Do you write in afterthoughts?–Part 2
I received some interesting comments on the previous post on this topic from my good friend and a fellow Director of Silver Pen Perry McDaid.
Perry pointed out that I had erred in my statement “We generally don’t talk while engaged in violent action.” I had also said that dialogue and actions shown as happening almost simultaneously is not a reasonable expectation. After thinking about this and weighing Perry’s remarks, I need to rephrase and clarify some of what I said.
First, let’s look at the brief scene I wrote my PREVIOUS POST.
(1) “How dare you call me a slut!” Sheila said, grabbing a plate and throwing it at me.
“Well, what would you call having sex with my roommate after I went to work? Pity sex? So he wouldn’t feel left out?” I said, ducking, the plate hitting the floor behind me and shattering.
I stand behind what I said about this being weak writing and in afterthoughts. When I wrote my revised version, I essentially still had the actions and dialogue pretty much simultaneous (despite what I’d said earlier in the post). The difference was in how I wrote it.
(2) Sheila grabbed a plate and threw it at me. “How dare you call me a slut!”
I ducked and the plate hit the floor and shattered. “Well, what would you call having sex with my roommate after I went to work? Pity sex? So he wouldn’t feel left out?”
In this version she throws the plate maybe a second before the dialogue line. Or maybe at the same time. He’s ducking (and the plate shatters) before he speaks, what we’d expect. He’s taken by surprise, so he probably isn’t talking and ducking at the same time.
Perry notes that the present participle verb forms (-ing) effectively allow Sheila to grab and throw the plate as she is talking. We have all likely witnessed such events in real life. The problem is how do we show this in our writing without resorting to too many “as” clauses and “-ing” phrases, which as I said, tend to be weak writing. Perry provided a wonderful revision to demonstrate how one can show simultaneous events and dialogue and keep the reader engaged—definitely not weak writing.
From Perry [with minor reformatting of his original words]:
“How…” Sheila snatched a plate and chucked it. I ducked. “…fucking dare…” The plate smashed against the door as she swept up a cup and flung it at my head. ” I batted it away. “…you call…” Her hands opened and closed as they searched for something else. God, not Mother’s vase. She grinned maniacally and hurled it, flowers and all. “…me a slut.”
You’ll notice that I separated the narrative punctuation from that of the dialogue. This was for effect, showing that although the narrative takes time, the action and dialogue are progressing far more quickly.
I also italicised the “me” since the dynamic of a violent row is that each will take an accusation or insult and turn it around on the “server”. It continues like tennis until someone misses a return.
In this case your character would probably have insulted his mother by relaying the “slut” onto her: either cleverly (Your mother was the slut to give birth to such a bastard) or something more elementary in comparative insult (You’re the slut).
You would be amazed at the violence that can be managed during and simultaneous to dialogue. Movies don’t reproduce this because it distracts from their clever witticism.
I refer to Joss Whedon [Rick adds: in his Buffy The Vampire Slayer]. He loves the witty banter during heroic acts, but he scatters reality in there.
Buffy in the middle of a witty quip while fighting is punched in the mouth – sacrificing the quip for a touch of reality.
Summary. It’s wrong to suggest that one cannot act and speak simultaneously. Real people don’t separate the aspects of tantrums.
Perry demonstrated how to pull off such a scene with writerly finesse. He did, however, still use two “as” clauses. The first (as she swept up a cup and flung it at my head) is fine, but I’d prefer not to see another (Her hands opened and closed as they searched for something else) so soon after the first. We can remedy it through with a slight change in wording: Her hands opened and closed in her search for something else to throw. It’s a minor quibble and, after all, this was just an example, not the final draft of a story or novel. As long as the writer only does uses two such “as” clauses occasionally, it’s fine. And Perry knows what he’s doing as a writer.
Unfortunately, I see too many novice writers who aren’t aware of what they’re doing, and this is precisely why I caution against such a practice and why I still stand by my advice about not overusing present-participle phrases so that they sound like afterthoughts.
To demonstrate the problem, here’s an action passage taken from my novel More Than Magick and revised with too many present participles and a few “as” clauses tossed in (1), followed by the original wording (2).
(1) Jake swept his backpack off his shoulders, unzipping it, thrusting a gun into my hand as he dropped the backpack at my feet, and said, “Stay here,” as he ran toward the others.
My eyes followed him. Four, dark-furred creatures, fast and slinky like mongooses, were attacking. Kart pulled Enelle behind him as two of the beasts came at Jen-Varth. He drew his gun. They leaped; he fired once, dropping both three feet in front of him.
A third creature darted at Kedda and Dayon. Drawing his sword—the first time he’d used it among us—as that creature also leaped, Dayon swung the sword two-handed, slicing off the beast’s head.
The fourth bounded at Trax standing a few feet closer to where they had come from, hurling itself at him catlike. He awkwardly knocked it aside with his staff, the fallen creature giving a guttural hiss and scuttling to its feet as it sprang again too fast for Trax to react. With its long snout wide open, it bit into Trax’s bare right arm. Trax gave a cry, falling to the ground. The staff flared blue. Seconds later, the creature went limp, its teeth locked onto Trax’s arm.
(2) Jake swept his backpack off his shoulders, unzipped it, thrust a gun into my hand, dropped the backpack at my feet, said, “Stay here,” and ran toward the others.
My eyes followed him. Four, dark-furred creatures, fast and slinky like mongooses, were attacking. Kart pulled Enelle behind him. Two of the beasts came at Jen-Varth. He drew his gun. They leaped; he fired once. Both dropped three feet in front of him.
A third creature darted at Kedda and Dayon. Dayon drew his sword—the first time he’d used it among us. That creature also leaped. He swung the sword two-handed and sliced off the beast’s head.
The fourth bounded at Trax, who stood a few feet closer to where they had come from. Catlike, it hurled itself at him. He awkwardly knocked it aside with his staff. The fallen creature gave a guttural hiss, scuttled to its feet, and sprang again too fast for Trax to react. With its long snout wide open, it bit into Trax’s bare right arm. Trax gave a cry and fell to the ground. The staff flared blue. Seconds later, the creature went limp with its teeth locked onto Trax’s arm.
Granted, I’ve exaggerated the problem in version (1), but I’ve honestly seen writing like this (and worse) on more than a few occasions. Do not fall into this trap. I also do not claim that the second (original) version is perfect as is, nor that this is the only way the passage could be written. It’s a partly personal taste and style, and even as I read it over, I could see places where I might write it differently.
Be alert for issues in your own writing such as too many “as” clauses and present-participle phrases.
There are many right ways to write a given passage or scene, but there are also many wrong ways. If you expect your writing to sell, make sure you choose one of the right ways.