Word Choice Part 2

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Words are supposed to communicate. But they can also slide past what we were trying to communicate without touching it at all. How we use them can make us successful writers – not that I’m ignoring the place that luck/providence/loki/or daddy’s money has – or allow our stories to line someone’s trash bin (digitally or literally). The way we structure a scene, the way the words are put together, can make a story swim – or make it sink like it’s wearing cement (or is it concrete?) boots.

Today, I want to take a scene that I wrote some years ago, one that deliberately contains every mistake I could imagine at the time, and I’ve made it even worse. Please read it through (Try not to laugh too much, okay? But do get a cup of coffee or tea and enjoy the show.) and then I’ll break the scene down, line by line, telling why each part is so very, very bad. I’ve used this scene several times at MW, each time for a different reason. Most recently I used it to show words that cause an emotional response in the reader, but it’s so bad that it gives us a chance to play around with it in a far more in-depth way.

If it were a play, this scene would take place at the end of the first act. So, first, the set up.

It is written from a first person POV. A rich young mother, Nicole, has discovered that the man she married is not the man he portrayed himself to be. Montgomery is, in fact, a very dangerous man, a philanderer, an abuser, a murderer, evil incarnate. He will not allow her to divorce him. She has been counseled by her best friend (a victim of his abuse) to shoot him on sight. But Nikki can’t do that. She also can’t go to the police, as the police are in his pocket. When Montgomery finds her, he is going to try to kill her. She knows this, yet, she feels she must give him a chance to do the right thing.

She has done what she can to protect her family and returned to the home she used to share with Montgomery. There is no electricity, which he has cut off, and it is summer in southeast Louisiana.

Nikki has four years of higher education, three children with a fourth on the way, and – because she grew up on the bayou (which I know well) – she can take care of herself.

The VERY BAD SCENE

It took him a week to find me, I reckon, though I had lost track of time in the boredom of my daily life in the house where I used to live. I heard the car coming for miles, as I was pouring water out from my bath at the end of the patio. I stopped, set down the bowl.

I looked back at the house, lit by candles. I entered and lit the hurricane lamp. Its glow was bright in the almost empty front room.

I opened a bottle of wine, Montgomery’s favorite, and poured it into two glasses. One I kept. The other I placed on the small TV tray holding the hurricane lamp. I waited.

The classic car he drove was an Auburn. He parked in the front yard, executing a three point turn so he faced out toward the drive, cut the motor and got out. He shut the door and opened the trunk before he walked toward the door.

He came through the front door. He smirked.

The door closed behind him. He took the wineglass in his hand and sipped.

We sipped our wine and stared at one another across the room. Unable to stand the silence a moment longer, I started talking.

I told him what Lilith, my sister, had said. I told him everything I had learned from the detective before he had the poor man killed. Everything I pieced together from memory. Every filthy thing he had ever done. From the time he hit Mama Moses for back-talking him, to the time he murdered that cop in New Orleans.

He just stood there, sipping once as I talked. Till I told him I was divorcing him. That if he contested it, the truth would come out in court.

He smiled then. “I have Lilith, you know,” he said. “I have four men surrounding the house she is in. I’ve watched her work in the garden. She really is beautiful, your pretty little sister. I’ve promised Lilith to Richard, as soon as you are gone. He really likes blondes, you know.

“I’m sorry Nicole. But my mother was right about you.” And he rushed me. He seemed to move in slow motion.

It’s strange how calm I was. I pulled the 9mm and fired.

The bullets hit him, one in the upper chest, too high to stop him, one in the face.

He didn’t go down, instead he crashed into me like a demon, spurting blood, but not slowed.

We struggled on the floor. I pushed away from him and ran to the bedroom. It was decorated in pretty pinks and gold, my favorite colors. The wallpaper was a vertical pink stripe, tone-on-tone. with tiny little roses in the paler pink lines. The comforter was big and fluffy and I wanted to curl up on its surface and go to sleep, but I couldn’t. If I did, Montgomery would kill me.

It was dark in the back of the house. I rolled across the fluffy comforter, and fell to the floor. I fumbled frantically for the shotgun. Touched it in the blackness beside the bed.

Fired it as he filled the doorway.

Still he didn’t fall. I followed. Moving toward the light, I racked the second round into the chamber.

Finally he slipped and fell, bouncing against the floor. He lay there.

I stood over Montgomery. And only when he was long dead and the weapon hung heavy in my arms did I start whistling The Old Rugged Cross. I was hungry and wanted to eat my diner.

Everything in this scene is wrong. (((Pace, tone, setting, atmosphere, suspense, dialogue, description, characterization and character development, transitions, flashbacks, foreshadowing, character and narrative voice, conflict, and solution.))) In short – it is amateurish, and reads like a teenager wrote it.

There are no details, and the details I’ve written are all the wrong ones. No … well, no “power words” to set the mood or create tension. We don’t have any descriptions of the characters, no reason to find them appealing or horrid, except for the woman who kills her husband, who comes off as totally unsympathetic, and despicable. Where did she find the 9mm? How many times did she shoot him with it? Where is the blood? What does the fight sound like? Look like? Smell like? What happened to the pace when she started describing the bedroom? Because we have no mention of a gun, there is no foreshadowing of violence. What happened to the wine glasses? She is supposed to be pregnant, yet there is no mention of that. We could go on and on. Instead, we’ll take the scene apart.

The VERY BAD SCENE broken down, with comments in parentheses

It took him a week to find me, I reckon, (character voice. She has 4 years of higher ed, and married a rich, influential man) though I had lost track of time in the boredom (better words exist to describe it) of my daily life in the house where I used to live. (we should know this by now and it might appear as unnecessary repetition, unless there is a literary reason for her to think it, and thus remind the reader of it.) I heard the car coming for miles, as I poured water out from my bath at the end of the patio. I stopped and set down the bowl and looked back at the house, which was lit by candles. (Sentence structure is slow and pedantic, lacking increasing tension.) I entered and lit the hurricane lamp. Its glow was bright in the almost empty front room.

I opened a bottle of wine, Montgomery’s favorite, and poured it into two glasses. (A detail or two here might remind us of who she is, her pregnancy, and increase the tension. Also, it’s hot in summer in La. Is the wine icky? Is she starting to sweat? And BTW, what does the place smell like?) One I kept. The other I placed on the small TV tray holding the hurricane lamp. I waited. (What is she feeling? Since I—the writer—am not saying, I should have shown the reader what she is feeling through these stage direction moments, and I haven’t.)

The classic car he drove was an Auburn. (Sooooo?) He parked in the front yard, executing a three point turn so he faced out toward the drive, cut the motor and got out. He shut the door and opened the trunk before he walked toward the door. (This should have been part of a suspenseful buildup of tension. I didn’t do my job. Word choice and sentence construction lead me to … nowhere.)

He came through the front door. He smirked. (Telling. Show me what his face did. I need to see this expression and maybe even know how the character felt about it.)

The door closed behind him. He took the wine glass in his hand and sipped.

We sipped (repeated word, which might be fine if it were a word with any impact. It isn’t.) our wine and stared at one another across the room. Unable to stand the silence a moment longer, I started talking.

I told him what Lilith, my sister, (we should already know this. Not the place to remind me) had said. I told him everything I had learned from the detective, before he had the poor man (poor man sounds old-lady-ish, and pertains to voice) killed. Everything I pieced together from memory. Every filthy thing he had ever done. From the time he hit Mama Moses for back-talking him, to the time he murdered that cop in New Orleans. (This reads as fact; it has no impact. This is a wife telling her husband awful things, yet there are no reactions on either side. While cold retelling is useful at times, this does not appear to be the place or the pace for it. Writer did not do her job.)

He just stood there, sipping once as I talked. Till I told him I was divorcing him. That if he contested it, the truth would come out in court. [By now we can tell that this reads like a TV version of a trailer-park-trash dialect. {And let me say that I love the particular dialects of trailer-park-trash, and have used them often, and have nothing against them. This has been the PC statement of the post.} The entire scene does. If I had written a book about trailer-park-characters, that would be fine. The book was intended to be something else entirely, and this may fall under the heading of *write what you know*.]

He smiled then. “I have Lilith, you know,” he said. “I have four men surrounding the house she is in. I’ve watched her work in the garden. She really is beautiful, your pretty little sister. I’ve promised Lilith to Richard, as soon as you are gone. He really (repeated word, repeated poor-choice word) likes blondes, you know. (You know? Really?)

“I’m sorry Nicole. But my mother was right about you.” (Is this out of the blue? Is he a mama’s boy? Did I mss something? How is she right about Nicole?) And he rushed me. He seemed to move in slow motion.

It’s strange how calm I was. I pulled the 9mm and fired. (What 9mil? Where did it come from? How many times did she fire? Did she empty the gun?)

The bullets hit him, one in the upper chest, too high to stop him, one in the face. (slow pacing. Action has begun. My heart should be pounding. But I’m yawning.)

He didn’t go down, instead he crashed into me like a demon, spurting blood, but not slowed. (Pacing! Where is the pacing?)

We struggled on the floor. I pushed away from him and ran to the bedroom. It was decorated in pretty pinks and gold, my favorite colors. The wallpaper was a vertical pink stripe, tone-on-tone. with tiny little roses in the paler pink lines. The comforter was big and fluffy (So, this is a book about decorating? I’m over a third of the way through; I should already have seen this room, had it described to me. NOT HERE!) and I wanted to curl up on its surface and go to sleep, but I couldn’t. (Hey writer! Would you really think this?) If I did, Montgomery would kill me. (Yes, he would, but you are too stupid to live anyway.)

It was dark in the back of the house. I rolled across the fluffy comforter, and fell to the floor. I fumbled frantically for the shotgun. Touched it in the blackness beside the bed. (When did the shotgun get here? If it was several scenes ago, then I the reader, should have been reminded of it more recently. I, the writer, did not do my job.)

Fired it as he filled the doorway.

Still he didn’t fall. (What did he do, then?) I followed. (Where?) Moving toward the light, (is this supposed to be a mention of coming death?) I racked the second round into the chamber.

Finally he slipped and fell, bouncing against the floor. He lay there.

I stood over Montgomery. And only when he was long dead and the weapon hung heavy in my arms did I start whistling The Old Rugged Cross. (Giggling. Sorry. Silly image.) I was hungry and wanted to eat my diner. (Riiiiight. Crazy lil witch. I think you are demented. Reader throws book across the room.)

Next week will be the rewritten scene and the a breakdown of it so you can see the difference.

Faith
FaithHunter.Net
GwenHunter.Com

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26 comments to Word Choice Part 2

  • Looking forward to the rewrite. And thanks for presenting this warts and all. It’s a tough thing to open yourself up like this for public criticism. I’m sure people will take heart from seeing the detail of your self-critique.

  • AJ — it was written to *be* bad… (grinning)

  • Thank you Faith, that was good!

    After I finish this, I’m going back on “passive waffle patrol” in my own WIP.

    The only thing I’d add is that some people (like me about 15 years ago) freeze up under criticism, and that makes it hard to fix mistakes. It’s okay to make these mistakes, and it’s even better to fix them before anyone else has to read them.

  • This will be an interesting rewrite to read. One thing I like about what you’ve done here (and in your other posts like this one) is to show how every sentence, every line, every word, must be considered, analyzed, and dealt with. I think sometimes even seasoned writers forget the close attention that needs to be given.

  • Mikaela

    This was intresting to read, and I admit it
    This is how big parts of my first drafts looks. A lot of telling. I am learning, though. :)

  • Mikaela

    This was intresting to read, and I admit it was revealing.
    This is how big parts of my first drafts looks. A lot of telling. I am learning, though. :)

  • Well, that was an eye-opener. Can’t wait to read the rewrite!

    This kind of line-by-line analysis is a lot of work, but it’s like the editing equivalent of a core strength workout. Exhausting, painful, and incredibly worth it.

  • Oh, dear. That’s really all I can say. Oh, dear. “You are too stupid to live anyway…” — that had me rolling on the floor. And eating a diner! Waitresses and all??!!

    Thanks for sharing this, Faith. Like the others who have commented, I’m looking forward to the rewrite.

  • Deb S

    Faith, your posts are like mini workshops. I love them. Thanks for showing us how to improve our writing rather than simply telling:)

  • I have to admit that every time I read this scene, which was rewritten *into* awful, from a really good one in Betrayal (by the AKA Gwen), I find new things to add to the horrible-ness of it. This time it was *smirk*.

    I also find new ways to improve the original scene, which was a tightly written, intense, and suspensful scene in the first place. But I’m a better writer now. And still growing, in large part due to this site, which makes me hone skills every week.

    And yes, writing a *bad* scene is a way to hone skills. As a writing exercise, a writer can take any well-written scene and make it *not* work. It’s eye-opening.

  • David, murder is hard work. It makes some people hungery. (Grins)

  • Emily

    I love this… I have read stuff for people where I got to a point where I wanted to chuck the book across the room because I thought the character was too dumb to live. The character was supposed to be saavy and smart and almost 100 years old (set in modern day) and made some mistakes that 18 year olds don’t make–for the sake of the plot. I try really hard to avoid that.

    This, as other posters have said, really really helps a lot. I think I’m getting better in my own writing, and I’m starting to edit by saying “what would Faith say is wrong with this?”

    Thanks for another great post.

  • Oh, Dear. Emily. (laughing) My own supposedly *good* work still needs an editor. But thank you so very much for your kind words.

    And I thank everyone who got a kick out of my deliberatly awful writing! I hope next week’s version is an improvement, and that the breakdown makes as much sense as this one did. I didn’t have a chance to comment personally until now, but here goes.

    Het — If your *passive waffle patrol* is about passive voice, that writing is like black mold — very hard to kill. I totally agree that catching our own bad writing is something best done first!

    Suart, thank you. Like most of us, I don’t always have (or take) the time with each para, line, and word that I should.
    MW makes me work at it a bit harder. I am currently rewriting a book as my AKA, and have tightened over 10 pages out of its length. That feels good!

  • Thank you for the great post. I love the analysis and how hard you are on the writing. I look at some of my sentences and paragraphs and am pretty harsh. It’s almost like Mystery Science Theater 3000 for books/writing.

    Can’t wait to see the revisions!

  • Mikaela, there *is* a place for telling. The narritive voice can be used to push the pace along. Dialogue is a *great* place to tell the reader something that would be boring to show. But it’s the right *tell* in the right place. (grins)

    Moira, That is the way I feel after writing one of these blogs. That I gave my writing device toolbox a workout!

    Deb, how kind! You are welcome. I love doing this!

  • Alistair, thank you. Cool analogy!
    (Sometimes I want to throw my own work across the room!)

  • Well, “passive waffle patrol” is partly about passive voice. I’m writing first person POV, and stuff happens to Mr. POV. For example, in first person POV, describe the experience of being in an ICU without using the passive voice. There’s no point in rooting out the passive voice when it fits.

    When it doesn’t fit…out!

    Right now, I’m also looking for passive sentences, which are sentences that are sitting around not doing much. Either they get working or they get cut.

    As for waffling, I there may be some reasonably decent, possibly quite good, examples already up there in your text.

  • Het… You think? (starting to giggle) Really? THANK YOU!!! I worked soooo hard on that!

    Never thought I’d say thanks to that kind of comment. (still giggling)

    And, (putting on the professional hat) I never thought about it, but you are so right. Passive voice is *perfect* for hopsital stays. The loss of control is so absolute, that passive voice will provide a way to show instead of tell. Very good call!

  • Faith,

    Why do I get the feeling it all boils down to, “In other words, it was morning.”

  • (laughing) Alan, you got it in the ol’ nutshell… Now why didn’t *I* put it so succinctly?

  • Faith, likely because you haven’t read the books I have. The original had lines like, “Noxzema, goddess of the dawn, banging her golden garbage pail…”. It ends with, “In other words, it was morning.”

    A morning, by the way, which finds Goodgulf Greyteeth cheating at solitaire on the hunchback of the dwarf Gimlet. I’m sure somebody out there now recognizes the work in question.

  • Alan, I read it when I was a teenager. Insult not the White Wizard, for I have many powers. Here, pick a card. Any card.

    I really need to hunt down a copy of that and read it again. 😀

  • Alan, Misty, I stand (ok, sit) in the presence of word- greatness…

  • Missy,

    Who can forget classic lines such as…

    We boggie are hairy folk
    Who like to eat until we choke
    Loving all like friend and brother
    And hardly ever eat each other.

    Or that epic that began…

    A king of elves there was of old
    Saranwrap by name
    Who slew the narcs at mallow marsh
    And Sorehead’s host did tame.

    Or, for that matter, Stomper’s sorrowful decision regarding Farahslax’s injury…

    “Twas water on the brain, forced was I to amputate.”

  • It takes a special talent for a good writer to write badly! At least that badly! Well done, and you’ve given me an inspiration for my upcoming workshop, too. I look forward to seeing the good version.

  • Thanks Lynn. It *was* bad!