Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Critique: WBL—What Body Language?

Sharon Wildwind
Before I start my blog, here is an announcement from Darlene Ryan:

Thanks to everyone who entered our weekend giveaway. Since we came so close to 20 comments we picked two winners. "Anne" and "a paperback writer" will both be getting copies of "The Slime That Men Do." Please send me your mailing addresses to (darlene at darleneryan.com, change the "at" to @).
“Good morning. My name is Sharon and I’m a short-hander.”

For years, I’ve expected my readers to figure out for themselves what was going on emotionally with my characters. It is the single biggest mistake I continue to make. Chapters I get back from my critique partners are littered with WBLs, so I’ve chosen what body language for the fifth, and last , in my series of blogs about common critique abbreviations that I use.

The women who has been most instrumental in me trying to turn this around is the writer and editor, Sherry Lewis. Much of what I’m saying in this blog came originally from her, and I have her permission to use it. Her web site is http://slbwrites.homestead.com/index.html

Let’s start with a little exercise with Jared, a thirteen-year-old boy.

Jared threw his jacket half on a hanger and kicked his trainers into the bottom of the closet. Food smells rolled out of the kitchen. He sniffed the air. Beans-and-franks. A burning sensation filled the back of his throat. He raced up the stairs, two at a time.

Before you scroll down, answer the following questions
1) What does the event means to Jared?
2) What is Jarod feeling?
3) What he will do next.

This photo has nothing to do with Jared. It’s just a place-holder, so you won’t scroll down to the possibilities by accident. Hmm, hmm, hmm. Done with the 3 questions? Okay, now scroll down.

Possibility #1

Laying on his stomach on the floor next to the twin bed he shared with his younger brothers, Jared groped under the bed for the locked tackle box. He unlocked the box and took out his precious jars of mustard, relish and ketchup. Big glass bottles that he'd bought on sale. Seventy per cent off. A treat for his younger brothers and sisters.

It didn't pay to leave glass around when his mother was high. Glass ended up broken. Tonight was going to be okay. Beans-and-franks meant his mother had stayed clean long enough to get a paycheck. He'd stay home tonight, clean the kitchen, make sure the precious jars were spirited away after supper and locked up, waiting for the next beans-and-franks night.

Possibility #2

Jared barely made it to the bathroom before he threw up. Retching into the toilet, bile and saliva dribbling down his chin, he beat his fist against the top of the toilet tank. Why couldn't Grammy listen? The nurse at the hospital had told her and told her that the chemotherapy made him sick and that meat smells were the worse of all. He hoped he'd be able to make it to the bathroom in time after supper.

Possibility #3

Jared rooted under a pile of clothes for his ball and glove. Flipping the ball into the air as he came down the steps whistling, he bounded for the kitchen, then skidded to a stop at the door.
George Tolliver turned from the stove, "Hey, kid. You're mom's running late tonight. I told her we could manage supper. It's just beans-and-franks."
"Yeah, I know. Omelets and beans-and-franks are the only things you know how to make," Jared said, grinning so hard his mouth hurt. "How was your trip?"
"You got time to play catch?"
George dished out two plates. "Later. Sit down. Tell me how you've been the last couple of weeks."

Sherry Lewis’ six rules for revealing the character’s emotions:

Rule #1: What you do not write does not exist.
Rule #2: You can not assume that the reader knows what the character is feeling.

If I’d stopped with Jared’s throat burning, and him running up the stairs, in all likelihood the reader would have assumed a different emotional reaction, a different story, than the one I was trying to tell.

Rule #3: Resist the urge to hurry. Stay in the scene from second to second, from goal to disaster.

Particularly in first draft, I will write the scene in a “telling” format, more a set of notes to myself about what I want the scene to show. The third possibility was initially written like this:

Jared gets some object, a “guy thing.”
He’s really glad to see the guy who is cooking dinner, but he’s also scared because he can’t believe his good luck of this guy being in his life, and he’s afraid this special person will disappear out of his life.
The guy uses some body language that says things are okay.
Hint that there is a problems with the mother.
Jared and the guy reestablish their bond.
Aim for a bittersweet feeling: the guy cares about Jared, but . . .

Then, using Rules #4, 5 and 6 below, I fill in details

Rule #4: Use strong verbs.


The first four imply movement, the last one has the bittersweet flavor I’m looking for. Jared and George aren’t on top of the world, they’re just managing.

Rule #5: Stimulus first, then reaction or you created that half-second delay that means you’re telling rather than showing.

I’ve had lively discussions with other writers about this one. Some writers feel just the opposite, reaction then stimulus. Use what feels comfortable for you.

I will remember the power of “why” in plotting I will try for at least 5 “levels of why,” in order to raise the stakes and go deep into character motivation. ~Jo Beverly, romance writer

What is the stimulus for Jared relating the way he does with George Tolliver? 1) Because life is tough for Jared. Why? 2) Because his mother is just barely hanging on. Why? 3) Because she's overwhelmed with raising a teenager alone. Why? 4) Because her husband left her, which destroyed her self-confidence and passing those feelings on to Jared has made him insecure. Why? 5) Jared thinks any good man who shows an interest in him will disappear out of his life.

Usually I have to get to reasons 4 or 5 before I see the real emotional connection, and that's the one I'll end up using in the story. Going through the process of diving down 5 times helps strip away the surface emotions.

Rule #6: Layer: dialog, body language, emotions leftover from a previous scene, sensory texture

I often do this the same way I handled Rule #3, as a list of notes to myself. Because I feel very strong in dialog, I often write all the characters’ lines first, then fill in the other three elements.

If I’m having real trouble with a scene, this exercise often helps break the impasse:
• Assign colors to the four elements. Dialog=red; body language=blue; leftover emotions=yellow; and sensory texture=green.
• Highlight and color what I’ve already written, either on the computer or get four different colors of markers and highlight the hard copy.
• Tape the pages on a wall or, if using the computer, adjust the page size so I can get all the scene pages on the screen.
• Walk away from the wall or screen, turn around, and look. The predominant color is easy to see; in my case, it’s almost always all red. Lots of dialog, not much of the other three elements.
• If I’m still stuck, I assign elements at random: blue--green--green--yellow--red--yellow--blue and so on. Being an old gamer, and still having a jar full of dice, I’ve even, in cases of extreme writers’ block, used the dice to randomly generate the colors.
• Then I challenge myself to write what those colors represent, in this case, body language--sensory texture--sensory texture--leftover emotion--dialog--leftover emotion--body language.
• Having done this, I can almost always take the elements, which may be out of order on the first pass, and rearrange them into some meaningful whole.

I’m taking the liberty of adding a rule #7, which finally came to me after I’d been using Sherry’s six rules for over a year.

Rule #7: Write until you can’t add a single thing to the character’s reaction without changing the entire tenor of the scene.

If we take the second possibility, Jared throwing up as a result of chemotherapy.

. . .He hoped he'd be able to make it to the bathroom in time after supper. Oh well, none of that mattered. It was time for the Simpson’s rerun.

The reader is going to go, “Huh? What just happened here?” This is a good clue that I’ve gotten beyond short-hand, that I've actually shown how the character emotionally reacts, and I've reached the end of the scene.

And we have reached the end of five abbreviations I’ve found useful for critique:
WBL—What body language, dialog, leftover emotions, and sensory texture will I use to convey the character’s emotional reaction? Have I asked "why?" 5 times, each time going deeper into the character's motivations?
PNS—stop Perfectly Nice Syndrome. Mess with the character's mind and her world.
STSS—stop telling, start showing
VSOP—ditch the back story; condense the context down, like Very Special Old Port, into something where every drop counts
VAD—use violence as another form of dialog
Writing quote for the week:

Give your reader time to sink into one person’s mind and experience what’s going on there, before you yank them out and pull them into another mind. ~Beth Anderson, mystery and romance writer


Clea Simon said...

This is really wonderful, useful stuff. Thank you.

Sandra Parshall said...

Sharon, I've always thought you should write a how-to book -- or, at the very least, articles for The Writer and Writer's Digest.

Anonymous said...

Glad it was useful, Clea.

Sandra, I'm waiting until I'm famous. (grin)