First off, I'd like to apologize for taking a break last week, I've been trying to wrap up some freelance work that's been hanging over my head. But I'm back, and I've got a lot cooking.

Next week, I'm going to debut a new series of posts called The Ten Commandments of Fiction Writing. They'll likely be shorter posts than usual, but hopefully it'll be a fun way to look at some fundamental issues. Stay tuned!
This week I want to talk about a concept that revolutionized my understand of fiction: Proportion. Like many important concepts, proportion was first introduced to me by Dave King and Renni Browne, in their book Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, which is one of the most important parts of my Writing Bible. It's another one of those ideas that seems obvious once you've been told about it, but before that you probably never thought of it.

Simply put, proportion is about controlling how many words/paragraphs/pages you spend on what. The more time you spend talking about a thing, the more important it will seem to readers, and the more likely they'll be to remember it after they finish the book. Proportion works on a macro scale and a micro scale. Let's take a look at the macro scale first.

In Self-Editing, Browne and King give a great example of proportion on a macro scale. It goes something like this: A woman wrote a very long novel, and her editor told her to trim it down by cutting out some of the less relevant scenes. So the writer cut out all the cooking scenes, all the shopping scenes, all the driving scenes, and everything that she had added 'just for flavor'. The book, while not necessarily 'romance', centered on a romantic relationship, so the author left all the sex scenes in, as she felt they were relevant to the plot. The result was that by simply cutting a handful of scenes out, her novel had transformed from a work of contemporary fiction into a steamy work of erotica. Her editing had thrown the book out of proportion.

When you're writing a novel, it's easy to forget exactly what you've already written. We don't write novels in one go, it's a process of weeks, months, years, even decades. But for readers, a novel is a much more compressed experience, and if they hear about a thing over and over during that time, they will naturally assume it's important.

If you write with an awareness of proportion, this can work to your advantage. Your main character is the most important, so you spend the most time in his or her point of view. If your theme revolves around the ugliness of war, you can and should spend a lot of page time depicting grisly scenes of battle and human suffering. If your theme is about love, you can and should spend more page time on scenes of your romantically-entangled characters doing whatever brings them together.

But since we write novels over a period of time, we sometimes forget what we've already emphasized, and this can lead to proportion problems. In my current work-in-progress, I'm exploring my character's motivations for remaining faithful to his religion, even though he's a bit of a misfit in the church. I have a number of scenes where he introspects about how the church (and God) saved his life when he was younger, and how he feels a great debt and responsibility to the church because of this. After having several people beta-read the novel, a couple of them asked if this novel was just my way of proselytizing about Christianity. And that wasn't my aim at all. But because I spent so much page time on a character affirming his faith, the book seems like an endorsement of that faith.

Now that I'm to the editing stage, I can go back and trim out, or at least trim down a few of these scenes. I can make sure I don't repeat myself, and ultimately I'll bring everything back into proportion.

On a micro scale, proportion affects how easily a scene reads. Many of us have read books where the author gives us a blow-by-blow account of something relatively mundane.

Jason inserted his key into the lock and turned the knob to the right, The door opened and he stepped inside. The smell of roasting chicken greeted him. He set the mail and his keys on the table by the door, then rounded the corner into the kitchen.
"Smells amazing," he said. 

This passage could just as easily have read:

The smell of roasting chicken greeted Jason when he walked inside.
"Smells amazing," he said as he rounded the corner into the kitchen.

Even if the facts are important, we don't always need to read about them in detail. Readers are smart, on the whole (because reading makes you smart), and they can fill in some of the details themselves. Browne and King use an example where a man is rescuing another man from a river. The scene describes the rescuer's movements as he throws the injured man over his shoulders and traverses a series of logs to get to shore. It's an exciting moment, but the author spends so much time detailing how the rescuer hops from one log to another that you start to get bored. Browne and King suggested the author condense all that action down into a single sentence: "He made his way across the logs."

There are two good reasons to watch your micro scale proportion. First, you don't want to bore readers by making them read every physical action your character goes through, or every thought that passes through their head (that's one I see a lot in my editing career). Second, you don't want to rob the reader of the opportunity to fill in the gaps themselves. It's one of the joys of reading. If an author writes a tense dialogue between two characters, but leaves out most of the internal monologue, I get to experience the pleasure of imagining what each character might be feeling.

Take this famously tense scene from Quentin Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds. In it, we watch in horror as Hans "The Jew Hunter" Landa has a seemingly civil conversation with a farmer about a missing Jewish family. As the scene develops, we see the farmer growing more and more nervous, yet Landa remains cool and calm. By the time we're a couple minutes into their exchange, we know the farmer is either hiding the missing family, or knows where they are. But the conversation never explicitly tells us that. We pick it up purely on subtext, by watching the characters' body language. Imagine if Tarantino had cut into that scene with an obnoxious voice-over and explained what each character was thinking. Wouldn't that completely take the wind out of the scene's sails?

That type of voice over would be the cinematic equivalent of author intrusion (which I touch on in this article), but it's a proportion issue as well. Don't spend precious page time telling readers the things you could be showing them. And don't waste time showing them anything they can supply on their own, because it saps the joy out of the experience.

Properly proportioned stories hold our attention. They don't take detours explaining things we don't need to know, or waste our time showing us things we could skip.


A Writer's Look at Star Wars: The Force Awakens

If you're breathing at the moment, you've heard the buzz about Star Wars, Episode VII. Matter of fact, you've probably already seen it. If you haven't, you can't really complain about the spoilers that follow. Get off your ass and see the movie.

Consider yourself warned.

In my lifetime, there has never been a movie like this. Every year sees a handful of hotly anticipated movies; some sequels to successful blockbusters, others high-minded Oscar hopefuls, still others adaptations of already well-known works. But if you added up all the anticipation for every movie that's come out since I was born, it wouldn't even come close to the buildup for Episode VII.

And that, in itself, made it possibly the greatest writing challenge I've ever witnessed. The prequels were big news, sure, but once that first one hit theaters, we were all rolling our eyes for the remaining two. Star Wars has been big business since day one, but those movies--even before we knew they sucked--didn't have the kind of energy around them that Episode VII does. It was like "Hey, they're finally making a new Star Wars. Cool!", and that was about as excited as any 'normal' person got.

But after the travesty that was Episodes I-III, the stakes done got raised. On the one hand, you had what was arguably the most beloved and world-changing media franchise of all time, and on the other, you had a flaccid, blatantly commercial prequel trilogy that just took a massive Cleveland steamer on the whole thing. Never has the ache for redemption been so strong.

I got my hopes up when I heard the important players from the original cast were coming back. That was the first sign, to me. If they had made another Star Wars without Harrison Ford, I would have seen it out of a nerdy sense of duty, not genuine desire. But the cast did come back.

The next worry I had was "Who's writing it?". Perhaps it's professional bias, but to me, the writer is more important than the director (ideally, they're the same person, but I knew this project was going to be a team effort). As long as a director is professional, and doesn't get up his own ass with technique-y gimmicks (I.E. Alejandro González Iñárritu), most directing styles are tolerable to me. Even, mood permitting, that of the much-maligned Michael Bay.

When I watch a movie, I can't help seeing right past the veneer of characterization, exposition, setting, etc, right to the narrative structure. I like stories that display symmetry, minimalism, and a clear causality. I like my stories to have everything they need, and nothing they don't. So I was happy when I learned that J.J. Abrams was in charge, along with help from George Lucas's old pal Lawrence Kasdan, and Pixar alum Michael Arndt. That is a satisfying meeting of minds, and I think it produced a winning script.

The Force Awakens has been criticized for being too similar to A New Hope, and I think that's a somewhat valid note. We have a lonely youngster on a desert planet, with tenuous ties to a family they hardly know getting swept up in an interstellar conflict; a Big Bad in black who will do anything to squash the emerging threat to his power; an adorable droid sidekick who needs to get to his master; a somewhat grizzled mentor character who convinces the hero the force is real...I could go on. We even begin the same way: resistance hero gets in a sticky situation and has to hide a crucial piece of information by giving it to a droid, who runs off and fortuitously meets up with our protagonist. And the climax is the same too: A ragtag group of rebels, spurred on by the cruel display of the badguys' power, locate and exploit the one weakness of the weapon that created said display.

I could go on.  For a long while.

It's true that a lot of things will look too familiar to some. But to me, these things are more about narrative symmetry and paying homage than they are about being derivative. Taking notes from Episode IV was a sound strategy to ensure a higher quality story. I would have done the same. In fact, that's all I know how to do: take inspirations, beats, and elements from high-quality source material, mix them up, and add a few new things. I'm a big believer in the old saying that there's nothing new under the sun, but it doesn't bother me, because shuffling familiar elements has a way of producing sound, likable stories, and the forces of chaos ensure just enough new, fresh material to keep things interesting. So I'm glad that Episode VII took more than a few notes from Episode IV. Anyone who has a problem with something reliably good is a masochist.

The visual element was important to me too. One of the biggest problems with Episodes I-III was that all the CGI was so shiny and fresh looking, it broke the fourth wall. All I could see was special effects. I couldn't see the characters at the heart of it. But it would seem that we've finally entered an era where technology has caught up with the goals of the filmmakers that use it. I can still tell what's CGI in Episode VII, but only because I know what's possible and what's not. just to look at it, the seams don't show at all, and that kept me in the movie.

Structurally, the movie is rock solid. Its characters have the vibrant, timeless quality that made the original engaging. Rey is a great hero; I'm a sucker for a tough chick that can hold her own in a fight; something that Star Wars has always been known for (I.E. Leia). Klyo Ren has been lampooned for being too 'emo', but I actually like that about him. I think his volatility makes him more dangerous, and it keeps him from being just a clone of Vader. His voice under the helmet even makes me think of Tom Hardy's Bane, but at a Teen Titans age.

I was sad to see Han go, but again, I probably would have done the same. Someone had to die to lend credibility to Kylo Ren's villainy, and if you're gonna kill somebody in a story, you've got to make it hurt the audience as much as possible. I can't imagine any Star Wars death that would affect fans more.

The most intriguing things about Episode VII were our two new mysteries: the identity of Supreme Leader Snoke, and the identity of Rey's family. Personally, I think Rey's situation is obvious to anyone who was paying attention. She's a Kenobi, through and through. My money is that she's Obi-Wan's granddaughter. They dress the same, they have the same self-possessed confidence, and when I saw Rey climbing around an area of Starkiller Base that was very reminiscent of the first Death Star, it clicked. And it made the end of the movie all the more poignant: once again, we have a calm, wise Kenobi handing a troubled Skywalker his weapon, beckoning him back into the fray.

Snoke bugs me though. Andy Serkis, who portrayed him in the movie, assured us that Snoke is a completely new character, but I find that unlikely. First of all, it strains against believability; that someone hitherto unknown in the Star Wars universe had the motive, means, and opportunity to attempt to rebuild the Galactic Empire seems crazy to me. How does he have the resources? How does he have the connections? Why does he even want to?

It seems more likely to me that either Snoke is someone we already know, or he has a connection to someone we know. Otherwise, the stakes just aren't high enough. Emperor Palpatine was a mighty, thoroughly intimidating villain who held the galaxy in an iron fist for six movies. He was damn hard to defeat; if it wasn't for Anakin Skywalker's last-second conversion, he probably wouldn't have been. It was one of the narrowest victories ever. And Snoke has to top that, otherwise the third trilogy will actually lower the stakes. I just don't think that a total unknown can come onstage and be more evil and manipulative than the Emperor. Palpatine is up there with Satan when it comes to embodiments of evil. He's so evil, he's a metaphor for evil. So Snoke better have some serious chops, or it will subtly ruin the new trilogy for me.

That said, my hopes are high. J.J. Abrams knows how to spin a web of lies and confusion in order to keep the audience guessing. Lawrence Kasdan knows how to honor the movies that came before, and make use of the best elements in them. And Michael Arndt knows story structure, and has a knack for creating bright, engaging, sympathetic characters. As long as those minds are involved--or at least minds of similar quality--the forthcoming movies will be great.


Simultaneous vs. Sequential Actions

There's one argument I seem to have over and over in my editing career, and it centers on sentences like these:
Pulling off her gloves, Jane closed the door.
Jane closed the door as she pulled off her gloves.
As she closed the door, Jane pulled her gloves off.
The first example uses a construction called the Participle Phrase (underlined). The second two examples use Subordinate Clauses (underlined). I spend a great deal of my time as an editor encouraging writers to avoid these constructions--which I collectively (and somewhat erroneously) call "as/ing clauses"--whenever possible. To understand why, we need to take a deeper look at the very idea of communication itself.

At the deepest level, an idea is wordless; that is to say, it's more like a picture or a movie than a sentence. Some are even more abstract than that. Emotions, for example, might have images or words associated with them, but the word "happy" can hardly be said to be equivalent with the feeling of happiness. When we think of happiness, we might imagine someone smiling, but is that what happiness is? I doubt it.

When it comes to writing fiction, what we usually have in our minds is some mental-visual representation of an action or set of actions. Our task is then to take this wordless thought--our intended meaning--and translate it to the next level; semantics. We arrange a set of symbols that denotes the wordless idea we have in our minds. When I think of sitting down, I can see some generic faceless character completing that action in my mind's eye. I can then choose from among the nearly infinite number of symbols that denote that action: "he sat", "he took his seat", "he slumped in his chair", etc. All of those sentences will cause the reader to envision something approaching what I visualize when I think of sitting, and I have thus communicated the idea.

However, all methods of communicating the idea are not equal. Some carry connotations that refine or expand upon the image in the reader's mind. In my previous examples, "he slumped in his chair" implies that he performed the action lazily, or with exasperation. It connotes tiredness, or surliness, or any of a hundred other implied meanings, depending on the context.

Because of the multi-layered complexity of meaning, it is important to choose the right words in the right order, otherwise you risk misinterpretation, confusion, and worst of all, the reader's inability to picture what you are describing. In many writing situations, it's not critical that the reader picture things exactly as you did when writing it (that's another argument I spend a lot of time on), but it is always important that you don't accidentally lead the reader into confusion. Most importantly, you want to give them something they can visualize easily, whether it's what you visualized or not. Achieving this is a matter of syntax.

So we have three levels:
  1. Ideas/Intention: The deepest level, these are the thoughts we intend to cause in the reader.
  2. Semantics/Content: The middle level, this is the meaning contained within the words we choose.
  3. Syntax/Structure: The surface level, this is the ordering of the words themselves, which gives rise to subtler meanings.
My rule of thumb is:
Structure supports Content, which supports Intention.
What this means is that the syntax (grammatical structure) should support the semantics (meaning and word choice), which in turn supports the idea you're trying to get across. Avoiding confusion is a matter of creating congruence between the levels. You don't want simple ideas couched in lengthy, overbearing sentences, and vice versa. Simple intention = Simple content = Simple grammar.

I majored in Philosophy. Does it show?

So anyway, you're probably asking what all this highfalutin' mumbo-jumbo has to do with participle phrases and subordinate clauses. I'll try to explain that.

When one constructs a sentence, the very structure of the grammar carries an implied meaning. As/ing clauses present two actions in the same sentence, and the grammar implies that the two actions are simultaneous.

When we read a sentence like "John pulled off his shirt as he walked into the locker room", we see those two actions (removing the shirt and walking into the locker room) as happening at the same time. And yet, at the semantic level, there are no words in the sentence that explicitly denote that these two actions happen at the same time. The sentence does not say "John simultaneously pulled of his shirt and walked into the locker room." The simultaneity is implicit in the grammatical structure.

You're welcome, ladies.
When it comes to John removing his shirt, there's no problem. It's not only possible to do those two things simultaneously, it's easy to visualize. But when we return to my earlier examples with Jane, the door, and her gloves, we run into trouble. It is physically impossible--or at least unlikely--to take off gloves while shutting a door. You might assume that Jane kicks the door shut, but then the writer should tell us she kicks the door: "Pulling off her gloves, Jane kicked the door shut." When we think of shutting a door, our first and most likely image is of a person doing the job with their hands, not their feet, elbows, or face. So what you have here is two actions that are, at least presumably, performed with the hands, and you have them happening at the same time. Even if it is possible with some mental acrobatics, it's harder to visualize, because the simultaneity of the actions forces you to posit all kinds of explanations for how those two things are done at the same time.

The problem here is that the structure does not support the content. The structure is: "Actions A and B occurred simultaneously". But the content is: "Action A occurred, and Action B occurred." And though small, the difference is important.

Overall, sequential actions are easier to visualize, and much less likely to trip up the reader.
Jane shut the door, then pulled off her gloves. 
Jane shut the door and pulled off her gloves.
Or even:
Jane shut the door. She pulled off her gloves.
All three of those examples use grammatical structure that implies the actions happened sequentially; one after the other. They are easier to read, because they don't require you to do any mental gymnastics envisioning the action. You see the actions without even having to think of them. Instead of a participle phrase or a subordinate clause, you have two independent clauses, which are easier to read.

The weirdest thing here is when writers erroneously write actions as simultaneous, the average reader probably imagines them as sequential anyway. So why bother forcing yourself to write them sequentially? Well, you don't want readers imagining things correctly in spite of your writing, do you? You want them imagining things because of your writing.

As/ing clauses work like thickeners in a stew. Used in proper proportion, they can be good, and sometimes they're necessary. But add too many and your writing becomes difficult to digest. And anyway, why write stew when you could be writing bacon? Wouldn't you rather write stories that people can't stop reading?

Not only that, but the laziness of the as/ing clause is apparent to grammar Nazis, linguistics aficionados, and word nerds of every stripe, and those are the people you want reading your books. Don't write for the lowest common denominator. Write so anyone can understand and enjoy.

I think writers lean on grammatical constructions like the as/ing clause because they sound "writerish". Many less experienced writers have a tendency to write more complex sentences because they are eager to show off their ability to wield a complex sentence. Being praised for that ability is likely part of the reason they aspire to writing in the first place. At least, that was the case with me. But the truth is, the best sentence is not the one that makes the deftest use of collegiate-level grammar, but the one that most clearly and concisely creates an image in the reader's mind. The words themselves are not what the reader is after, at least, not usually. The reader is after the story. (Like this quote? Click here to tweet it!)

Sequential actions are easier to read and write, and chances are that's what your reader sees in his or her head anyway. So be the path of least resistance.