For Dickens’ sake, please don’t tell!

‘I am a mortal,” Scrooge remonstrated, “and liable to fall.’
‘Bear but a touch of my hand there,’ said the Spirit, laying it upon his heart, ‘and you shall be upheld in more than this!

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens 

It’s almost Christmas and, in the—ahem—spirit of the season, we are back with A Christmas Carol’s Ghost of Christmas Present, who is about to tell that old miser Scrooge what’s what.

‘Ho, ho, ho, Ebenezer Scrooge, sit yourself down there, and let’s talk about you. 05 Ghost of CPA lonely child, left behind at school when all the other boys went home for Christmas; one sister, Fanny, frail body, big heart; she died young; one child, your nephew. You were devastated. All that resentment and bitterness, dude—not good for the soul. Then you were in love with Belle, and she loved you. Oh, yes she did. But it didn’t last. You were too ambitious, too greedy; it became all about the money: you and Jacob Marley grubbing and scheming, until there was nothing left to you but each other and your false idol. And now look at you: wizened and miserable. Do you know what you need, Ebenezer? A change of heart! You need to start caring about other people again. People like Bob Cratchit and his poorly son, Tiny Tim, who’ll surely die if you don’t start caring. And then you’ll end up dead yourself and unmourned. Nobody will even miss you; well, not for longer than a moment (your nephew really is a decent sort, you know). In fact, there’ll be some doing happy dances at the thought. Doesn’t really bear thinking about, does it? So here’s the deal: repent and redeem yourself, or die and suffer like Jacob Marley, with a long chain trailing behind you for eternity. A bit of a no-brainer, don’t you think? Right, got that? So, we’re good? Pleasure doing redemption with you. Must dash, other places to go and people to see, and next door has mince pies! Ho, ho, ho…’

Not quite Dickens, is it? But it does raise a number of interesting questions. As a reader, the Ghost of Christmas Present’s charm, joie de vivre and his illuminating banter notwithstanding, would you expect the embittered, miserable, petty Ebenezer Scrooge as depicted in the first chapter of the book to repent, as the late, great Tommy Cooper would say, ‘just like that’? Would you believe Dickens if he tried to make you believe Scrooge would change so easily? I don’t think so. In fact, in those circumstances, I’d be inclined to believe Scrooge was correct when he surmised that the whole ghostly experience was likely the result of indigestion. No, all in all, I’d want a little more emotional and psychological incentive over and above the jolly warnings of a fat old ghost dressed like a Victorian Christmas tree.

01 Jacob MarleyWhich is exactly what Dickens gives his readers: he doesn’t tell us about Scrooge, he shows us using images, events and relationships to which both the reader and the character can relate. He carries us, just as the three ghosts carry Scrooge, on an emotional journey towards redemption, through the memories of his character’s past: the sad childhood, his devotion to his sister, his friends and first love—all possibilities in Scrooge’s youth for a different outcome—into the bitter-sweet present of the Cratchits and Tiny Tim, and the bleak future promised by a refusal to change.

A Christmas Carol demonstrates very clearly the difference between showing and telling. You get the same facts by telling, but you don’t get the emotional connection that showing can give you.

If you still don’t believe me, cast your eye over the Ghost of Christmas Present’s story once again. Who or what are we really focussing on when we read it: the Ghost of Christmas Present or the story he is telling us? Which of them is engaging us emotionally? Are we so busy being entertained by the ghost’s character and anachronistic style, that the story he is telling fails to move us enough to shed tears at the thought of Tiny Tim’s imminent demise?

The moral of this Christmas tale: watch out for those telltale signs of telling: chunks of back story, exposition and information dumps, and replace them instead with scintillating dialogue, thrilling action and warm fuzzy feelings.

And so to Dickens for the last word:

He had no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle, ever afterwards; and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!’

Quotations and illustrations are from the 1843 first edition of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, illustrated by John Leech.

Full copy available to download on http://www.gutenberg.org/files/46/46-h/46-h.htm

Editing matters

Yes, Book Nanny is back after a brief sabbatical. And what better way to get back into the swing of things than with two great articles about editing:

  • Sinead Gleeson’s recent article ‘Kill your darlings: the importance of editing’ in the Irish Times which you can read here; and
  • C.S. Lakin’s blog post ‘The Editorial Burden That Weighs on the Author’ on her wonderful editing website, Live Write Thrive, which is here.

Enjoy!

Character and Plot 1: It’s my emotional arc and I’ll cry if I want to!

Why am I here and what am I trying to do? Two of the most important questions every actor has to ask themselves about the character they are playing, regardless of whether their character’s raison d’etre is as mundane as delivering a tea tray to the posh folks in the drawing room or as sublime as soliloquising on the meaning of life, the universe and why their mother married their uncle.

Let’s be honest, a lack of purpose is distracting for an audience: they should be concentrating on the play itself, not wondering why a particular character appears to be meandering aimlessly about the stage with all the air of an indecisive rabbit caught in headlights or stuck in the middle of a scene as though surplus to requirements. So answering those two questions is an important part of an actor’s job and actor training (via Stanislavsky) has come up with various methods to help them do so.

So what has all this got to do with emotional arcs? Apart, of course, from the fact that the same rules apply to characters in a novel or short story as to those in a play or film. Well, let’s look at the whole concept of emotional arcs to start with.

First up, what is an emotional arc? Essentially it can be defined as the emotional journey a character goes on throughout the course of a story: the growth, changes, denials and acceptances of the events and incidents they experience along the way and the emotional choices they make. Of course, this doesn’t mean that a character absolutely has to change by the end of a book—their tragedy might well be that for whatever reason(s) they choose not to grasp the opportunities for change offered to them, but from a reader’s perspective, watching them make those choices is where the emotional heart of a story lies. And to truly engage a reader, a story needs an emotional heart.

Here’s the traditional way of illustrating an emotional arc—a sort of character rainbow graph:

Emotional Arc 1

However, I like to think of it as more an emotional barometer than a graph. Don’t think of it in terms of the character feeling happy, sad, pleased or vexed—think instead of the emotional pressure being applied to a character at any given time in the story. At the height of the story, the emotional pressure should be at its most intense. And what gives us this increase in intensity as the plot develops is dealing with a character’s wants and yearnings—what Robert Olen Butler in his wonderful book about writing fiction, From Where You Dream (with Janet Burroway), calls ‘the dynamics of desire’. Because the character’s yearnings, wants and desires are the driving force behind the events in the book, the momentum that will push the story forwards to its conclusion.

Which is where we return to acting. One of the ways in which an actor approaches a script for rehearsals is to break it down into ‘objectives’: ‘super-objectives’ for larger sections of the play such as Acts, or indeed the whole play itself, and ‘units’ for smaller scenes or moments of action.

By giving a character a want, goal or aim for every single moment and playing the sense of purpose generated by each objective, an actor can bring an energy and dynamism to performance which hooks an audience from the start and keeps them engaged throughout the play.

And what author wouldn’t want the same for his or her readers? So next time, I’ll look at how using objectives can help writers develop their characters and the useful knock-on effect on plot and structure.

Substantive Edits: The Heart of the Matter

DSC00093‘Substance’ is defined as the most important part or the real or essential meaning of something, which, in my opinion, pretty much sums up the essence of a substantive edit. (Just to muddy the waters, for some editors, substantive editing is similar to copy-editing, but for me, it is a synonym for structural or content editing.) It deals with a book’s characters, plot, themes, structure, pace and meaning. It deals with all those things an author knows instinctively are not working as well as they should be, but can’t quite put their finger on, and it deals with some of the things that authors feel are working wonderfully, but which are not being communicated properly to a reader.

Why and what if 001In the first instance, a substantive editor will use their professional skills to identify and articulate any problems with the content, substance or structure of your manuscript. Are the characters believable? Why did a character do x instead of y? Why didn’t they do z? Why does that plot twist feel contrived? Is the pace too slow, too fast or just right? Is the structure of the book enhancing or hindering the storytelling? Is the narrative holding the reader’s interest through to the end? Is your thriller thrilling? Is your fantasy fantastic? Does your romance sparkle?

Which leads us to the other essential function of a substantive editor: not simply to critique or review a manuscript, but to assist an author to resolve any problems arising from the review. By asking pertinent questions, challenging assumptions and using their skills and experience to suggest possible solutions, a substantive editor can open the discussion for a writer. The right comment can illuminate blind spots and send an author along a fresh path of discovery, revealing new and exciting possibilities for a novel or short story.

Heart writing 001In summary, a good substantive editor can be a wonderful resource. She or he can help you to a better understanding of exactly how your book is communicating with readers (which is often not the way you think it is!). Of course, you are at liberty to accept or reject editorial suggestions or comments at all times, but you should remember that your editor is on your side. If he or she challenges you as a writer, it is only to inspire you to find the best solutions to your manuscript problems.

For more details on substantive (structural) editing, copy-editing and manuscript critiques, check out Book Nanny’s website at www.booknannyfictioneditor.com.