Writing the real, part II: dramatic emphasis

Yesterday, I was talking about the dangers of including actual incidents in fiction submissions. Why are the real-life scenes so often problematic, from the point of view of a professional reader, you ask? Because they tend to be under-explained in manuscripts, as though the incidents involved were so inherently telling that they required no further justification beyond a bare description of what occurred — or even enough detail beyond the skeletal facts of the case to allow the reader to mirror the protagonist’s (or, even more commonly, the narrator’s) response to the scene. In order to begin to discuss how to fix that problem, I am going to bring up a concept that tends to make serious writers grumble: the importance of dramatic emphasis.

It’s easy to forget to see our submissions from the point of view of the people who will be judging them, isn’t it? We all like to think (come on, admit it) that our writing is so good that simply any English-speaking reader currently alive would automatically fall in love with it, but the fact is, both target market readers and professional readers have individual tastes.

Two tastes that virtually all readers share, however, are a taste for clarity and a taste for being entertained.

“Yeah, yeah,” I hear some of you out there muttering, “you told us yesterday that we shouldn’t have anything in our submissions that we would want to be standing next to the reader explaining, because that’s just not how the submission process works. All that matters is what’s on the page, you said, and we should never assume that our readers will automatically share our worldviews. Fine. But what does dramatic emphasis have to do with either clarity or assuming advance knowledge in my audience?”

Plenty, if you are submitting novels. Agency screeners, editorial assistants, agents, editors, and contest judges all tend to read in a tearing, line-skimming hurry until they decide that the manuscript in front of them is a good one — and if the story isn’t keeping their interest, they have a nasty habit of edging it toward the rejection pile without further ado. Since the acceptance/rejection decision is often made in a split second, it’s vital that your submissions bring your best ideas (and your best writing) to the fore.

If the screener does not make it to page 15, it actually doesn’t matter, alas, how beautiful the writing is on pg. 16 and beyond. You want your first scene to be dramatically interesting enough to draw the professional reader — not just your target reader in the general public, who is usually quite a bit more tolerant of build-up — into wanting to read on.

I’ve said it before, and knowing me, I’ll doubtless say it again: if the first five pages of your book are not gripping, rearrange your submission so that the first five pages of IT are. (And that, if you’re curious, is the reason why so many novels these days begin with a brief prologue consisting of a scene late in the book. It’s a way to get a dramatically interesting, well-written scene under the screener’s eyes first.)

Yes, sometimes this means changing the running order of the book for the purposes of submission; you can always change it back again after the publisher buys the book. Remember, industry types don’t consider a novel finished until it is actually in print and sitting on a shelf at Powell’s — they EXPECT authors to rearrange things based upon their feedback. No one is going to yell at you for tweaking a submission in a way that you might not a finished book.

Since you often only have the first few pages of a submission to establish that you are an interesting, exciting writer that any agent would be a fool to overlook, you are going to want to select the raw materials of your first few pages with an eye to drama, right? Here’s a radical idea: lead with your strongest storyline, what people in the screenwriting biz call your A-story, rather than a subplot. (An AMAZINGLY high percentage of submissions begin with B-stories, or even C-stories.) Dramatically, it will be easier to draw the reader into your fictional world.

“Okay,” I hear some of you muttering, “I understand that it might be in my best interests to be strategic in my running order. But Anne, what does any of this have to do with writing real-life incidents in a fiction book?”

Again, plenty. Since, as I was mentioning yesterday, real-life scenes tend to be harder for the writer to assess in print — that old song, “But it really happened that way!” can wallpaper over a multitude of storytelling sins in the writer’s mind, and preclude dramatically-necessary revisions in the name of sticking to What Really Happened — may I be so bold as to make a suggestion? If you want to include such scenes, try to use them later in the book, rather than in the early pages of your submission.

Why? Because the real-life anecdote problem is so very well-known in the industry that quite a lot of agency screeners and editorial assistants will use it as a reason to shove a manuscript into the reject pile. It’s just safer not to do it in the early pages of your submission — wait until they have fallen in love with your voice before you start taking this kind of risk.

“But Anne,” I hear some of you cry, “it’s a NOVEL! How on earth are they going to know what is fact-based and what isn’t?”

Oh, you’d be surprised at how often real-life scenes have a big flag over them, proclaiming, “But this really happened!” One dead give-away of such scenes to professional eyes is that the reader is very obviously expected to take the narrator’s (or protagonist’s) side automatically in them. In such scenes, the protagonist is ALWAYS presented as in the right for every instant of the scene, a state of grace quite unusual in real life. It doesn’t ring true — and it’s simply not as interesting as more nuanced conflict.

A particularly common flavor for such scene: a minor character walks into the room, and is obstructive in some very minimal way to the protagonist; thereafter, the protagonist (and usually the narrative as well) responds to that character as if she had burned down half the buildings in Western states AND slaughtered a basketful of kittens. To professional eyes, such a character in a book might as well be depicted with a forehead tattoo reading, “Co-worker of the author.”

I heard the gasps out there — did you really think you were the only writer in the history of the world to do this? Honeys, if I had a nickel for every manuscript I have read that contained scenes where the reader is clearly supposed to be incensed at one of the characters, yet it is not at all apparent from the action of the scene why, I could buy a take the entire readership of my blog out to dinner in Paris, Milan, Tokyo, and Tierra del Fuego on consecutive nights, flying all of you in between on my fleet of private jets.

The sad part is that these scenes tend not to work even when they are well-written: the problem here is that a lack of perspective leads the writer to believe, inaccurately, that the reader will inhabit the scene as vividly as he did at that moment. However, readers are dependent upon the writer’s placing them there — these scenes actually tend to be LESS life-like than more fully-realized fictional ones where the author has let the reader in on the sights, smells, and tastes of the environment.

Let me posit a general rule: figuring out where to place the dramatic emphasis of a scene requires a certain amount of authorial detachment. Invariably, when professional readers flag these scenes, the writer is always quite astonished that his own take on the real-life scene did not automatically translate into instantaneous sympathy in every conceivable reader — or that his-stand-in in the scene is not necessarily all that likeable from the reader’s perspective, in that particular moment.

Or that the scene might not be all that funny. Remember, just because everyone on the airplane laughed when the beverage cart got loose and went shooting down the aisle, smashing into the cockpit door and spraying everyone in first class with a fragrant cocktail of soda, bloody Mary mix, and rapidly cooling coffee, it doesn’t necessarily mean that a fictional retelling of the scene will also be funny. As the author, it’s your job to MAKE it funny on the page — and if it isn’t, and your book is comic, it should not be in the first few pages of your submission.

My point is, be aware that often, writers’ judgment of scenes based upon their personal experiences is not as clear and unbiased as the same writers’ views on their wholly fictional scenes. Get an outside opinion of it — FROM SOMEONE WHO DID NOT WITNESS THE INCIDENT IN QUESTION — before you submit such a scene to the pros. Writing the true is a virtuoso trick, my friends: it may not take more craft to tell a real-life anecdote well, but it certainly requires a few more authorial steps backward to keep it in perspective.

Practical examples follow tomorrow. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

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