Saturday, April 24, 2010

RUE (it's not about regret)

You guys watch any of the CSI shows?  Is it me or do they seem not quite as riveting as they used to be?  Is anybody else driven up the wall by the way CSI: Miami films scenes with bits of the set floating across the camera?  It's like that fly that won't stop buzzing around in front of my face. 

Well that's not what I'm focusing on today.  Irritating visuals are one thing but do annoying dialogue or narrative things and I'm gonna seriously complain.  In a recent episode of CSI: NY, Hawkes was caught in a prison riot.  He and a prisoner who's trying to help him found themselves locked together in a cell.  Hawkes realized he had a device that used a battery containing acid.  If they can get the acid out, there might be enough of it to loosen one of the bars on the door.

Okay, got that?  I did too.  But Hawkes went on to explain in detail how and why the acid would work, and I mentally tuned out.  The guy doesn't care, I wanted to say.  All he wants to know is, do you have a plan that might get us out of this cell?  Yeah?  Then let's do it.  I know, I know, they did that to explain to the viewers.  Thing is, I don't care either.  Not about that kind of detail.  You got an idea that could get you guys out of the cell?  Oh, it involves acid eating metal - cool.  Next action please.

This is a classic example of the need for RUE, resisting the urge to explain.  Maybe in writing for TV you can get away with things that novel readers wouldn't fall for, but really.  There is a time and place for explanation and to me, that was glaringly not it.  I already knew that acid eats through things, I didn't need a primer on it.  I bet most people know that.  That moment threw me right out of the story.

That's an obvious example.  In writing our novels, it's easy to get caught up in what we know about the characters and the plot.  We have all kinds of backstory and maybe sidestory too.  We plant bits of foreshadowing and bits of character exposition.  We plant bits of subplots.  We try to create tension and sympathy.  That's a lot for readers to keep a handle on.  With all the bits floating around, they might not catch on that a certain bit is the crux of the scene.

Well, then cut out the stuff that hides that fact.  Crit groups are excellent for help with this.  I read time and time again that nowadays, writers and their work do not get the kind of personal attention they used to.  Sure, once a work is accepted, an editor is assigned.  But getting it accepted is hard, and I may be understating that.  Your chances of standing out in a good way from the slush pile are improved if your writing is as tight and gripping as you can make it.

I don't want my readers distracted by a buzzing fly.  I do have a couple characters caught in the 1992 Rodney King riot in Los Angeles and one of them is thrown into a holding cell.  Unfortunately for him, there's no clever escape, but that's good for the story.  By that time, I expect readers to understand why the situation is especially brutal for him and why it twists his mind.  When I get to editing the scenes prior to posting on my online crit site, I'm not going to waste sentences by spelling out things I went into earlier in the story.

And TV in 3-D can wait till CSI: Miami stops putting "flies" in front of stuff ;-)

An aside: I've added "spun" to my list of overused words.  As I crit, I get downright dizzy from so many characters spinning to look at or talk to somebody.  Sometimes, "he turned" works just fine.  What the character says or sees is the important part, keep the focus on that.  If you find yourself using "turned" often, maybe the character is moving too much.

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