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Monday, April 29, 2019

When and How to Weaken a Passage

You might think this a tongue-in-cheek post, a joke, but you may be surprised to know it's the real thing. Yes, although uncommon, there are times where you may need to actually weaken a scene.

Sounds crazy, right?

Not for the first time, it recently happened to me.

I like to write scene by scene. But one of the biggest, if not the biggest, cons to that is having to fix cohesion in the novel as a whole afterward. And as I've been trying to do that in my own WIP, I've had to weaken multiple passages.

But it's not just me.

I've worked with authors that I've had to ask to do the same thing.

It's like when you order a fancy dessert at a nice restaurant. You know, the kind where you take three bites and can't finish it because it's so sweet, so much, so rich? The same thing can happen in creative works. You may be thinking that this triple chocolate fudge cake topped with ganache is some of your best work--and that may be absolutely true--but the client can't eat more than a quarter of it.

Fortunately, and unfortunately, writing is a collaboration between the creator and the reader. And even if your triple chocolate fudge cake is amazing it may be that the reader really needs some vanilla with it, not more chocolate.

For the creator, it's the worst sometimes. Especially when you already made the triple chocolate fudge cake topped with ganache--and it's perfect.

When to Weaken a Passage

At the root, you really need to weaken a passage simply when it comes off as too strong. The strength can be manifested in different ways:

1. You're reiterating, amplifying, or building on something that has already been conveyed to the audience well. 

Some might be reading that and thinking, well, yeah, that's obvious--you need to cut it because it's repetitive. But it may not actually be that obvious, especially if it's something you are building on. It may not be repetitive, directly.

This was my most recent problem. I had a powerful scene (I still love that triple chocolate) that was amplifying an important character trait of my protagonist. But because of previous subtext, even if this particular facet hadn't made it onto the page, the audience had already gleaned enough of it to satisfy the point. Building and amplifying on that trait, even when rendered well, was annoying. It was too much. It came off too strong. And it actually made the character kind of obnoxious. It put too much power and emphasis on his dominating traits.

The scene on its own worked very well.

But when put into the context of the whole novel, it was too much. Too rich.

2. You have too many powerful emotions close together

We are often trying to create a powerful, emotional experience for the reader. But it's entirely possible to make it too powerful.

Now, I'm not talking about melodrama, which is a different thing.

I'm talking about a lot of genuine, raw, emotional moments.

Sure, at the climax, you usually really want to stack all this on, but even there you can overdo it.

Do you remember learning about pacing as a writer?

When it comes to pacing, it's entirely possible to not only go too slow, but to go too fast. If you never let the reader catch a breath, they won't like the book. They'll feel exhausted. Even get a little annoyed. Finally, having so much of the same pacing actually makes the reader have a less powerful reading experience, since it's so much the same. It loses its effect.

The same thing can happen with powerful emotions. If every single emotion is maxed out and super powerful and rendered powerfully on the page near each other, it's too much!

It's not "over-dramatic" necessarily, but it's just "a-lot-a-dramatic."

3. The writing itself is too beautiful, too powerful, too dramatic, or too rich for too long.

While most of us are usually trying to render things on the page more beautifully or powerfully, other writers' words may have too much of that.

It's the triple chocolate analogy again.

It may be the best triple chocolate ever created.

But most mortals can't keep eating it. It'll make them sick.

This kind of writing is not to be confused with purple prose, which is a specific style of writing that happens when a writer is trying to write beautifully, powerfully, or dramatically, but hasn't learned the techniques yet of how to actually do that.

No, this situation happens to writers who actually know how to render things that way on the page, but they just render it too strong for too long, to the point that it's difficult for the reader to keep taking it in, cognitively.

When that happens, it's time to tone it down.

 4. You have too many excellent ideas too close together. 

As writers, we may feel like we get a million ideas, sometimes even for a single scene (other times we pray to the heavens that the muse will just please give us at least one to get us started).

Here's the thing.

All the ideas we choose to put on the page may actually be really great, really amazing, really excellent ideas.

But it's possible that keeping all of them is just too much awesome for the reader to ingest at once. We've added more and more chocolate. It's amazing.

But they can't eat it.

In some cases, having too many good ideas too close together can actually muddy the story and make it confusing. It's hard for the audience to know which component is meant to have their focus. And there is so much, the audience can't appreciate each individual piece.

Now, you can get away with a lot of excellent ideas.

But like the other three, it is possible to go overboard in some situations.

Unless you read a lot of unpublished fiction, chances are you probably haven't actually encountered what it's like to try to read passages that are literally simply too strong to ingest. Even with 7+ years of editing, I still have only seen it, at most, a dozen times. But it's a real thing, and I want my followers to know it can happen.

Maybe you have struggled to become a great writer for years. Well, the strengths you have worked so hard to nail can actually become weaknesses if you aren't willing to back away from the ganache. Congratulations, you have succeeded in learning how to render power on the page.

But the story still needs to be digestible.

It sucks, right? But there may be times where, for the sake of the reader, you may need to actually weaken your passages so they can enjoy them.

How to Weaken a Passage

If you've made it to the point where your passages are too strong, there may be a good chance that you'll have a mini panic attack with what I'm about to say. After all, most of these are no-no's--because they can weaken writing. You've probably sworn a lot of them off so you could write powerfully (which is maybe part of the problem).

1. Tell, Don't Show

One of the first, most basic rules we learn as writers is to "show, don't tell." This is because telling is weak, nonspecific, and can keep the reader from being fully immersed in the story.

All horrible qualities that might be perfect for weakening a passage.

Just so there is no confusing, telling absolutely has a place in storytelling and should be present in 99.9% of novels. But showing should be used more.

If your passage is too strong, you might want to swap out some of the showing for telling, which will make it easier on the reader.

I recently did this. Instead of showing that my character was mad, I simply stated it on the page: "He felt mad."--definitely weaker and (unfortunately) just what the scene needed. In some cases, you may need to just label the emotion rather than fully render it.

2. Deviate the Reader's Experience

This relates to my second method, which is deviating the reader's experience from the character's. When we tell, the reader is naturally less immersed in the real events in the story, which means there is a slight (however small in some cases) deviation.

Our characters are experiencing powerful things. Sometimes that power accumulates and becomes too much if we don't deviate enough in the manuscript. You can weaken a passage with this method by using the right subtext, tone, or by telling.

For more on this technique and when and how to use it, see "Deviating the Reader's Experience from the Character's."

3. Use To-Be Verbs

To-be verbs (am, is, are, was, were, been, being) are naturally weak because they don't actually convey anything except "existence." This is one of several reasons why new writers are told not to use them.

But when a passage is too strong, it's definitely an option to consider.

If the passage is written too beautifully and dramatically, to-be verbs will help tone that down.

If the passage has too many excellent ideas to take in, to-be verbs can naturally make it easier for the audience to take in, cognitively (precisely because they don't actually tell us anything but "existence.")

They can also tone down just about any strong passage, but those are two instances where they may be particularly helpful.

4. Cut Word Count

This might seem like stating the obvious. The smaller your triple chocolate dessert is, the more likely the consumer can actually eat the whole thing. Shorten the powerful passage to make it easier on the reader. Cut words or cut concepts in the passage itself. Save the power and length for what matters most, what is most significant. This article relates.

(Note: However, weirdly, in other situations, you may actually need to add more length--add more vanilla writing to spread out the bites of pure chocolate.)

5. Use Vanilla Words

Some words are naturally simplistic. The to-be verbs are an example. The word "guess" is simpler than "hypothesize." Look for opportunities to use simpler words to add the vanilla.

Look for words that have these qualities:

Short Syllables - Use words that have few syllables. Choose the word "dance" over "promenade," for example.

Familiar > Unusual - Choose words and concepts that are more familiar or common to the audience. For example, choose "guess" instead of "hypothesize."

Simple > Complex - Similarly, choose words and concepts that are simpler. The more technical you get, the more the audience needs to slow down and digest.

By following these techniques, you should be able to weaken your Hulk-smash-power passage, and the hardest part should be a broken writer heart at having to.


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