Word Choice Part 3

Share

 I’ve been playing around for the last few weeks about word choice. Last week I shared a scene that I called the BAD SCENE, one I wrote to contain everything I hate in a poorly written scene. Originally, it was a well-written scene, from the AKA’s book Betrayal, one I was proud of, that I revised to be bad. I hope that is clearer this week. I’ve used the original, good scene here at MW off and on over the years, changing it, rewriting it, making it better, different, and to fit the subject matter. But what I’ve never done is tear it apart and show *why* I wrote it way I did when I wrote the GOOD SCENE.

So, here today, is that scene, and below it, the good scene skinned, boned, cut up, and diced like chicken for a good chicken salad. On a side note – no, I am not finished with the GOOD SCENE. I’ll continue to rewrite it over the years as one of those writing exercises I love so much.

In case you have forgotten the setup, here it is from last week:

The scene 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.

Nicole 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.

GOOD SCENE

            It took him a week to find me, I suppose, though I had lost track of time in the monotony of my daily life. I heard the car coming for miles, long after dusk, as I was pouring out water from my nightly sponge bath, the flow spilling to the ground at the end of the patio. I stopped, cutting off the spatter, water sloshing, and set down the bowl; dried my hands on the towel beside me as mosquitoes buzzed around my overheated body. I stretched my healing shoulders. The movement pulled at my clean, stretchy tee shirt and shorts, and at the holster I had strapped around my expanding waistline after my bath. Montgomery was driving slowly, without urgency or passion. I had time to prepare.

I looked at the house, lit by candles, a soft glow at three windows. I entered, my bare feet on the sun-warmed tile, and then on the cooler walnut flooring, thinking not at all, and lit the hurricane lamp at the front door. Its warm glow was cheery and bright in the nearly empty front room. Still moving slowly, I walked through the house, checking my preparations. Everything was ready. Everything was in place.

            I reentered the kitchen and picked up a bottle of wine, Montgomery’s favorite, the best white, from the cooler, the ice water chilling my hand. I opened the bottle and poured the Chardonnay, splashing the pale yellow liquid into two crystal glasses. One I kept, the scent sweet, almost buttery. The other I placed on the small TV tray holding the hurricane lamp, beside the front door. I leaned against the wall in the shadows of the front room and waited.

            The classic car pulled into the drive. It was an Auburn, a new addition to his collection or a loaner from one of his brothers. He parked in the front yard, executing a three-point turn so he faced out toward the drive, and cut the motor. He got out and shut the door. Opened the trunk, leaving it wide, like a dark maw in the night. He walked toward the front of the house.

            He came through the front door, stylish and casual, his khakis and starched shirt handmade in Paris, his leather loafers handmade in Italy. The lamplight made hollows of his face. He still hadn’t shaved, but his beard was neatly trimmed and shaped, shining with sweat in the heat. His eyes were hard, his mouth a thin, cold line.

            The door closed behind him with soft snick and I smelled his cologne, a citrusy scent that mixed well with his wine, and contrasted poorly with the fresh tang of my sweat. He curled his long, elegant fingers around the stem of the wineglass, lifted it, and sipped, just as if it were the end of an ordinary day instead of the end of our life together. I wondered about the open trunk, the yawning mouth black in the night.

            We sipped our cool wine and stared at one another across the room, Montgomery in his tasteful attire, me in the tee shirt I slept in, bare-legged and bare-footed. Tree frogs were background music, a stirring cacophony. A gator roared nearby and slapped the water, the sounds echoing through the house.

Unable to stand the silence a moment longer, I started talking. I told him what Lilith had said. I told him everything I had learned from the detective. Everything I pieced together from memory, evidence old and new. Every filthy thing he had ever done. From the time he backhanded Mama Moses and walked away with her diamond earrings to teach her a lesson, to the time he shot his sister-in-law and carted her body into the swamp, because she refused his advances. He just stood there, listening, the lamp flickering over his hands as they twirled the wineglass by its stem.

            He listened patiently, as if giving me a chance to pour out all my words, as I had poured out my dirty bathwater. He sipped once as I talked, his movements elegant and refined, his manner polished. Till I finished my little spiel with the only part I hadn’t rehearsed in the days of solitude and heat. I told him I was divorcing him. That if he contested it, the truth would come out in court. All of the truth.

            He smiled then, a stranger’s smile in his bearded face. Slow and sensual and so very cold. “I have Lilith,” he said casually. “Four men are surrounding the house she’s in. I’ve watched her work in the garden. I’ve watched her undress at night through the windows.” He sipped, his smiling lips curving across the glass.

My heart stuttered. A cold fire started in the pit of my stomach, spreading outward. Careful not to look away from his cold eyes, I set my glass on the TV tray beside me. Clumsy, I bumped the wooden rim. The glass tilted; the wine spilled. I tried to catch the crystal, but it hit the tray with a sharp sound, off-key and tinny, and broke, the shards shimmering in the rolling wine.

            “She is beautiful, your pretty little sister.” I jerked my eyes from the broken glass to his face. He sipped again, his lips molding to the rim, his throat moving in the lamplight. So sensuous. “I’ve promised Lilith to Richard, as soon as you’re gone.” Montgomery smiled. “He really likes blondes. The younger the better.”

            With a faint click, he set his glass on the TV tray beside the lamp. Took a step. His smile faded back into that tight, hard line. He smoothed the palm of one hand over the knuckles of the other. It was a caress of his own flesh, as cold as the blue glitter of his eyes.

            “I’m sorry Nicole. But my mother was right about you. You are … inadequate to my needs. A hindrance to the plans and future of my family. You really must go.” And he rushed me.

            He seemed to move in slow motion. A dancer underwater. His face unchanging as he came at me. A frozen mask.            

            It’s strange how calm I was. Peaceful almost. I didn’t even have to think about it. My reflexes were lightning fast.

            I pulled the 9mm and fired. Twice.

            The bullets hit him, one in the upper chest, too high to stop him, one in the face below his left cheek, the reports loud in the empty house, the echoes going on and on. Blasting the night away.

            He didn’t go down. Crashed into me like a demon. Spurting blood, but not slowed.

            We struggled, his blood giving neither of us purchase on the slick wood. He hit. He slapped. I clawed and bit. Lost the gun. Pushed away from him. Stumbled to my knees. Ran to the bedroom.

            It was dark in the back of the house. No candle lit here. I rolled across the bed, fell to the floor. Fumbled frantically for the shotgun. Touched it in the blackness beside the bed, the metal cool in the incredible heat.

            I lifted the .20 gauge. Braced it against my shoulder. And fired as he filled the doorway.

            Still he didn’t fall, but backpedaled into the main room. I followed, slipping in his blood, moving from the darkness down the hallway toward the lamplight. Racked the second round into the chamber. Following Montgomery. He stumbled once. Again, as he reached the front door.

            Finally he slipped in his own blood and fell, bouncing against the floor, blood still spurting into the air, across the room. Then slowing, pooling under him.

            I stood over Montgomery, the shotgun pointed at his face, his mask changing, softening. I watched the life drain out of him. And only when he was long dead and the weapon hung heavy in my arms did I step away.

GOOD SCENE sliced and diced

            It took him a week to find me, I suppose, (In the novel itself, I’ve already hinted that the character is losing track of time. This *suppose* and the rest of the sentence, is scene anchoring, and pertains to character’s state of mind) though I had lost track of time in the monotony of my daily life. I heard the car coming for miles, long after dusk, (Pertains to scene anchoring, reminds the reader of the isolation of the setting and the silence of the night) as I was pouring out water from my nightly sponge bath, the flow spilling to the ground at the end of the patio. (As she pours out the water, that sets up—in the reader’s mind—the beginning of the character’s change in mental status. It carries on to the next sentence when she *stops*.)  I stopped, cutting off the spatter, water sloshing, and set down the bowl; dried my hands on the towel beside me as mosquitoes buzzed around my overheated body. (It is summer in La., hot and buggy.) I stretched my healing shoulders. (The stretch is a reminder to the reader that she was beaten by her husband, and has been healing, alone.) The movement pulled at my clean, stretchy tee shirt and shorts, and at the holster I had strapped around my expanding waistline after my bath. (The character later uses a weapon. I need the reader to remember that she has been wearing one, and that she is pregnant.) Montgomery was driving slowly, without urgency or passion. I had time to prepare. (Sets up the speed of what happens next. Lets the reader know it will not be a panic scene, rushing around, but a slow-building scene.)

            I looked at the house, lit by candles, a soft glow at three windows. (Reminds the reader that the house has no electricity. That her husband had the power turned off. No phone, no alarm system, no help for miles.) I entered, my bare feet on the sun-warmed tile, and then on the cooler walnut flooring, thinking not at all, and lit the hurricane lamp at the front door. (She is changing her environment, and I am reminding the reader that she has had days to prepare.)  Its warm glow was cheery and bright (in contrast to the character’s state of mind) in the nearly empty front room. Still moving slowly, I walked through the house, checking my preparations. Everything was ready. Everything was in place. (The reader is reminded that, when the character has to defend her life, she can. She has the tools.)

            I reentered the kitchen and picked up a bottle of wine, Montgomery’s favorite, the best white, from the cooler, the ice water chilling my hand. (In a previous scene, she has ice. This is a reminder and explains why the wine isn’t icky.) I opened the bottle and poured the Chardonnay, (details can build tension) splashing the pale yellow liquid into two crystal glasses. (*Crystal* detail reminds us that they were rich. She had money. And despite the fact that she has been driven to this extreme act, she still knows who she is and was, and that no amount of money can make up for some things.) One I kept, the scent sweet, almost buttery. (This one was just for me. The only chardonnay I like is a buttery one.) The other I placed on the small TV tray holding the hurricane lamp, beside the front door. I leaned against the wall in the shadows of the front room and waited. (With very few words, I have set up the scene, the emotional ambiance, the state of mind of the character. The fact that she is in the shadows helps.)

            The classic car pulled into the drive. It was an Auburn, a new addition to his collection or a loaner from one of his brothers. (Rich again. And a mention that he and his brothers do everything together, both the evil and the good.) He parked in the front yard, executing a three-point turn so he faced out toward the drive, and cut the motor. He got out and shut the door. Opened the trunk, leaving it wide, like a dark maw in the night. He walked toward the front of the house. (By spelling out his actions in short, almost pedantic sentences, I show the reader the forethought of the antagonist. I also leave hanging, as setup for the following scene, the car’s open trunk.)

            He came through the front door, stylish and casual, his khakis and starched shirt handmade in Paris, his leather loafers handmade in Italy. (By repeating *handmade* I drive it home.) The lamplight made hollows of his face. He still hadn’t shaved, but his beard was neatly trimmed and shaped, shining with sweat in the heat. His eyes were hard, his mouth a thin, cold line. (A reminder of the past, the riches they had shared, and the changes that were taking place. And the not-so-subtly veiled menace of his expression.)

            The door closed behind him with soft snick and I smelled his cologne, a citrusy scent that mixed well with his wine, and contrasted poorly with the fresh tang of my sweat. (The differences between the past and the present. Between who the characters have become.) He curled his long, elegant fingers around the stem of the wineglass, lifted it, and sipped, just as if it were the end of an ordinary day instead of the end of our life together. (Telling by showing.) I wondered about the open trunk, the yawning mouth black in the night. (Pertains to menace and building of suspense. She knows her husband is a killer. It *is* as bad as she has feared.)

            We sipped our cool wine and stared at one another across the room, Montgomery in his tasteful attire, me in the tee shirt I slept in, bare-legged and bare-footed. Tree frogs were background music, a stirring cacophony. A gator roared nearby and slapped the water, the sounds echoing through the house. (Using the background as suspense builders. Danger is everywhere. And the mention of the gators is a setup for the end of the book, still over a 100 pages away.)

Unable to stand the silence a moment longer, I started talking. (She has always made the first move in their violent life together, trying to bring the good husband back from the edge of violence. Even now, she is first to speak. It is part of their pattern. But by the words that follow, she breaks the pattern.) I told him what Lilith had said. I told him everything I had learned from the detective. (Proof of her change, that she got a detective.) Everything I pieced together from memory, evidence old and new. Every filthy thing he had ever done. From the time he backhanded Mama Moses and walked away with her diamond earrings to teach her a lesson, to the time he shot his sister-in-law and carted her body into the swamp, because she refused his advances. (To keep her family safe, she has closed her eyes to much over the years. But she saw it all. By speaking of it, she is breaking all the patterns of the marriage, but keeping true to the pattern of herself. She still wants her husband to do the right thing, and she has to give him the change to seek … um … repentance, perhaps. Or absolution.)  He just stood there, listening, the lamp flickering over his hands as they twirled the wineglass by its stem. (He will not change. The next events and her careful planning must happen.)

He listened patiently, as if giving me a chance to pour out all my words, as I had poured out my dirty bathwater. He sipped once as I talked, his movements elegant and refined, his manner polished. (He will not change. The next events and her careful planning must happen.) Till I finished my little spiel with the only part I hadn’t rehearsed in the days of solitude and heat. I told him I was divorcing him. That if he contested it, the truth would come out in court. All of the truth. (For the first time she breaks her pattern.)

            He smiled then, a stranger’s smile in his bearded face. (The man she married was a lie. We see it without being told it.) Slow and sensual and so very cold. “I have Lilith,” he said casually. (Her plans start to fall apart.) “Four men are surrounding the house she’s in. I’ve watched her work in the garden. I’ve watched her undress at night through the windows.” He sipped, his smiling lips curving across the glass. (Repeated words give them power. Her plans are falling apart. Now there is only the final act.)

My heart stuttered. A cold fire started in the pit of my stomach, spreading outward. (This is telling, but it is short and sweet, and by telling, pertains to her loss of control.) Careful not to look away from his cold eyes, I set my glass on the TV tray beside me. Clumsy, I bumped the wooden rim. The glass tilted; the wine spilled. I tried to catch the crystal, (as she had held onto her old life) but it hit the tray with a sharp sound, off-key and tinny, (like her old life) and broke, (like her old life) the shards shimmering in the rolling wine. (Showing that nothing has gone as she had hoped. Everything is broken. Even the beautiful things.)

            “She is beautiful, your pretty little sister.” I jerked my eyes from the broken glass to his face. He sipped again, his lips molding to the rim, his throat moving in the lamplight. So sensuous. (Everything she wanted. Everything she fears.) “I’ve promised Lilith to Richard, as soon as you’re gone.” Montgomery smiled. “He likes blondes. The younger the better.” (She knows all this. It is part of the threat, that he tells her now, outright. The secrets she has discovered are true.)

            With a faint click, he set his glass on the TV tray beside the lamp. (Everything he does works, in contrast to her plans.) Took a step. His smile faded back into that tight, hard line. He smoothed the palm of one hand over the knuckles of the other. It was a caress of his own flesh, as cold as the blue glitter of his eyes. (Word choice builds here, with the juxtaposition of caress and smoothed, against knuckles and cold and glitter.)

            “I’m sorry Nicole. But my mother was right about you. You are … inadequate to my needs. A hindrance to the plans and future of my family. You really must go.” And he rushed me. (He brings it all back to the true antagonist of the book, the sociopath mother who rules them all. He has spent the entire book trying to fight the old woman, and now he gives up and gives in and will do what she wanted all along.)

            He seemed to move in slow motion. A dancer underwater. His face unchanging as he came at me. A frozen mask. (He can’t change. Never will.)

            It’s strange how calm I was. Peaceful almost. I didn’t even have to think about it. My reflexes were lightning fast. (She has changed. She will finally defend herself.)

            I pulled the 9mm and fired. Twice. (Specific details, as seen in the heightened awareness of battle, without actually saying so.)

            The bullets hit him, one in the upper chest, too high to stop him, one in the face below his left cheek, the reports loud in the empty house, the echoes going on and on. Blasting the night away.

            He didn’t go down. Crashed into me like a demon. (Time bounded back. The battle is now up close.) Spurting blood, but not slowed.

            We struggled, his blood giving neither of us purchase on the slick wood. He hit. He slapped. I clawed and bit. Lost the gun. Pushed away from him. Stumbled to my knees. Ran to the bedroom. (Short sentences, like the pounding of a heart. The way they fight still pertaining to the differences between them.)

            It was dark in the back of the house. No candle lit here. I rolled across the bed, fell to the floor. (Description kept to a minimum.)  Fumbled frantically for the shotgun. (She had placed it there days ago. The reader was reminded if it when she checked her preparations.) Touched it in the blackness beside the bed, the metal cool in the incredible heat. (Details minimal.)

            I lifted the .20 gauge. Braced it against my shoulder. And fired as he filled the doorway.

            Still he didn’t fall, but backpedaled into the main room. I followed, slipping in his blood, (Details fill in the picture without telling. She will survive, but the life she once had is forever gone.) moving from the darkness down the hallway toward the lamplight. Racked the second round into the chamber. Following Montgomery. (She has always followed him. She still does.) He stumbled once. Again, as he reached the front door.

            Finally he slipped in his own blood and fell, bouncing against the floor, blood still spurting into the air, across the room. Then slowing, pooling under him. (Showing that death is seldom fast or easy. His is not, and should not be. This woman did not want to fight, but has, and will see it through.)

            I stood over Montgomery, the shotgun pointed at his face, his mask changing, softening. I watched the life drain out of him. And only when he was long dead and the weapon hung heavy in my arms did I step away. (No emotion mentioned. No, emotion needed. The scene should take us through to here, and drop us, as final as death.)

There are a lot of devices used in this scene. I could break it up more, but it gets hard to follow, and I think that most of us can spot devices on our own. Could I rewrite the scene and make it better, even now? Yes. I could. And eventually I will.

But I hope you have enjoyed the BAD SCENE and the GOOD SCENE.

Faith
FaithHunter.Net
GwenHunter.Com


Share

16 comments to Word Choice Part 3

  • heteromeles

    Mmmm. Tastes like chicken. Thanks!

  • Het, you got me laughing! Thanks!

  • heteromeles

    I hate that darned return key! Anyway, I was thinking about quibbling about some of the details, but I think that’s all covered in Prof. Murphy’s unpublished Book on Writing (you know, the one you get to read, bit by bit, as people comment on your work?).

    As I’ve been finding while editing my WIP, the more details there are, the more chances there are (for me at least) to make an embarrassing slip, either while I’m writing or while I’m reading. It’s the usual problem of trying to communicate indirectly.

    Otherwise, the pacing is a good example, and thanks again for posting it.

  • Het, there will always be quibbles — even by me! I first wrote this scene in 1993. And it still ain’t done!

    I think the details part is that a *few*, *good* details tossed in are helpful. The wrong ones, as you said, might spoil the scene. For instance, I had to research to find an antique car that had a trunk big enough for a body, yet was rare enough to be something that Mont. would own and drive.

    Indirect communication is indeed the hard part. That is one major difference in defining a storyteller and a writer. Writers show the reader. Storytellers tell the listener. Some great storytellers stink at writing and vice versa. Good call.

  • Wow, Faith, what a drastic change. Thanks for sharing these examples, and for pointing out your technique line-by-line. I *love* the description in this version!

  • Thanks, Moira. My early work was heavy on descriiption, using it to do the indirect-writing-communication thing that Het pointed to. Such nearly-purple prose is less in fashion now, readers liking a more spare writing style. In fact, *I* like a more spare writing style. Still, descriptive writing has its place, even in an action scene.

  • Thank you Faith for sharing the scenes with us. It’s great to see both versions and then your breakdown. I’m always fascinated seeing how other writers edit their work. I really enjoyed reading all your comments throughout the scene. Your posts have helped me with my editing, thank you!

  • Thanks, Alistair. It goes back to the writing exercises. Writing a deliberately rotten scene can help me see how to write a much bette scene.

  • This is probably off the topic, but I’m going to ask anyhow.

    “Unable to stand the silence a moment longer, I started talking.”

    The MC’s monologue is described rather than given as dialog, and I don’t understand why. Would it have been overly tedious to rehash events from earlier in the story? Would it have broken the tension of the scene, maybe?

  • Good question, and not off topic at all. With all our attemps at stressing *Show, Don’t Tell* here was a prime exaample of *telling*. Done on purpose.

    Besides, I’ll talk about most anything Nomad,(grinning) especialy when it’s asked in such a nice way.

    In the novel, I tried it several ways. I tried to let Nic explain everything Monty had done. This did slow down the pace to a crawl. You got it perfectly. I tried ignoring the evidence totally and jumping right into the action, which made the character quite unlovable. I also tried to list fewer crimes and more of them, and each had the effect of changing the way I — the reader — was willing to accept the violence that followed. (The scene in the book actually lists different, worse crimes, but to keep it PG, for the site, I changed them.)

    So, after trying this small section of the scene several ways, I described and listed a few crimes. To make it work, I rewrote the scene perior to this one, with the character studying the evidence, making her preparations, remembering her youth on the bayou and the lessons her brothers and father had taught her. And again studying the evidence.

    The monologue as described then made sense to the reader, and was in keeping with the isolated mental state of the character in the previous short scenes. It also held to the tone and voice of the book which was intensly mental, reflective, and resistant to the things Nic was forced to do to protect the ones she loved.

    It was an narritive decision approved by my editor, who (if I remember right after all these years) had me cut the numbers of crimes listed to speed the pacing.

    Would I write the same scene the same way for another character? Nope. Jane Yellowrock would just hit first and think it over after, while she washed his dirtbag blood off her claws. Thorn St. Croix would use magic and contain the bad guy. Then make the decision what to do with him, with the help of her champards. Thorn is far more democratic than any of my other characters.

    Thanks for the excellent question.

  • Faith, thanks for this: a great instance of detail-oriented editing, the micro elements of which build in macro terms to create a very different (and more effective) feel from the “bad” version.

  • Thanks AJ. It is always fun to write a very bad scene — and to know that I had to work to make it bad.

  • This is wonderful, Faith. The contrast with last week’s post, the explanation section by section, line by line. Great stuff. And yeah, this one’s a little better….

  • Thanks David. Just a tad? (grinning)

  • Well, Faith. I’m thoroughly impressed, not just by the improvement of one scene to the next but the amount work you’ve put into these posts. I didn’t comment on Word Choice Part 2 before the comments became locked, mainly because I re-read it a few times.

    This is an excellent exercise on selection of words and details. I’ve read both posts a few times, then opened the both up together on my widescreen monitor and compared them line by line to see what changes were made and your reasoning behind it.

    Thank you sharing and for taking the time to put your authorial notes in-line. Seeing the decision making process is extremely helpful.

    I find my drafting comes in not much better than the VERY BAD SCENE in part 2, well, maybe a little better, but there are still a lot of simple subject|verb pairings. Since I’m almost done drafting Song of Fury, I’m going to keep these posts close at hand when I start to read through it again.

    Thanks again,
    -NGD

  • Thanks NGDave. I’m glad it helped. I have so much fun writing these things, and it’s quite a lift to get feedback!

    I find that the details give a scene an emotinoal overtone that is missing!