Thursday, 21 April 2016

Milking the action and emotion

[This short article first appeared as part of the online launch of The Writers' Toolkit which remains available on Facebook and contains articles, tips, mini-tutorials and editorial comments on work that authors submitted for critique prior to the launch]

Milking the action and emotion: never summarise the dramatic moments
Dramatic moments can make your book stick in a reader’s mind. It’s worth getting the most out of them. The thing with dramatic moments is that they happen quickly and can be described in few words e.g.

• Jo teetered at the cliff edge for a couple of seconds before regaining his balance.
• Maisie suddenly realised who it was and flung herself into his arms.
• The car pulled out in front of him without any warning and Horace drove into the side of it.

But when writing a dramatic moment into your fiction, remember that for Jo, Maisie or Horace these are not split second events. Time will slow. Seconds will crawl by. They will experience a whole range of emotions and feelings – terror, shock, amazement, disbelief, relief. They will even be analysing the situation as it happens and might be aware of the faces of other people nearby (frozen in shock perhaps). This is true also of those who witness moments of high drama such as sudden car crashes. They too run the gamut of emotion as the events unfold. This happens because the brain works at lightning speed, way faster than physical reactions. If you’ve ever been driving and had someone pull out in front of you, giving you maybe a third of a second before the impact, you will know the reality of ‘thinking distance’ – an absolute awareness of what is happening whilst your body simply cannot react.

And if you can get right inside the head of the character to whom the dramatic event is happening, you will write some compelling prose.

You can employ techniques of language and structure e.g. fragments, short sentences, to give realism. You must take care not to overdo the internal analysis. You don’t want the reader suddenly to think, wait a minute, this guy’s been teetering on this cliff edge for half an hour!

If you have a viewpoint character in a bit of a sticky situation that is going to lead up to a big dramatic moment, stay with that character’s actions, feelings and emotions every step of the way almost second by second. But when you get to the real drama – the event that in reality will be over in seconds – get in even tighter. Go millisecond by millisecond with your character and make the reader experience the event with the character.

You will be surprised at how a single sentence such as ‘The car pulled out in front of him without any warning and Horace drove into the side of it’, can turn into several paragraphs or even pages of compelling prose as you take the reader through the event as though they are experiencing it themselves.

The discussion continues in the comments thread following the original article.
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