Thursday, July 1, 2010

Another Paragraphing Point, Sort Of

A friend emailed me with a question related to the following three sentences, and she has graciously agreed to let me post it here. Here are the three sentences:

“So do you see why I need your help?” he asked.
“You need my help?” she asked.
Although her features remained subdued in the way of most mourners, a small note of eagerness had entered her tone.

The question was whether the third sentence should be a stand-along paragraph. (Dialogue tags were added to clarify the he/she speakers, but we can assume they would not survive editing. We're in "his" pov.)

Right away, I noticed two things about that final sentence.


First, the Progression of Ideas

The second and third sentences progress like this:
"dialogue"
Facial expression
tone of voice

The tone is separated from the dialogue by a lot of words. These two pieces, tone and dialogue, do fit together. So it might be work to put both sentences into the same paragraph, but the intervening words were a little disruptive of the link between those pieces. Speech, facial expression, tone of voice.

This, in fact, is probably what led my friend to think of this as a paragraphing issue. Does she attach "his" impressions to "her" dialogue because of the tone of voice reference? Or should those impressions be set off on their own? She was approaching the matter as a pov question, which at first blush makes sense. We wouldn't normally attach a dialogue beat of internal monologue from the pov character to the dialogue of the non-pov character.

So my first thought was to reverse the order of that second sentence, something like:

A small note of eagerness had entered her tone although her features remained subdued in the way of most mourners.

But before I even went so far as to think through whether that sentence was any better, a bigger second problem showed me a different solution.


Second, the Abstraction

her features remained subdued in the way of most mourners

What is this? You might be tempted to call it description, but what does it describe? I bet if we ask ten people what subdued mourning features physically DO, we would get a range of answers. Is the mouth downturned or held tight? Are the eyelids held open or dropping down? What is happening on the forehead and in the jaw? Is the angle of the head affected?

We don't know, and the reason we don't know is that this isn't clear description. It's his conclusion, his interpretation of the meaning of her expression. He sees something on her face, and interprets it as subdued mourning. We don't know what he sees, though. We only get the conclusion.

So is it interior monologue? No, these are not his direct thoughts, his brain's chat reel. It's a summary statement of his conclusion but it's not presented in interior monologue.

This is "telling," in other words, a very small-scale intrusion of narrative summary -- very small, so small that I nearly missed it. And I am a dragon about this sort of break in the narrative, so that's saying something.


My Advice

So here is what I wrote to my friend:

I suspect what's throwing you off is the leading adverbial clause.

IOW, the pov in that clause is diluted because it's summarizing his conclusion rather than reporting what he witnesses. What do subdued features look like? Is she droopy and mournful or stoic and grim? How can we tell the difference when we look at someone's face? What actions or physical conditions key the emotion?

So for example --
Although her lips tightened with the mourner's effort at self-control, ...

Or,
Although her eyelids drooped with the customary mourner's sorrow, ...

Or whatever.

But the point is that you would be shifting the verb toward a physical action (tightened, drooped) and away from the abstract summation (remained).

Once you do that, I think you'll realize that the paragraphing choice here has more to do with emphasis than with logic flow. (Because you'll be tightening the logic at the small scale.) So then you can decide whether you want to link the dialogue to the actions as a supplement to the dialogue, or offset the actions for more emphasis on the actions.


My recommended fix accomplishes two things. There's no longer the impression that a character's thoughts are being attached as a beat to another character's speech. And the clause is now firmly in the realm of action, something that makes a much better beat.

Because it's set up like a beat now, she can attach it to the dialogue or not, as she chooses, to create the emphasis she wants.

Yes, I left the main clause alone. And yes, there were things I wanted to tinker with there, too. Two things. Anyone care to guess what those two things might have been?

Theresa

7 comments:

Kathleen MacIver said...

I'm not at all sure that this is what you wanted to tinker with, but I would want to adjust the order of things.

If her features remained subdued, then they became subdued before this dialogue. Therefore, he needs to observe her features first, then ask her the question and get the response. And the response needs to be included with the response. ie:

"You want me help?" she asked, a small note of eagerness creeping into her voice.

Or, even better, drop it deeper into his POV, don't put it in the same paragraph, and add some more of his thoughts and feelings. ie:

"You want my help?"

He smiled at the note of eagerness in her voice. Maybe this is what she needed. Purpose.


The other thing I'd tinker with is that it just seems a little overwritten. It's not how we naturally think.

Murphy said...

Hmm...I’d stay in the moment. I think what’s throwing me are the combined words of: remained/had and entered. I wanted to take out Although too, which put more emphasis on the mourning action - and instead, shifted the emphasis on the back end by using, yet - because I think that's what the writer was going for - for the second half of this to stand out. So, to keep the words and tone of the writer intacted - I'd do a fix like this:

“So do you see why I need your help?” he asked.
“You need my help?” she asked.
Her features were respectfully stoic, yet there was a small note of eagerness in her tone.

Murphy - who had a great question for A on her previous post that I missed. Phooey!

Tracey Devlyn said...

Thanks, Theresa!

Why does everything always make more sense when you say it? LOL

Tracey

Marie said...

I'd be tempted to do it like this.

1) remove the double 'asked'
2) remove the passive words
3) As Kathleen said, I'd place the description of the 'sound' of her voice next to the dialogue itself.

“So do you see why I need your help?” he asked.

“You need my help?” A small note of eagerness entered her tone although her eyelids drooped with the customary mourner's sorrow.

Marie said...

I'd be tempted to do it like this.

1) remove the double 'asked'
2) remove the passive words
3) As Kathleen said, I'd place the description of the 'sound' of her voice next to the dialogue itself.

“So do you see why I need your help?” he asked.

“You need my help?” A small note of eagerness entered her tone although her eyelids drooped with the customary mourner's sorrow.

Adrian said...

I'll agree that "remained subdued in the way of most mourners" is telling rather than showing. But so is "a note of eagerness had entered her tone."

_Eagerness_ is an interpretation of how she spoke without giving us the physical detail that leads to that conclusion. By your reasoning, we should get the specific action that leads to that conclusion. Was it the way her pitch rose? Or did she say the words rapidly.

I think it's perfectly fine to not get these minuscule physical details. When we get the physical detail _and_ the POV character's interpretation, the narrative can get weighed down. The prose starts to feel redundant as the POV character interprets every micro-expression for us again and again.

There's also something to be said for leaving some details to the reader's imagination. The "subdued" conclusion evokes a more vivid image in my mind than drooping eyes or tightened lips.

Too much description of minute facial features leads to disembodiment. The characters stop being people and instead become communities of rolling eyeballs, raised brows, crossed arms, and flaring nostrils. There are only so many ways to describe these physical details, so the text gets redundant or cliched. Stepping back--just a little bit--from pure physical description to abstraction and interpretation opens up the universe of ways there are to describe a reaction. "Remained," "subdued," and "mourners" tell me plenty about the woman's facial expression, but they do more than that. They are vivid words that also contribute to the tone of the piece and to the reader's insight into the POV character. There's a beautiful economy there that's missing from too many of the stories I read.

Some characters might be hyperaware of someone's physical reactions--they deliberately and consciously study faces and postures and then ascribe meaning to them. Other characters operate on a more intuitive basis. Most people can tell you that a face looks happy or sad or angry, but they would have a hard time articulating exactly what it is about an expression that leads to the conclusion. The narrative has to be true to the POV character in this regard.

I think reversing the clauses so that the tone of voice is closer to the dialogue is all this example needs. I wouldn't change the rest, unless the POV character is part of the cast of _Lie to Me_.

Of course, there are times to give the precise physical movement. If your protagonist is a criminal psychologist, then I'd expect physical descriptions and interpretations. Physical details without the interpretation (or with a misintepretation) can communicate something to the reader that our POV character didn't notice (or misunderstood). If Eugene crosses his arms when questioned on a certain topic, the reader may pick up on Eugene's defensiveness even if the POV character doesn't see it. This can be especially useful if you have an unreliable narrator.

Adrian said...

I think reversing the clauses so that the tone of voice is closer to the dialogue is all this example needs. I wouldn't change the rest, unless the POV character is part of the cast of _Lie to Me_.

I'll agree that "remained subdued in the way of most mourners" is telling rather than showing. But, then again, so is "a note of eagerness had entered her tone."

_Eagerness_ is an interpretation of how she spoke. By the reasoning in this article, we should get the specific action that leads to that conclusion. Was it the way her pitch rose? Or did she say the words rapidly.

I think it's perfectly fine to not always give these minuscule physical details. When we get the physical detail _and_ the POV character's interpretation, the narrative can get weighed down. The prose starts to feel redundant as the POV character interprets every micro-expression for us again and again.

There's also something to be said for leaving some details to the reader's imagination. The "subdued" conclusion evokes a more vivid image in my mind than drooping eyes or tightened lips.

Too much description of minute facial features leads to disembodiment. The characters stop being people and instead become communities of rolling eyeballs, raised brows, and flaring nostrils. There are only so many ways to describe these physical details, so the text gets repetitious or contorted or cliched. Moving up--just a little bit--from pure physical description to abstraction and interpretation opens up the universe of ways there is to describe a reaction. "Remained," "subdued," and "mourners" tell me plenty about the woman's facial expression, but they do more than that. They are great, vivid words that also contribute to the tone of the piece and to the reader's insight into the POV character. There's a beautiful economy there that's missing from too many of the stories I read.

Some characters might be hyperaware of someone's physical reactions--they deliberately and consciously study faces and postures and then ascribe meaning to them. Other characters operate on a more intuitive basis. Most people can tell you that a face looks happy or sad or angry, but they would have a hard time articulating exactly what it is about an expression that leads to the conclusion. The narrative has to be true to the POV character in this regard. If your protagonist is a criminal psychologist or an accomplished actress, then I'd expect physical descriptions and interpretations. If not, then maybe not.

Of course, there are times to give the precise physical movement. Physical details without the interpretation (or with a misintepretation) can communicate something to the reader that our POV character didn't actually notice (or misunderstood). If Eugene crosses his arms when questioned on a certain topic, the reader may pick up on Eugene's defensive posture even if the POV character doesn't comment on it. This can be especially useful when you have an unreliable narrator.