Sunday, 28 August 2011

Move It, Move It!

I’ve struggled for several weeks to write my August blog post. So many ideas, so little time, so many distractions. 

This morning I had a good idea. A eureka moment. Well, maybe an uh-duh moment, whichever way you want to look at it. Actually, I had quite a few of both types of moments since my last post and I could list a string of titles for the essays I never wrote.

It’s a tricky business, not following thoughts when the mind is simply monkeying around and then turning around and following thoughts when the mind is coaxing us into creative awareness. Knowing when to follow and when to let go, when to move and when to rest is a key to mastering not only the mind, but life itself. Moment / movement. Movement / moment. 

Story isn’t any different than life. When we are captivated with a particular piece of writing, then we’ve immersed ourselves in the flow of a successful narrative. A narrative always moves forward, just as life does.

It doesn’t matter if  we are tackling fiction, nonfiction, a dissertation, a technical manual, or even a poem. Each piece of writing has a particular flow, despite the conflicts or contrasts inherent in the work. Knowing how to control the narrative flow in order make writing engaging and understandable is the key to keeping readers turning pages. 

Flow implies movement. If you’re checking your thesaurus, flow also implies a current, a tide, or a flux. Narratives have low and high tides, a fluidity of motion in which it sometimes gushes forward in floods of action and sometimes slows to a trickle of description or exposition. But that movement must make total sense within the context of the particular experience inherent in a narrative. 

Writers must control movement in their narratives. In my freelance editing work and in my own writing, I often have to pare away extra information that slows down an otherwise engaging story. Usually this extraneous information comes in the form of a descriptive passage – exposition – or character thoughts inserted in the midst of an action scene in fiction,  memoir, or creative nonfiction. These passages are like annoying speed bumps that suddenly spring up while the piece is racing toward a narrative climax. Excessive or clumsy dialogue in fiction and creative nonfiction is another speed bump. So is too much exposition - telling rather than showing, which must be in a pleasing balance.

Sometimes narrative barriers come in the form of what I call “warming up”. As we’re revving up our writing engine, we create repetitive opening sentences in paragraphs or scenes. These don’t always occur in the opening page or pages of stories, novels, or other narratives. In the case of book-length work, these call fall in any chapter. These phrases often look and sound like different, discrete pieces, but a careful editor or reader will see a setting motif or a character action multiplied or repeated. Careful tightening of prose usually catches these extra sputters, which allows for swifter and smoother narrative movement.

There are other dangers ahead. Don’t confuse action with movement. Sometimes writers mistake the two. Sometimes perfectly good, active scenes don’t move a plot or a narrative forward. Experts call this lateral movement. Delete! Take inspiration from filmmakers who metaphorically leave lots of perfectly interesting stuff on the cutting room floor.

Another danger - over-explanation sometimes feels like movement. Don’t underestimate your readers’ intelligence.

One of the best ways to master narrative movement is simply to read beautifully written work of any type. Wrap your brain around the patterns of successful narrative movement and you’ll tend, for the most part, after you’ve found your own voice, to create work with greater fluidity. Reading is an important part of mastering the writing craft. 

This doesn’t mean that reading every classic or award-winning contemporary book that comes along will magically allow you to write perfect or nearly perfect first drafts. Any experienced writer understands that good writing comes in the rewriting. Sometimes the muse will high-five us and inspire a nearly flawless piece to pop through. But mostly we face extensive revision. Blood, sweat, and tears rewriting. Not only to catch simple errors in grammar and punctuation, but to fill in narrative gaps or exert that picky polish with vivid verbs and specific nouns, the good word choices that make prose sing. 

In some cases, rewriting suggests paring away wordy or flowery writing into leaner and meaner prose. Always, to achieve the all-important narrative movement, writers must craft sentences that flow into the next in an effortless and compelling story stream. Central to that process is ordering words in a natural rhythm that lends to that natural flow.

Hand-in-hand with revision comes practice, practice, practice. It doesn’t matter if we write 10 minutes or 10 hours a day. The point is that by continually moving forward with our reading and writing, we’ll gradually internalize all the facets of skillful reading and writing. This takes time, patience, and consistent effort.

Just keep going. You gotta move it, move it!

1 comment:

  1. I love my speed bumps! Mostly.
    Does this mean I can use a hammer to move it?