect. (If you want, read the full story here.)
Drama, of course, often comes in much more exaggerated tones and more so when Showing our characters in action. But also, it peps up dull backstory. Instead of:
They had been best friends and arch rivals from years back, when they had competed not only for every badge, trophy, and medal, but also for the heart of the one girl who made Morten feel like he walked on air. But it was Morten who had triumphed, and spent the next six years in her life, her heart and her bed. Edward had never forgiven him for it, and at the time had sworn he would one day take his revenge on Morten, but then they had graduated and moved on with their lives, and Morten hadn’t given it another thought.
Morten caught sight of the lanky form, rod iron in stature, and he let out a soft hiss.
‘What’s the matter?’ Travis asked.
Morten bristled but said nothing. He gave a curt nod towards the tall man with the upward tilted nose who stood across the room. Edward, and his all too familiar sense of superiority. As it had years before, to be near him felt both comfortable and sullying .
‘Do you know him?’ Travis asked.
‘You could say that.’
Before Travis could push for further information, Edward Vance periscoped in their direction. His sharp, dark eyes pin-pointed Morten instantly and he smiled in that way that Morten knew only he recognised. This time though, instead of the dancing rivalry the expression once held, the whole effect seemed hardened and serious. Even after all this time, then, Edward still hadn’t forgiven him.
The first example informs and flattens any momentum the story has thus far gained – it’s information easily attained. It's also the equivilent of saying: Oh, wait a sec, let me just tell you this bit before I carry on with the actual story. (There may be times when you can get away with that, but more often than not you can't).
The second example dramatises. It brings their past connection to the forefront, rather than as a side note, and involves the relative emotions in the present day events. It makes the reader work a little, which engages their imagination. They know there is backstory, they know it’s not a happy history, and that Morten and Edward once knew each other intimately. But by dramatizing it you up the tension, the intrigue. If you string your reader along in the right way for a while, they will hopefully be begging to know what it is that Morten did that was so unforgivable. You just have to make sure you drop the reason in at the right time, in the right way, when it will heighten the drama.
So, next time you go to revise a story or chapter, how about a little exercise in blushing up the bland, dramatizing the dreary, and sharpening your syntax?
(After writing this article an interesting aspect of syntax came up rather unexpectedly while watching this programme, in regards to the infamous speech Queen Elizabeth l gave to her troops at Tilbury before battle with the Spanish Armada. The whole programme is available to view on Youtube, rather than the specific clip, but the relevant part for this subject starts at around 30 mins into the video until 35:05 mins.)