Newton’s Third Law of Writing

Flickr Creative Commons: Geoff Ackling
Flickr Creative Commons: Geoff Ackling

Newton’s Third Law of Writing

 

For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

 

Take a look at this passage from a workshop submission.  It’s set in the depths of the depression.  Mary Ruth and her family have just moved into a poor neighborhood, and she’s out walking past a home where two vicious dogs are tied outside:

 

     Mary Ruth slowed when she noticed a third rope tied around an old, leaning tree on the opposite side of the porch.   She started to move faster, fearing a third dog was loose.  She saw the rope around the tree move.  Slowly, very slowly the circle of rope moved from the back of the tree to the front, where she could see a shape attached. It was on four legs, crawling toward them. Mary Ruth stopped and took in slowly the figure of a young boy, naked, wearing only a collar of rope line. He stood up, his arms hanging in front of him. He stumbled toward her and the girls.

The boy’s mouth twisted. He was trying to speak. A guttural noise came from his throat like a bark.  Mary Ruth said, “Hello.”

 

What’s the problem here?  The descriptions are sharp, and the moment the boy is revealed is shocking.  Why isn’t this working as well as it could?  To make a scene work, you’ve got to establish a viewpoint character and create an evocative setting.  Your characters need to move through it in convincing ways and speak dialogue that sounds authentic.  You need to keep the pace moving, make sure the action advances the plot, and so forth.  When you have this many balls in the air at once, it’s easy to drop one.  The ball I often see rolling across the lawn is your characters’ reaction to events.

It’s an understandable mistake, especially for a beginning writer.  The image of the mentally-disabled boy tied to the tree is shocking.  I’m sure the writer felt the shock herself.  It’s natural to assume that, if you feel shock, your viewpoint character doesn’t have to.

But when you drop your viewpoint character’s reactions, you make it harder for your readers to connect to the scene.  Yes, readers feel the shock, but the shock happens outside the events on the page.  It isn’t grounded in any of the characters.  Take another look at the scene as I edited it.  Bear in mind that I was using language appropriate to people in the mid-thirties with a limited education.

 

     Slowly, very slowly, the circle of rope moved from the back of the tree to the front, where she could see a shape attached. It was on four legs, crawling toward them. Mary Ruth stopped and slowly took in the figure of a young boy, naked, wearing only a collar of rope line.

Oh, good Lord, an idiot child.

He stood up, his arms hanging in front of him. He stumbled toward her and the girls.  His mouth twisted, like he was trying to speak. A guttural noise came from his throat like a bark.

“Um . . . Hello?” Mary Ruth said.

The boy is still shocking, but the shock feels less distant because you’re now sharing it with Mary Ruth.  That little bit of interior monologue, the hesitance in the dialogue, make the jolt feel more real.

 

It’s not just your viewpoint character who needs to react.  If you’ve ever said, “I’m not yelling!” in the middle of a conversation, you know how easy it is to feel things you’re not aware of.  You can show these feelings by how your other characters react to your viewpoint character.

Consider this passage from Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe novel Might as Well be Dead.  In it, a man named Paul Herold has just been convicted of murder.  To find out if he’s a man Wolfe has been hired to find, Herold’s lawyer, Paul Freyer, arranges for Archie, Wolfe’s right hand man, to interview Herold in prison.  The interview is a success in that Archie is able to confirm that Herold is the man they’re looking for.  Then he tells Herold his father is trying to find him.  Herold is speaking.

      “Then promise me you won’t tell him. You look like a decent guy.  If I’ve got to die for something I didn’t do, all right, I can’t do anything about that, but not this too.  I know I’m not saying this right, I know I’m not myself, but if you only—“

I didn’t know why he stopped, because, listening to him, I didn’t hear the cop approaching from behind.  There was a tap on my shoulder, and the cop’s voice.

“Time’s up.”

I arose.

“Promise me!” Paul Herold demanded.

“I can’t,” I told him and turned and walked out.

Freyer was waiting for me in the visitor’s room.  I don’t carry a mirror, so I don’t know how my face looked when I joined him, but when we had left the building and were on the sidewalk, he asked, “It didn’t work?”

 

Note the complexity of the emotions Stout gets across here.  Archie’s found the man they’re looking for, so, easy money for Wolfe and Archie’s done his job.  Yet readers know Archie has a serious chivalrous streak and couldn’t be indifferent to someone who would literally rather die than have his identity revealed.  By not giving a hint of how Archie felt when Herold made his plea, Stout generates tension that draws readers into the scene even further.  Stout then delivers on the tension when Freyer takes one look at Archie and assumes he failed to identify the man when he’d actually succeeded.  It’s another character’s reaction that puts the scene across.

So how do you learn to keep track of character reactions?  Eventually it becomes second nature.  You come to inhabit your viewpoint character well enough to follow his or her reactions and still keep all the other writing balls in the air.  It’s one of the things you learn during your 10,000 hours of training.

Until then, when you revise, take a pass to focus only on your characters’ reactions.  How do they respond to what happens, especially at critical moments?  Can you use other characters’ reactions to bolster the scene?  Even if everything else about your scene is solid – the boy tied to a tree was a strong scene – if your characters don’t react, your readers won’t, either.

 

So what memorable character reactions have you encountered?  Are you tracking your own characters’ reactions?  Incidentally, the offer still stands.  If you have questions about your own writing, feel free to ask, either here or on the WU Facebook page.

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About Dave King

Dave King is the co-author of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, a best-seller among writing books. An independent editor since 1987, he is also a former contributing editor at Writer's Digest. Many of his magazine pieces on the art of writing have been anthologized in The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing and in The Writer's Digest Writing Clinic. You can check out several of his articles and get other writing tips on his website.

Comments

  1. says

    For me, getting inside the character’s head is the biggest challenge. Probably because it makes me feel vulnerable as hell. So often, I think I’m there, and then a reader says “but what’s she feeling?” When I feel emotionally drained at the end of the work day, its an indication that I’ve actually made inroads. And I’ve come to see that this is really the work. So many things go into a novel (balls in the air, as you call them), but without emotion, there’s really no heartbeat. Thank you for the reminder!
    Susan Setteducato´s last blog post ..Susan’s Blog

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    • says

      You know, Susan, I hadn’t considered that fear of vulnerability might be keeping writers out of their main character’s heads. When something shocking or terrible happens, it does take courage to put yourself in the scene.

      Thanks for the insight.

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  2. says

    In the YA I’m working on now, my protagonist looks across the street from a gas station and sees his mother sitting in a diner with a strange man. Since my protag is 17, I didn’t see him confronting her. So I have him simply stare for a moment, then quickly turn away, more concerned with being seen himself. It is only as he’s driving away that he feels angry. This is my first YA and it’s a challenge because we’re used to writing adult characters who are usually more willing to be confrontational. I always have to stop and ask myself if a kid would really react this way. It’s definately a different world.
    Ron Estrada´s last blog post ..My Indy Journey – Day 14 stats

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    • says

      Ron, that fear of discovery actually sounds like the right reaction in the circumstances. Though you’re right about how hard it can be to get into a character’s head.

      How are you showing his reaction? Interior monologue?

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  3. says

    I love the specificity of this post, Dave. So when you speak of the character’s reaction, I get the idea that you are speaking more about the value than just reaction? The quality, or in this case the lesser human quality, of the boy tied to the rope line is what the character must not only perceive and react to, but also internalize?
    Paula Cappa´s last blog post ..Ghost Moons and Phantom Ships

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    • says

      Absolutely, Paula and Anjali. When you fail to include your viewpoint character’s reaction, you lose the opportunity to build his or her character.

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  4. Anjali Amit says

    And how your character reacts tells you more about her than hundreds of words would.

    The boy’s mouth twisted. He was trying to speak. A guttural noise came from his throat like a bark. Mary Ruth said, “Hello.”
    or
    Mary Ruth’s eyes teared. She knelt beside him as she would next to a stray animal, and held out her hand. “Hello.”

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  5. says

    Hi Dave,

    I like that you demonstrate two ways to show emotions that might not seem obvious to a writer, especially your second method.

    In the story I just put away, my protagonist deals with a lot of denial. It was very difficult conveying his emotions and I think there are many spots where I can still do better. However, there is one scene that your second example today brings to mind. Here, he is crying but doesn’t know it. The way the scene is written, the reader sees his determination to move on and forget the death of his guardian. To show the reader the whole picture, I had the young boy who he’s just met ask him why he’s crying. “I’m not,” he says as he rubs his eyes vigorously.

    Showing emotions is very hard, because we have to think how emotions are really shown. Simply put, they come across in how we speak, how we hold ourself, or how we move, and we might see that one way, while those around us may see it another. As writers, we want to show this, knowing what’s really going on and therefore restraining the urge to tell. A confident writer knows just what to reveal to paint the whole picture, and it’s often only a few carefully placed brush strokes.

    Thanks for sharing your wisdom, Dave!
    John Robin´s last blog post ..Author Journeys: Welcome Therese Walsh

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    • says

      “. . . we might see that one way, while those around us may see it another.”

      One of the signs, I think, of a beginning writer is that his or her characters all understand one another perfectly. To make characters more real, they need to show the kinds of confusion and conflict over their emotions that you’re talking about.

      But as other comments have said, it takes skill, practice, and courage to inhabit your characters’ heads well enough to really track their emotions in all their complexity and confusion.

      Late last year, I wrote an article on how becoming a writer isn’t a matter of writing a novel but of learning to write. (Creating a Masterpiece) You may have to write several novels before you develop the skill set you need to manage this kind of complexity. Curiously, that article also mentions an early, unreadable Rex Stout novel in which he hadn’t mastered the character-building skills he brings to the Wolfe novels.

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      • says

        That is a great point Dave, and thanks for mentioning that early article. I looked it up (thank you, Google), and I think your closing remark is worth adding here:

        “Your current draft may be the best thing you’ve ever produced. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s your masterpiece. You don’t become a writer by writing a novel. You become a writer by learning to write. Your novel may only be a means to that end.”
        John Robin´s last blog post ..Author Journeys: Welcome Therese Walsh

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        • says

          I’m glad you liked the article, John.

          For those who haven’t read it, I was using “masterpiece” in its original meaning — the piece of work that medieval craftsmen presented to the guild judges in order to be certified as a master. Your masterpiece wasn’t your best or most celebrated piece. It was the first piece you produced that was good enough to make it in the marketplace.

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  6. says

    Dave–Thanks for this useful post. Examples always make for a better “teaching moment.”
    I see the point you’re trying to make. But for me, aside from a needed paragraph break, the original version in example #1 is not improved on by the editorial changes. Of course you are right in describing the moment of discovery as shocking: a naked child is chained with dogs, and the writer has very effectively presented the moment. IMO, intruding a “reaction shot” from the POV character weakens the power of the moment–the reader shouldn’t be deflected by a “selfie” from the narrator. That said, identifying the boy as retarded (a forbidden word these days) may be necessary, but the “Oh, good Lord” isn’t. The simple “Hello” from Mary underscore all this: she is trying to be a good person, saying the most conventional thing in a very unconventional moment.
    As for the Nero Wolfe example, I agree completely. The reader knows what the lawyer doesn’t, which makes his error dramatic. I think, though, it’s important to note that the second passage involves first-person narration, not third-person. That affects what’s taking place, don’t you think?

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    • says

      Thanks, Barry. And the Stout example is sweet, isn’t it? Though the distinction between first person and third isn’t that great if you’re writing from an intimate point of view.

      It’s true that character reactions, badly handled, can become a distraction. But I usually find that, if you leave the character’s reaction out, your character comes across as uninterested. It creates and unwanted distance between your character and your readers.

      On the other hand, one of the central principles of editing is, “Your mileage may vary.” You may prefer to keep that distance, and there are often good storytelling reasons for doing so.

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  7. says

    Thank you for this mini-lesson. My critters sometimes complain I am too objective with my writing. What a difference it makes just to add a short sentence with some interior thoughts/reactions. I still refrain from letting my characters be too emotional. I choke them up, so that my readers can laugh or cry on their behalf.
    Vijaya´s last blog post ..Gone Fishing

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  8. says

    Hi, Dave:

    Boy, I have to admit, this one is tricky. In the manuscripts I edit or review for my classes, one thing I often notice is how often beginning writers OVERWRITE reactions, telling rather than showing. I often have to advise them that the emotion comes from the scene: Don’t Explain.

    And so, though I see your point, I also see the problem that misunderstanding it can cause. I tell my clients and students: embed the reaction in what the characters do or say, not in “thought bubbles” or things like “fear scuttled up my spine.” (You do this with your edits of the boy-on-a-rope scene. And the Nero Wolfe example is perfect in both its control and in its rooting the response in character.)

    The trick is always to give just enough so that the reader is engaged with the characters in the scene, and craft the scene so that explanation is superfluous. It’s a hard thing to pull off. But the reason less is usually more (instead of not enough) is exactly because the point isn’t to “get everything perfect” so much as to find that mercurial, imaginary line where the writer, reader and characters all meet in a mutual experience of the action and the emotions, as though everyone is discovering the scene simultaneously.

    Finding that invisible line can’t be taught, because it’s different in every line, every scene. You learn to intuit it during those agonizing 10,000 hours.

    But miss that line, and that thump you hear is one of your balls hitting the floor.

    As always, thought-provoking piece. Great fun. Thanks.
    David

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    • says

      Oops. My wording was lousy. What I meant was, in your edit of the boy-on-a-rope section, you did indeed root the reaction in what the character did or said (or distinctively thought, which is a kind of dialogue), just as the Nero Wolfe piece did. The way I worded it made it sound like you were using thought bubbles or such to express the reaction, and that’s exactly what I didn’t mean.

      Back to those 10,000 hours…

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    • says

      I agree with you, David. I was more moved by the first example than the re-write. The shock was visceral, whereas with the thought bubble felt like “telling.” There was no POV confusion here. I was experiencing the emotion right along with the character.

      That being said, not all readers are the same, and some may prefer the more over the less. Some people like hamburgers with pastrami and swiss cheese topped with an onion ring and a slice of tomato. I do too, but only once a year or so.

      Thanks, Dave King, for opening up a good discussion.

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      • says

        I always love a good discussion, James.

        I did have the advantage of the complete context of the original story, which goes on for a few more paragraphs with still no reaction from Mary Rose. It may be that she came off colder when you look at the scene as a whole.

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      • says

        David Corbett and James Scott Bell: it’s gratifying to see two admirable experts agreeing with me. I know exactly what Dave King means: if the writer fails to understand that his POV character needs to react, the reader will be confused. But the student example doesn’t seem to illustrate this point.
        As for Don’s version (if I understand it), I find his character’s reaction to something shocking–whether it’s a first, second or third-tier emotion–as that of someone wholly self-involved, even when faced with something very disturbing. The character seems to appropriate the child’s situation for her own moral or spiritual purposes. But if the character IS self-involved, self-righteous and so forth, then exploiting the child’s suffering would make sense to me. But only Dave King has access to the context that might make all this more clear.

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  9. says

    Barry, Vijaya, and David all point out another application of Newton’s third law — for every writing mistake there is an equal and opposite writing mistake.

    It is possible to overwrite a character’s reaction to the point that the reaction draws attention to the character rather than whatever it is they’re reacting to. The trick is to hit the right balance between no reaction and sloppy melodrama. But, I suspect that’s a topic for another article.

    Incidentally, there was an even better example from the Wolfe corpus that I read some years ago but couldn’t locate. Google let me down, a search through the Wolfe books didn’t help, and the largest online Wolfe Fan Club (the Wolfe Pack) never got back to me.

    But as I remember it, Archie had another interview that, like the one with Herold, left him upset. Stout described his entire trip back to the brownstone with no hint of how Archie felt. Until Archie walked into the kitchen, and Fritz, Wolfe’s cook, said, “How did it — oh.”

    I think Stout is underrated as a stylist. The man really knew how to write.

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  10. says

    You’ve just explained something: why I’m so exhausted after spending time inside a character’s head. It’s hard work to be someone else, monitor what they experience, what they think, how their body reacts – and then pick the details that convey that, economically, to a reader, WITHOUT telling the reader.

    It is also exhilarating. And freeing – you can invent characters that get parts of yourself (by design or by accident) you want to explore but have always kept suppressed in polite society.

    And when you have THREE viewpoint characters, it is incredibly jarring to switch when the next scene is from a different head.

    Again, exhilarating – and not done until the new character snaps back into a familiar place.

    Rinse, repeat.
    Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt´s last blog post ..Added PRIDE’S CHILDREN – Chapter 14, Scene 7

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    • says

      In one of these comment discussions a few months ago, Don Maass came up with a good metaphor for learning to write — learning to play music. When you’re first starting out, there’s a thrill in just making a recognizable piece of music more complicated than Chopsticks. For me, that first piece was “Spinning Song.” It makes you feel like a real musician.

      Then you learn what you aren’t paying attention to — matters of phrasing and dynamics — and playing suddenly becomes a lot harder. With enough practice, though, all of those mechanical details become second nature. It’s then, and only then, that you can begin to really concentrate on making real music.

      Writing’s like that, for a lot of writers. You start out astonished that you can create characters who feel like actual human beings, with a plot that has some interest. Then, slowly, you realized just how much you’re missing, and writing can come to seem almost impossible. In the end, you learn to keep all the balls in the air at once. It takes practice and dedication, but it’s exhilarating when it happens.

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  11. says

    Dave-

    My recent work on the emotional craft of fiction has led me to a different conclusion. When visceral reactions are first tier, primary and expected, they do not excite the same feeling in the reader. They can, in fact, turn the reader off.

    I differ from everyone above. Although the discovery of the dog-leashed boy is indeed dramatic, I found neither the original nor the rewrite terribly moving. I would go down a level or two in the layers of the POV character’s emotions.

    Thus…

    “…a young boy, naked, wearing only a collar of rope line.

    “Today was a good day. She opened her eyes wider and willed it to be. The Lord required this of people. *The blind receive sight*. Yes. Never, ever did she want to go blind.

    “She crouched down and held out her hand. ‘Hello?'”

    I believe that secondary emotions, when they catch the reader by surprise, actually cause the reader to feel the primary emotion we wanted the reader to feel in the first place.

    I also believe that actions alone can produce powerful reader reactions–but only when the action itself is inherently full of emotion, as here. It’s Hemingway’s undisclosed secret.

    Agree? Disagree?
    Donald Maass´s last blog post ..Review: Herb of Grace by Adina Senft

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    • says

      Very much agree. In fact, I love it when the comments expand the scope of the original article. I think it’s a sign we’re all doing it right.

      Earlier, the question had come up of when a character’s reactions are a distraction (what Barry called an intrusive “selfie”) and when they ground readers in the scene. One factor I spotted is whether the reaction focuses your attention on the viewpoint character — i.e. is cheap or cliche’d melodrama — and takes it away from the event itself. David C. pointed out that the reactions can’t be cliche’s.

      But your point that the reactions have to be second-tier — by which I assume you mean original and unique to the character – may be the real key. So how about this . . .

      Your characters do need to react. I’m currently editing a book in which the main character reacts to events rarely if at all. It’s a strong book in a lot of ways, but the lack of reaction makes the viewpoint character too enigmatic to be likable.

      But if those reactions are mundane or melodramatic, then they become a distraction. They have to be unique to the character and perhaps unexpected for the readers in order to really enhance the scene.

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  12. says

    Dave, you said this in a comment up above: “The trick is to hit the right balance between no reaction and sloppy melodrama.”

    Don’t you think what constitutes the right balance will depend upon genre and audience? (Maybe that’s the cause of the disagreements above, because we all seem to believe it’s important to understand the POV character’s mindset, at least as much as he/she knows themself.) I just finished a NA romance by a #1 NYT best-seller and found the reactions “loud”, for want of a better word, and repetitive. But according to comparable books, that seems to be the norm for that audience. I can’t see the same techniques working for a literary mystery, though. The audience would feel clobbered with emotionality.
    Jan O’Hara´s last blog post ..Two Graduations and a Funeral (Plus Writer Unboxed Redirect)

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    • says

      Good point, Jan.

      It’s absolutely true that readers’ expectations matter a lot, and those expectations are shaped by culture and genre. Often popular books from another era (such as the penny dreadful — Black Bess) are nearly unreadable to modern audiences. A lot of critics have also complained about, for instance, J. R. R. Tolkien’s stilted, Victorian language, which fans find to be one of the draws of the books.

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