clear who a pronoun represents, a writer must make an introduction first.
“Dick ate a
slice of chocolate cake, then he helped himself to a scoop of cinnamon ice cream.”
The “he” who
helped “himself” to ice cream is clearly Dick, because no new “he” has come
between the chocolate cake and the ice cream.
This is easy
enough to follow, when you’ve got a sole “he” to manage, but what happens when
you introduce more than one character into a piece of writing.
Jane a Happy Birthday. Harry went to the table to fetch the first gift she was
of “she” is easy to guess. Jane is a girl’s name. Begging the pardon of any
boys bearing it.
Jane a Mickey Mouse watch for her birthday. Harry gave her a stray black kitten
he found in the alley behind his house.”
is the person introduced at the beginning of that sentence, it’s assumed that
the “he” and “his” identify him.
If we add a third
sentence, “He said it had fleas,” the reader would naturally assume that it was
Harry who pointed out the kitten’s defects. To make it clear that Dick mentioned
the fleas, the writer would need to reintroduce him. “Dick said it had fleas.”
on the subject of clear identification, the “it” that has fleas might just as easily
be the house as the kitten, though it is far more likely that kittens have
fleas than that houses do. Nonetheless, it would be just as easy and far clearer
to say, “Dick said the kitten had fleas.”
times, however, when reintroducing a “he” makes the sentence awkward—worse, unnatural.
And any unnatural syntax is going to draw readers out of the story they are
reading. You don’t want that.
example from a short steampunk story I recently read. I have changed the names to
conceal the story’s identity—and shield the writer, who, for the most part,
wrote a good story.
always Dick’s job to bring meals down from the kitchen, and every time he
climbed the stairs he made a point to secure Harry by turning it off and
leaving it lying on its back, on Dick’s cot.”
In this particular
story, Dick is a boy and Harry is an automaton he made from scrap metal. Since the
reader knows Harry is only a mechanical toy, it is easy enough to guess the cot
belongs to Dick, not Harry.
always Dick’s job to bring meals down from the kitchen, and every time he
climbed the stairs he made a point to secure Harry by turning it off and
leaving it lying on its back, on his cot.”
rules were invented for clarity. If the meaning is clear already, there is SOME
wiggle room. However, if violating the pronoun-introduction rule is just too
much for the writer to personally overcome, he or she (sorry, but I still think
the blank-check “they” is lazy writing, even if it is more polite) ought to reword
Dick left the cellar, he made a point to secure Harry by turning it off,
leaving it lying on its back on his cot.”
is an “it” there is no confusion with the “he.” Also, by shortening the
sentence, I put Dick closer to his pronoun. I’m not sure why the writer felt it
necessary to point out that it was Dick’s job to bring down meals from the kitchen.
Dick surely left the cellar more frequently than those times when he had kitchen
duty. Since he secured Harry each time he left the cellar, it wasn’t necessary
to tack the kitchen duty onto the front end of that sentence. After the writer
established Dick’s habits, she (or he) could open the subject of that one time
when Dick went up for the dinner tray and came back to find Harry—
Well, I won’t ruin the story for you.
If you have an awkward pronoun placement, the best way of correcting it, in most cases, is simply to rephrase the sentence.
Occasionally, one of our side characters proves to be far more interesting to our reading public than expected. To capitalize on this, we may be tempted to give them a story of their own. Great–if we can do it without violating one of the cardinal rules of characterization. To thy own self be true!
Recently, I read a review of a fantasy novel, in which a past supporting character was given main billing. Unfortunately, the author was tempted–aren’t we are–to alter that character’s personality in radical ways. Worse, to make him a carbon copy of a lead character from another novel. Read below.
“The lead character in Y, X, was introduced in book 1 of the Z series as a somewhat dark, mysterious, knowing and worldly man. (Spoiler ahead – skip to the next paragraph to avoid.) When he reappeared at the end of that series, his character had changed, although it is only in retrospect that it becomes glaring that his back-story and character had not been developed until then, and was likely due to the author’s plotting out this book.
“Now that X has his own series, it is evident that X has lost the mystery, several years, and much of the apparent knowledge and wisdom with which he had been introduced. The only mystery left is kept as an unanswered question. It is so blatantly stated that you even know what the question is – it is just not answered. I find that that question alone is not enough to be interested in X, and I almost did not finish the book. Quite early in this book, I realized that the character, X, was the same in mannerisms, speech and thought patterns, as the lead character in the prior series, A. – In fact, I had to go back and double check that it was supposed to be a different person, and that I hadn’t been confused about the names! – A was ok for one series, but there isn’t enough meat in this plot to carry another him through it, no matter what his name is.”
If the author of this particular fantasy series wasn’t capable of developing heroes of various molds, he would have done his audience a great favor by sticking with a single hero. Making cheap copies of that hero can only disappoint and alienate his fans. But the real crime here is not self-plagiarism, but a failure to respect his audience’s intelligence.
I remember the outrage of a fan who’d read Hannibal (A sequel to The Silence of the Lambs), who claimed that Clarice Starling acted in ways in the book that weren’t at all true to her character.
Clever plot twists aside, respect your character. If he’s the shy, sullen type, he isn’t going to be the life of the party–without your readers asking why. And deserving a damned good answer!
Arthur G. was a graduate of a New England engineering college who had led his class, had secured three United States patents before he graduated, and for whom a brilliant and successful career was predicted.
In his senior year in college he received the post possible offers from more than a dozen large concerns, and finally settled on one in Pittsburgh. For the first five years after graduation he applied himself almost blindly to his work and received promotion after promotion.
He did not seem interested in woman. This disturbed his parents who did everything they could to make a “desirable match” for him. Finally, as a result of giving in to his parents, he became engaged to a woman eight years younger than he was. She was of a socially prominent family, while his family was of ordinary social status; naturally this match pleased his family tremendously, especially since they had engineered it. She was not educated beyond the high school, except for a training course in manners by private tutors.
She was interested primarily in going to dance, card parties, the theatre; he was interested primarily in making engineering plans and in reading engineering journals and higher mathematics.
He was basically religious, she was frivolous in spiritual matters.
Both were considered good catches, she for her money and position, he for his accomplishments and great promise.
But was it a successful match?
Before his marriage he had been widely liked on account of his pleasant and agreeable personality. He was patient, modest, considerate. But within a year after his marriage he was irritable, lost his temper readily, became curt and impatient with his subordinates, became almost slovenly in personal appearance, and would sit at his desk dreaming idly rather than producing engineering results. There is little doubt but that this change, which lost him the vice-presidency in charge of engineering, was caused directly by his marriage.
Personality Health, Personal Analysis Bureau, Chicago, 1930.
How will you, the author, get Arthur out of this mess? Write a romance that gives Arthur a happy ending.
Frances liked her working conditions, but she did not like the details of the definite job for which she was hired. She was hired to be a salesclerk. But the minute she came behind her counter in the morning she busied herself folding, straightening and neatly arranging the stock she was supposed to sell.
If an early customer came to the counter Frances hated to leave the stock. She talked to the first customer with a frosty voice that usually lost the sale. Whenever a customer disarranged her stock–and almost each customer did–Frances would neglect the next customer until the stock had all been neatly arranged once again, even though another customer might be waiting impatiently.
She was pleasant and agreeable, but it it was a forced agreeableness. She found it difficult to be naturally pleasant to a customer who was disarranging all of her carefully arranged stock. She kept becoming more and more irritable, and at times tried to keep customers from handling the stock.
Now here was a dominant personality trait which we might call neatness or orderliness. A trait which is generally desirable, but which was so marked in Frances that it interfered with her sales, which were below average for her department.
From Personality Health (1930), Personal Analysis Bureau, Chicago.
Can you think of a way to use such a character in a novel? Come up with at least five story scenarios for Frances–romance, comedy, drama, fantasy, mystery. Will the story end happily for Frances or only in frustration?
This morning’s writing tip of the day is brought to you by a run-and-gun military science fiction novel that could have used some more boot polish. Here is what one reviewer had to say about the book:
“The writer doesn’t really know what the story or the characters should really be. Instead it reads like a bunch of moderately disjointed story elements held together with spackle and duct tape. While it’s not the worst I’ve seen, it still had me wincing a couple too many times for me to keep going.
“Now if you’re not looking for an intense read there are still some interesting ideas lurking just under the surface so maybe your experience fairs better. But for me, this story really needed some more time to bake before being written because it’s too raw for my tastes.”
What do we take away from this? This book clearly was not ready for market. At least another edit was required for it to be ready for release. If its author is wise, he (name withheld to protect the guilty) will pull down the book and fix its faults, which are apparently not only in characterization but also in general plotting, A doesn’t naturally lead to B, etc.
Two ways to attack a poorly edited manuscript offer themselves here.
The author can sit down, write a carefully constructed bio of Johnny Hero, then review each scene to be sure that Johnny Hero and his supporting cast are all acting as might be expected under the circumstances. For example, is the timid girl or the selfish businessman really going to volunteer for what appears to be a suicide mission? And if one of them does, what’s her or his motivation? Maybe the timid girl wants to prove herself to the boy she secretly loves or the selfish businessman intends to flee at the first opportunity, leaving the others to die?
The other way to edit this draft is to carefully outline it. My guess is this author was a pantser. He went in without a clear idea where he wanted to go story-wise. He had gathered together some interesting story ideas and he just let them roll out, hoping all that running and gunning would cover up any inconsistencies/deviations in the plotting.
For anyone unfamiliar with what the reviewer means by story elements, they are: the characters, the setting, the plot, the conflict, and the resolution.
Review all of these carefully before releasing your novel onto the market. Make sure that space soldier is ready for battle.
Women had it hard in Biblical times. Even an act of self-defense (or should I say other-self-defense) came with a hard punishment. An eye for an eye. If you’re a man. If you’re a lady, well, you might just lose a hand for getting a little too grabby.
In Deuteronomy 25:11 and 25:12, the punishment for grabbing a man’s junk is outlined.
11 If two men are fighting and the wife of one of them comes to rescue her husband from his assailant, and she reaches out and seizes him by his private parts.
12 You shall cut off her hand. Show her no pity.
Grabbing a man’s junk for the hell of it. Bad form. Sure. But cutting a hand off for that seems, well, a bit much. Never mind losing a hand in defense of your man.
Just a guess here, but this may be a case of altered value systems. In the old, old days, a man’s junk was his life force. Hell (excuse the word), men in Biblical times used to swear oaths on their groin. Damaging a man’s pride was probably seen as depriving him of his manhood (in essence, killing him, for all intents and purposes). Any woman who did that was, so the theory goes, his murderer. Looking at it that way, the loss of a mere hand might be seen as lenient.
This begs the question: How did such a Biblical law ever come to pass? Was it common for a woman to manhandle her husband’s attacker or did one particularly flagrant offender bring this law into being? To that feisty lady, all I can say is–you go, girl!
Writing a novel is rather like shooting a film. Only, unless you’ve teamed up with a fellow writer, you’re in charge of ALL the departments involved in the production.
Set Design. Where does your novel take place? If it’s set in New York City, for instance, you’ll need to decide, fairly early on (i.e., the drafting stage), how many different locations you’ll need. While it might be fun to visit all the major tourist attractions, you SHOULDN’T (really, you shouldn’t) eat up valuable screen (page) time, hopping from scenic spot to scenic spot, for the sheer fun of it. If Johnny Hero has no better reason for a visit to the Statue of Liberty than a photo opportunity, you should probably scratch it off the list. If, however, he’s taking a friend who’s recently emigrated from a country with an oppressive political regime, by all means, go to Lady Liberty.
Photography. A writer’s choice of words affects how the reader sees a particular object. Even an object as simple as an apple can be transformed by the eye of its beholder. A hungry orphan who lives upon musty oats and stale bread would cherish a fresh apple as a treasure, while a spoilt child who eats gobs of candy for dessert would probably scorn it as “garbage.”
Visual Effects. When we are writing any scene in which a heavy amount of action takes place, we need to consider how best to convey that scene. This includes literal camera angling. Like any director, we want to get as much bang for our proverbial buck as we can. While it might be tempting to string a series of explosions together (hell, it works for some directors–we’re looking at you, Michael Bay), visual effects are just as important in low action scenes as high ones. The key is emphasis. Johnny Hero reaches out to grasp the hand of the love of his life, catches it, and walks slowly into the fade out, still holding it. Happy ending.
Lastly, but most importantly, editing. This can be the worst part. I tuned into a commentary of Avengers: Endgame. The production team admitted to reviewing certain key scenes of that movie HUNDREDS of times to get them right. Sadly, this translates into MORE work for you, the writer. Agreed. But if this were EASY, we’d have a hell of a lot more competition.
Once you’ve pulled together that first draft, take a little time to review each aspect of your production. Are your sets well chosen? Could you move your characters from one location to another without them batting an eye? If so, you may want to rethink your location. You may be missing an opportunity to exploit setting in the narrative. A teenaged couple’s first sexual experience is going to be a lot different depending on whether they hook up in an abandoned cabin in the woods vs. a parent’s bedroom in the family home. Are you getting the most out of your props? Does the camera linger longer on the things that matter vs. the things that are just background? A new pair of shoes that cost the teenaged heroine her entire paycheck vs. a shirt that the heroine wears once in the story for about two (reader) minutes. Are the scenes that matter drawn out (that first kiss) and the scenes that don’t cut short (we really don’t need to see Johnny Hero floss)? Are those clever, but ultimately unnecessary scenes cut from the production to lessen the air time. Kill your darlings.
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