Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Middle circles of revision hell: when excess turns deadly

Dante dubbed the middle circles of his map of hell the spots reserved for those who committed sins of violence and ambition. Populated by both hoarders and wasters, the wrathful and the sullen, the middle circles teemed with monsters.

In their modern take, writers/authors Tex Thompson and Laura Maisano term these mid-regions, more appropriately I think, the place for sins of excess. And while Dante adopted “abandon all hope” as the motto engraved over the gates, Thompson and Maisano undertake to guide writers bent on revision through these pitfalls and past the monsters waiting to snatch the unwary writers in their version of The Seven Deadly First Page Sins.

Even without a guide, writers can guess that the sins of the middle circles of writerly revision hell include excessive description. No matter how lovely it seems, too much description can be as deadly to readers as a Roman emperor’s shower of roses was to his dinner guests.

image: Wikipedia 
Assuming we’ve already checked our manuscripts for the early circle sin of wordiness, what else can we do when description pours forth in torrents from our pens (or word processors)? Taking as her example the classic “dark and stormy night” of Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Thompson urged us to find the key nouns, the most evocative verbs, and rewrite our Bulwer-esque passages to create a single powerful image.
Does this mean no adjectives? No adverbs? Not at all. But modifiers need to be used thriftily (no hoarding, no wasting!)

Middle circle sins also include excessive exposition (backstory), with each literary genre providing its unique temptations. Fantasy and science fiction allure us to expound on the history of wizards, wars and weaponry. Romance tells tempts us to describe the charms of the plain but alluring heroine. Crime fiction sneers that what we really need are paragraphs-long descriptions of mutilated bodies.
That last brings us to another sin of excess – too much action. I’m tempted to add, too much violent action. And that’s not just fights, but chases, heists, sex, and high-stakes games.

Wait, how can you have too much action? Aren’t we writers constantly told to open with the protagonist doing something? That action is how characters show us their, well, character? And aren’t all the too-much actions the basis of every James Bond movie’s opening sequence.
The answer is yes, but. Yes, we need action but too much can actually keep readers from caring about the character.

My personal test: although I love thrillers, if somebody is thrown off a cliff on the first page – and yes, I’ve seen this – the book goes back on the shelf, unread and unbought.

James Bond has earned the freedom to open with a James Bond sequences because audiences already love him. He’s paid his dues, and we know once he’s gone through his obligatory opening calisthenics, the real story can begin. As writers, our job is to make our audiences love our characters as much as they do 007.
How is a writer to know when she’s fallen into these sins of excess? One test, while we still have movies in mind, is whether her opening scene is filmable. If there’s too little happening, the problem may be excess description.

If, however, the opening scene is all choreography – only a list of actions – the writer has fallen into the sin of excessive action.
Characteristic reader reactions to sins of excess vary from “I didn’t know what the character wanted” to “exciting, but I didn’t really care” and even, “I skimmed/skipped ahead.”

“It’s a good idea to make your first chapter a sampler platter of what’s to come,” Thompson told her audience at the recent meeting of Dallas Mystery Writers. Some character, some action, some description. Don’t overload on any single ingredient!
Writerly redemption can be achieved by starting where the story actually starts (goodbye backstory!), provoking readers’ curiosity, and focusing on the unusual or unexpected in descriptions of people, persons or things. Use actions and descriptions that reveal character instead of concealing it.

(Are we ready yet to confront the lowest of the low? After we’ve shed the sins of the upper and middle circles of hell, prepare for the worst of all writing craft sins!)