NVDT #61 – Make Sense, Goddammit

 I was going to put this off, but it’s time for another discussion of mechanics. If only for me.

I complain a lot about scene-setting. And paragraph construction. What I’d like to do is what we did back in freaking high school. Dissect a passage of literature to discover its mechanics. Most people I engage with these days have no idea what I’m talking about. “Show Don’t Tell” with stilted, unimaginative call and response dialog is the main topic of discussion. Or compositional cut-and-paste sectionality. That’s a made-up word, sectionality. I figure it’s okay because the other day I watched a video where a hotshot DJ demoed a piece of software. He used a made-up word for a feature that’s been around longer than he’s been alive. If someone more literate, or even one working off phonics, went looking for that feature? They would never find it. Never mind. I have a post coming on that.

Scene setting.

The ever-popular postcard intro. A chunk that is descriptive of place and time, the author telling us where we are, the climate, how it smells, the flora and fauna, blah, blah, blah.

So? Hemingway did it in “Hills Like White Elephants”. It starts out like all postcards. Here’s some terrain for you. But – There’s an artistry in that opening. Like a master cinematographer’s focus puller, the scene starts out wide, pulls down the mountainside to the tracks, the station, the wall, the beads in the door, to the people. Bam. No clumsiness, no lack of transition or obvious transition. No “Here’s your scene. Got it?” No, higgledy-piggledy flitting around, no lack of logic.

Nope. We are funneled right down the mountainside and into the scene.

There are several ways to work the mechanics. Find the landing zone, the thesis of your scene/paragraph, which is often the first line of the following paragraph after the postcard and that is a classic example of sectioning (later). Park that thesis at the end of the postcard, not the beginning. Otherwise it renders the postcard a useless paste-on unless we can be put in it via all that illogic.

With a tarp held over my head, I made my way to the Mushroom Man. Noon and the sun would cook my skin without it. (Without what? A trip to to the mushroom man?) The city’s ruins, baked white, provided pockets of shade. I scrambled from shadow to shadow. (To what end? Oh, that stuff back there a few lines?)

What’s the point of all that? Making the way to the Mushroom Man. However, the pivotal action was made into a secondary clause semi-related to an article of clothing. I wish I was on my Surface and could use the red pen. So, we pull M Man and make everything else support that action, staying with the first person opening idea.

I snapped the reflective tarp over my head to keep me from cooking in the noon sun. The baked, white ruins of the city offered rare pockets of shade and I scrambled from shadow to shadow as I made my way to the Mushroom Man. (making my way, if you must, for you -ing people)

Start someplace. End someplace. Don’t go a couple places out of order in the middle. Lit logic, like math, requires an equation to get to the point. Before you drop a paragraph or scene and leave it, find the point of it. Once there, The Hemingway funnel (the focus pull) is the easiest way to get a fluid result.

While we’re here, let’s try to avoid ( as appears later)

the smell of loam filled my senses. 

Smell is one sense, and makes no sense filling the others without further description. How about giving the smell a modifier instead? Or filled my parched nostrils. Or, The air, thick with loam, assaulted my senses. Or a variation thereof with some sticky words like ‘was’ and ‘it’. Also, ‘filled’ is a big word that means filled. In the case of senses filled it would render one incapable of further action. No more sight, sound, smell… Protagonist overcome, story over. Think about what you’re saying and don’t count on your readers to read through it. Make sense, goddammit

The bumpy road – We all know this one. A great opportunity to set the landscape, the upkeep of the road, the car, the driver, the supplies, until we pull around the last tree/bend in the road and the castle/house/plantation/town pops into view. Videographers work this to death. Remember to log how they do it next time the inspector’s car pulls up in front of the manor house or the taxi makes its way across the rain-slicked bridge into ghetto funk or the dusty wild horse ride up to the ranch house. Those were the demos. If your road is long and winding, fix it.

Sectionality – Chunk A. Chunk B. No elbow grease on the seams.

Clods of frozen earth littered Vasily’s fields, he expected the weather would break them apart by spring. All the sugar beets had been yanked from the ground and piled into two grey-wood sheds. The Ural winds would continue to dry them, concentrating the sugars.

“Zima won’t marry you without land.” Vasily stood above the mouth of the grinder, 

What the hell? What is the point of the three disparate parts of this opening? What sort of sheds? Lean-to? Open-air? That’s the only way the Big Wind is going to dry them. We are given no reason to care about the fields or even the beets except for their sugar being concentrated. To what end? Here’s your frozen field where beets used to be. ZONK. Oh look, someone’s talking.

The Ural winds whipped (howled, etc) over Vasily’s fields. Fields now a barren landscape of frozen clods, and they’d stay that way until spring. The beets that had been yanked from those fields now piled into grey-wood sheds to dry, concentrating their sugars. Vasily pulled his gaze away from the window, returned to the tasks at hand.

“Zima won’t marry you without land.” Vasily stood above the grinder…

There comes a time where all our Google or National Geographic-isms need to sit down unless we want to get more descriptive about what type of shed will allow for Ural winds to dry beets. Otherwise, it’s a geography lesson, so set the winds free from any specific task.

Again, start somewhere, wide if you want, and flow into the people. Yes, the window was a cliché funnel and there’s plenty of passive voice. Check out the best sellers below, or Hemingway, and get over it. At least it wasn’t ‘how the hell are these things related?’ bullet points, a line break and dialog.

Aside from “Hills Like White Elephants”, which is widely available, the below examples are both quite good and worth a study if only for their mechanics.

Helen Simonson in Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand works several mechanical devices to drop readers into a scene. You can read the first page as a look-inside on Amazon. Here’s her trick. She always involves people, usually with an interruption. In other parts of the book the characters find the need to reflect for a page and a half on England’s bucolic Green and Pleasant. But otherwise we get bits and pieces of where, how, time, furniture, personality… Without overkill. We get the set decorations as the characters become involved with them. Not, “Here’s the old settee covered in X etc…” We get the settee as experienced by a character sitting in it as part of the action/interaction. She even weaves backstory (with a cliché mechanism, but it’s thankfully brief) into the scene. The scene works though. Well, the dead wife picture is hokey, but it’s so well-greased I let it slide. And it doesn’t eat up a page and a half.

Jennifer Eagan’s The Keep works along the same lines but with a touch of the bumpy road. We are told of an ancient castle and in the very next line we begin to experience the terrain, the weather, everything through the character. She uses some great word choices along the way. For immediate backstory, we get comparison and contrast between the weather here and back there and a few airport incidents that border on author digs, but throughout the entire book she breaks the 4th wall like a good post-modernist, so she’s entitled. This is also available as a look-inside on Amazon.

The one thing I got from the useless Stanford class were these two books from the reading list. I dove right in, even if no one else wanted to discuss mechanics. I also heard words like “hate” used to describe works of fiction. You didn’t like it. Okay. Maybe it really sucked. Okay. But you can’t really “hate” it. It’s not like a book murdered your grandmother or anything. You didn’t like it or thought it sucked, next. Hating is  waste of energy.

Thesis (funneled way down here) – Find the point of the scene/paragraph. Make it one good sentence and then dress it for your party. But make sure you know WTF you’re trying to say, and say it with a modicum of precision before you give it a pass and move on.

The examples used above were from Anonymole’s September scene writing challenge. This wasn’t a cheap shot, he knew it was coming.


Published by

Phil Huston


16 thoughts on “NVDT #61 – Make Sense, Goddammit”

    1. You know there’s a lot of rules out there, but for tone and flow shaping there’s a place for passive voice and sticky words or literature would be completely devoid of them. I pull classics into Word to see what makes them work and you’d be surprised how Pro Writing Aid and Grammarly light up on Nobel prize winners for passive voice and other “issues”. Which is why I use them to tell me what my percentages are and to force me to line item read myself but I take it with a grain of salt. The best thing in PWA is the reports that will show you how many sticky words you really use, how much echo or duplication of words crops up, the sort of things we need to know. It’s not criminal to use cliche grease to get a scene across anymore than it’s illegal for jazz guitarists to use passing chords. It’s all a matter of how well it’s done and did it work. I mean I don’t like to open scenes with postcards, but it’s been done for centuries. Again, like the Hemingway example, if you can work it damn near perfectly, go ahead on. My Bobby B example was a postcard that pulled down to two people prepping shrimp. I’d rather do what you worked so well in whatever opening excerpt I read where the woman ends up in the coffee shop. That one was pretty slick. I’ll send you an email with some further commentary about “stuff”.

      Liked by 3 people

    1. > This wasn’t a cheap shot, he knew it was coming.
      I did indeed.

      The challenge, is to take that nugget there at the end and internalize it, weave it into my mind’s gestalt. You’ve distilled the concept down quite nicely. Thanks.

      > Find the point of the scene/paragraph. Make it one good sentence and then dress it for your party.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. Yes. Words aren’t just words. Figure out why they’re there, what was your plan for them? And which ones are most important to the story and give them ownership.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Mole is like the curious to be better version of George and I try to help but for some reason it doesn’t stick. He throws good ideas at the page in an as they occur to him order and refuses to study Lanham and other resources that would help immensely. So I held off busting his extemporaneous September till it was over. I hate to see a good imagination go to waste for lack of editing prowess.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Without criticism offered for improvement we’d become victims of belief in our own infallibility. Yes, it is a form of flattery. Someone thought the effort was worth the time to suggest improvement.


  1. There was a moment in my life where I felt like I was running out of time. I wasn’t that old, but I had a deep feeling of mortality. At that point, I gave myself over to the emotions I had inside of me and out flowed the words. A.Mole and I have had this discussion before, maybe he remembers. Anyway, what I began to produce was often a mess, but it was an honest mess, an authentic mess, and, for some of us, that is good enough in this fucked up world. Thanks. Duke

    Liked by 2 people

    1. True enough. I know the exact feeling. You only have to hit the emergency room once looking at the ceiling when all that happened was you were standing in your living room with blood pressure that would rupture an oil field tool line. But here’s the deal – an honest mess is one thing to produce, to get it out. The difference between a scream and singing is a thin line, but it’s there. My background won’t allow me to throw paint at the wall and call it art. In 2015 when I started writing after 45 years (save for occasional columns and how-tos and owner’s manuals) I was a mess. Damned if I’d publish it. To me, and here we might diverge, there is no satisfaction in dropping a turd on the sidewalk for everybody. Yeah, it feels good to drop it, but it’s not what I choose to present as my “work”. Mole openly confesses to being pissed off at his own work. I get that, too. Welcome to the club. But in public, I refuse to show my sloppy ass preferring instead to show what (I consider) to be a more finished, albeit imperfect, product. The same way I wouldn’t want a contractor to hang his apprentice’s practice cabinets in my kitchen and say “Well, I coulda done better but there’s a certain honesty about them.” My disclaimer to that sentiment is if one possesses the necessary skill to “honestly” fuck around at a high level, hit it. I’ve listened to Herbie Hancock and Myron McKinley play whatever came to mind all afternoon. I’ve been mesmerized by Turner’s sketchbooks of Venice, watched Baryshnikov rehearse and EVH dial in an amp. All in a day. There’s a great video out there somewhere of a very young Greg Lake politely chewing the ELP stage crew’s collective ass where he says “When you’re a professional there’s a level you perform at, and you never perform below that level.” The key there is perform. What you publish. Why publish rubbish when you have the ability to turn rubbish into gems? “Honest” borders on an excuse for ‘half-assed and I don’t care’, you know?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Whether or not writing is great or lousy depends not upon the writing, but rather the reading. To posit otherwise, seems narrow minded and rather misses the point of art all together. We are, after all, individuals at the table, each of us equal in life, death, and definition. Thanks. Duke

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Missed the point. This wasn’t about art appreciation, but creation. If one considers their work a mess, not fixing it isn’t honest, or make it art, it’s lazy. I agree that beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder, and “they” will make their decisions and assessments but that has nothing whatsoever to do with how the originator feels/felt about their work. I could easily call myself a dancer, flop around on the floor accompanied by space fart electronic music. But I guarantee you, regardless of my intent my execution would be substandard because my execution would never equal my expectations. Which, based on my inability to dance, would be ridiculously low to start with. Even if I were to receive excellent reviews I would know better. If we create for $ or attaboys that’s not self-expression, that’s commerce. An entirely different conversation. Bottom line – If you didn’t give it your best shot you’ve dissed the muse.


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