Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Jarring Elements

Aristarkh Lentulov (1882 - 1943)--Moscow I’m starting to think that my children have an evil conspiracy to get me working out.

Yesterday, my eight year old daughter asked me to take her to the Y. They have a kids’ workout area with miniature treadmills, etc. It’s hot as the blazes here in North Carolina…we’ve had a heat wave for the past several weeks. Indoor exercise sounded like a decent plan, so I agreed.

“You’re not wearing that, are you?” she asked me.

I looked down at my twill shorts and black shirt and flip flops. “No, I guess not.” I reluctantly dug up some workout-looking clothing and a hair band to put my hair in a ponytail, and then grabbed my Ipod.

Now I looked a lot more like someone who was going to exercise. That definitely helped. But then I got on the treadmill and turned on my Ipod. At some point I’d loaded the device with classical music…I’m guessing so I could write to it at the library or coffeehouse if people got too noisy there.

Somehow, Clair de Lune wasn’t putting me in an exercising mood. Actually, I just turned off the Ipod.

I’ve read plenty of books like that, too—the author, for whatever reason, hadn’t struck the right mood for the scene he was writing. And it’s very jarring, as a reader. When I have an important scene in a manuscript that I feel doesn’t work, it’s usually because I’ve introduced a jarring element to something that should be smoothly written.

I’ve read scenes that were supposed to be scary that were filled with the protagonist’s internal monologue. It slowed the pace of the scene down to a crawl. I felt like, “Really? You’re analyzing this now? But your life is in danger!”

I’ve read fantasy where the characters had just arrived at an amazing setting—and the author skimped on sharing it. And the whole point was this cool location. I’m not a huge fan of description, but if I’m suddenly transported to a whole different world, I’m looking for it to be described.

I’ve read scenes that were intended to be funny that fell flat because the reader was basically told the scene was hilarious by the author (or other characters via dialogue) instead of letting us see the humor in it naturally.

I’ve read scenes that were supposed to be sad or touching that just didn’t seem genuine at all… it was overwritten or the character appeared melodramatic.

Just like the lovely Clair de Lune managed to strike the wrong note in my workout, there are other elements that can mess up an important scene—slow pace, fast pace, telling-not-showing, showing-not-telling (telling is usually better in a thrilling, suspenseful scene), etc.

What trips you up as a reader or a writer?