Here’s a little grammar rant, which I hope I haven’t delivered before: Whom is dying, and I am grieving. The poor pronoun is no longer heard on the airwaves I listen to. I don’t see it in newspapers. In its style guide, an important publisher I know of instructs writers not to use the word in books for children.
English is a living language, which means usage changes. I favor that. I cheer for it. But I’m worried that the moribund state of whom is more than the loss of a word, because people may become ignorant–or they already are and that caused its demise–of the difference between subject and object. Whom is an object pronoun, the person to whom something is done. The doer is the subject pronoun, as in, “Who killed chivalry?” The one to whom something is done is the object pronoun, as in, “Whom did Jack the Ripper knock off this time?” (It isn’t always as obvious as this–all the more reason to know subject and object.)
Rant over. But if you think whom’s death isn’t a tragedy, please argue or at least comsole me.
Onto the regular post.
On January 31, 2020, I’dratherbewriting wrote, Does anyone know what to do when you don’t know what to do? In my current work in progress, I’ve reached a point where I’m not quite sure where to go with the plot. Everything before this point is fine (as far as first drafts go, at least) and I have a detailed outline for where I’m going after. But I’m currently in the doldrums of my plot. It’s not quite exposition, but I’m not far enough to start building up the tension. Does anyone have tips for how to push through a rough patch in the story?
Also, I’m having problems with pacing. I’m constantly swinging between feeling like I have too much dialogue or feeling like I don’t have enough. Where is the happy medium, and how do I find it?
Two of you weighed in.
Melissa Mead: What purpose is the part of the story with “the doldrums” serving? Does it need to be in the story at all, or can you convey its information more efficiently some other way? Ex, if the evil wizard’s enslaved servant girl is secretly studying his books at night, hoping to find a way to escape, instead of detailing every stolen midnight reading session, you could say “After four years of breath-stopping close calls, she managed to levitate that tiresome silver tray as high as the window, and realized that now was the best chance she’d ever have.”
Christie V Powell: When I’m stuck in a rough patch, I usually take a break–a walk is best, but doing some household chore works too. It helps my brain get moving again. I’ve probably mentioned this too many times, but I love using KM Weiland’s Plot Structure for pacing. The info is free on her blog, http://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com.
With dialogue, I think the issue is more to do with the quality of the dialogue than the quantity–I mean, people still read screenplays, which are almost entirely dialogue. One of my early readers complained that I had too much dialogue in my first book. The problem was mostly with scenes where the characters were chatting about world details or backstory that weren’t really relevant to what’s going on in the current story, so I shortened or removed those.
I’m with Christie V Powell on the helpfulness of breaks, and I love to walk. Playing with the dog is good too.
This isn’t exactly a break, but sometimes when I’m stuck, I amble on the treadmill in our basement, where there are no distractions, and think about the problem and what I might do to solve it. The slow pace and rhythm of my steps keep me focused.
I’m also with Melissa Mead on hopping over the slow times in a story. If time has to pass before the action revs up, we can just write A month later and get to the tension.
Sometimes I think I have to set everything up before my plot starts moving, which makes for a dull beginning, and the reader may not hang in long enough to reach the adventure to come. We have to begin to introduce it quickly while acquainting the reader with our world.
Let’s take Melissa Mead’s example: the slave girl to an evil wizard. During the day, she polishes the wizard’s torture instruments. In the evenings, she catnaps. At night, she reads magic books in his library, hoping to find a spell that will get her out of there. For three years, nothing changes.
We may have to skip some of those years simply by telling the reader that they passed. But what can we do to bring to life portions of this time?
At the beginning, our crises should be small, compared with the turning point to come, but they need to engage the reader’s sympathy with our MC, whom I’ll call Vicky.
Naturally, the reader will want to know how Vicky got into this mess. I’m not a fan of flashbacks when they can be avoided, so we can start our story with the origin of her captivity. How did this happen? Time for a list!
It’s generally useful for our MC to have an Achilles’ heel–or both heels–to increase reader worry, so we might make her capture partly her fault. That would go into our list:
• Her focus on whatever she’s doing is absolute. She’s unaware of the wizard until he’s halfway through chanting his spell.
• She know the wizard is coming and why, but some other crisis is unfolding and she has to deal with it, and she isn’t good at multitasking.
• The wizard is an old friend of her family. He’s gone over to the dark side but she doesn’t notice the signs, because she thinks the best of everyone.
Your turn. As an early prompt, add three more possibilities.
This is exciting! We write the scene of her capture, introducing the reader to the wizard along the way, including his strengths and his Achilles heel. Maybe we jump forward to her exploration of his stronghold and the discovery of the library. This is tense too, because she can’t be caught wandering around.
She finds the library and establishes a safe route to it. Now, the doldrums set in, but we need some action during the three years. First off, can we shorten the time to a month? A month is a great length for ratcheting up the suspense. If she doesn’t escape within the month and reveal his location, then the wizard will have completed his fog machine. The kingdom will be enveloped in darkness, and he’ll be able to get away with his nefarious whatever.
But if, for plot reasons, we can’t shorten the time, what can we introduce periodically?
We can decide that we need, say, four tense scenes in the three years. Two will improve Vicky’s chances and two will make everything more grim. We start another list:
• Someone new arrives at the stronghold.
• The wizard begins to suspect Vicky.
• Vicky finds a spell that she thinks will save everyone, but it goes disastrously wrong.
Your turn for three more.
The three years end. The reader hasn’t stopped turning pages, hasn’t slept in days. Time for the major crisis.
I suspect that this question is best left for revision when we can tell what’s needed and what isn’t, so let’s imagine that we’ve gotten there.
I’d argue that almost everything in a story should contribute to its pace, dialogue included. I agree with Christie V Powell that dialogue that is mere chatter should be trimmed.
That said, I include a lot of talk in my books. Out of curiosity, I scanned two random twenty-page sections of Ella Enchanted. Coincidentally, dialogue appeared on sixteen pages of each sample. Sometimes, the dialogue was just a line or two.
What does dialogue do that contributes to pace? Well, it reveals character, and character is essential to plot. It builds relationships–or destroys them. It advances plot directly, as in the necklace incident when Hattie comes to understand that Ella has to obey.
Here are three prompts. For extra credit, use whom in your story, or use who in its place and feel good about it.
• Rapunzel is in her tower for three years before the prince arrives. Write three exciting scenes in the tower during that period.
• Using an expanded list, write Vicky’s capture by the wizard.
• Write the crisis when Vicky finds the right spell and casts it–but the wizard fights back.
Have fun, and save what you write!