Thursday, March 27, 2014

Natural Character Reactions - Using Beats

Research is Awesome.

Especially when it's not my research.

Especially when it arrives specially timed to make the scene I was semi-murdering into a coherent whole.

Two weeks ago I sat in a writing group with Janci Patterson, critiquing her chapter. It was an explosive scene. So much real emotion. So many amazing mental leaps for the characters. It was so close. But something was missing.

As a critique group, we danced all around it.

"I need to settle into the scene more."
"I wasn't ready to make that mental leap when the character did."
"I need more reaction."
"I need more connection."
"I was almost feeling it, but not quite."

Do these comments sound familiar to you? Have you ever sat through a similar critique and wanted to punch everyone in the face, because that's all well and good but what the Heidi-ho are you supposed to do about the fact that your readers almost went with you, but couldn't quite feel it?

(Image courtesy of Ambro /

 Have you ever written a character who reacts like this picture, but your readers aren't buying it? Or your character has moved on from this moment, and your readers are like, "Hold on! Go back! She said WHAT?!!" 

We all sensed the problem, but not the solution, and frustration over that ambiguity lingered with me all week. I hadn't submitted that week, because my scene was also explosive, pivotal. An epic argument, years in the making. Every beat had to be perfect, and I knew it wasn't ready.

So last night, I went to writing group cringing. Knowing I was in for the same messy critique Janci endured the week before.

First, we critiqued Janci. The same chapter from the week before, reworked. The comments in her critique this time sounded more like:

"Every emotional beat was spot on."
"Everything I couldn't quite grasp last week was fixed."
"I was ready for every reveal."
"I love you, your book, and the world in general."
"You are a writing goddess. How can I become you?"

Wow, I thought. Revision is great. How am I ever going to revise my scene to do what she just did?

I went into my critique holding my breath, waiting for the same confusion that Janci had endured the week before. Only it didn't happen. We finished talking about good things on my manuscript, and Janci said the best thing ever.

"I suffered through my chapter. I had to do a ton of research. I finally know what I was doing wrong. You're doing the same thing wrong. And I can tell you how to fix it."

After the angel choir stopped singing, she got to the crux of it. Very simple. Probably something I've heard in bits and pieces other places, but life-changing last night.

In a nutshell, her research led her to this:

Whenever you drop something in dialog that's surprising to the reader, walk them through it.
Give us the line of dialogue, then a physical / visceral reaction from the POV Character, then their internal reaction. Then let them speak. When the suprise is to the other character, show their physical / visceral reaction, then have them speak. You can also include an internal reaction from the POV character where they interpret the physical reaction of the nonPOV character.

For example:

"Non POV Character speaks."
POV Character has a physical reaction, POV Character internally analyzes what they're feeling / their reaction.
"POV Character speaks."
Non POV character has a physical reaction. POV character interprets this physical reaction.
"Non POV Character speaks."

Of course there are variations, and you do not always need all of these things. Sometimes, as one group member pointed out, it's good to vary it, have one shocking statement follow another, but not usually. Whenever you have a scene that's starting to feel like two talking heads are making great mental leaps too quickly, see if you can apply this technique.

Here's a screen shot from my manuscript where I'm preparing to fix some of these problems.

And here's an example Janci pointed out of where I was trying to do it, but doing it backward:

“I think we should talk about the fact that I’m going to have a baby. Gary can handle it. He’s a big boy.”
“Tessa!” Mom's expression is outraged. Gary’s hand is frozen halfway to his mouth with another pork rind.

A better version would read:

“I think we should talk about the fact that I’m going to have a baby. Gary can handle it. He’s a big boy.”
Mom gasps, too shocked to be outraged. "Tessa!" Her eyes dart to Gary, whose hand freezes halfway to his mouth with another pork rind.
Mom gasps (visceral reaction), too shocked to be outraged (POV Character's interpretation or internal reaction). "Tessa!" (verbal reaction).

This may seem simple and obvious, but I watched Janci's draft go from almost there . . . uh . . . circling right around there . . . gonna totally be there soon if you just fix this one utterly nebulous thing—all the way to nailing it.

I'm writing it here so I don't forget it. Research is amazing. I often think that there's something that on a gut-intuition-level just works, or doesn't. Isn't it amazing when we can apply writing tools to clinically fix what we broke?

Thanks, Janci!