Scene Clarity

Here is another scene from the novel the teen me wrote about Rellie. I’m cheating a little because the scene is not complete, but the original scene went on for pages and pages, and it was tedious to read, much less type. As usual, the entire scene sounds more like a summary. And the characters are two-dimensional and unrealistic. And I don’t know who is telling this part of the story because I don’t mention it until page three (and then I discover it’s Rellie’s friend, Kris). So this is very confusing. Here is how I have it originally written (including a couple of spelling errors. Can you find them?):

As quickly as it began, it disappeared. All the talk about Rellie faded away and Rellie resumed her place in school.

But alone.

She spoke to nobody unless spoken to first, and even then it was in short phrases or sentences. She always looked as if she never got any sleep, and she began to get dizzy spells in classes.

But, nobody seemed to care after awhile. They had their own problems. If Rellie did something unusual (like walk out of a classroom for no reason at all) it would be spread around, but most people just passed it off as soon as it came to them, and soon, people began to take for granted that Rellie was just a little off the wall and no one would do anything about it.

Except for Mr. Thomas. He took inventory of everything that was happening to Rellie. He was interested in it. Even when he noticed nobody payed any attention to Rellie’s moods anymore, he continued his research on her.

One day, when he saw her in the hall, he asked her what happened to all the “attention” she had before.

Angrily, she walked away.

Otherwise—everything was fine.

Until…

I heard that waters are very calm just before a violent storm.

Let me tell you, this is true, especially for Rellie.

Some say Mr. Thomas started it. They say he became ruder and ruder to her everyday, asking her how her parents died and if she was glad because of all the attention she was getting now.

Others said that she couldn’t take the students in school ignoring her, and her now frequent failing marks on her test papers.

Still others say she was really on drugs the whole time, and this time it became worse.

I think it was because everything was still bottled up inside of her, like her grandmother was saying.

Whatever became of those tests, I don’t know, but I don’t think they could have ever prepared anyone for something like this.

Let’s go over this piece by painstaking piece. The first paragraph doesn’t make much sense. The writer must not assume that the reader knows what he/she is talking about when they write the scene’s introduction. Here is the paragraph in question:

As quickly as it began, it disappeared. All the talk about Rellie faded away and Rellie resumed her place in school.

As quickly as what began? We can assume the author means “all the talk,” but if that’s the case, why not write: “As quickly as all the talk about Rellie began, it faded away.” Even better would be more information from the POV character so that we know a) who is speaking (if there are multiple viewpoints in the story) and b) the scene’s setting. Also, what does it mean when Rellie “resumed her place in school”? Was she not attending school up until now? Or does this mean she returns back to her former self, doing all the things she used to do? This is not clear to us at all. Let’s move on to the next portion of the scene and see if we will receive a clue:

But alone.

She spoke to nobody unless spoken to first, and even then it was in short phrases or sentences. She always looked as if she never got any sleep, and she began to get dizzy spells in classes.

But, nobody seemed to care after awhile. They had their own problems. If Rellie did something unusual (like walk out of a classroom for no reason at all) it would be spread around, but most people just passed it off as soon as it came to them, and soon, people began to take for granted that Rellie was just a little off the wall and no one would do anything about it.

Okay. First off, this doesn’t sound like she’s resumed her place in school so much as she’s changed her persona. Plus, this whole “they had their own problems” is very vague. People have “their own problems” all the time and are still quite invested in other people and their troubles. I do like that the character says that Rellie walked out of a classroom for “no reason at all,” because that is a great personal POV. The author understand why the character walks out of the classroom, but not the character who is telling the story. It’s tough to separate author from character, and here I have to applaud the younger me for seeing this through.

My biggest complaint about this scene, however, is that I could be showing all this happening, and it would create a much bigger emotional impact for the reader.

Except for Mr. Thomas. He took inventory of everything that was happening to Rellie. He was interested in it. Even when he noticed nobody payed any attention to Rellie’s moods anymore, he continued his research on her.

One day, when he saw her in the hall, he asked her what happened to all the “attention” she had before.

Angrily, she walked away.

Okay, I hate this part of the story. Yes. HATE it. Why? First off, this doesn’t sound like a teacher at all. Of course, if I want the teacher to behave this way I need to convince the reader by establishing Mr. Thomas’s character and have a dialogue occur between him and Rellie that is subtle enough for the reader and Rellie to pick up on his distrust and annoyance with Rellie, but his words not sound so childish. Also, since we are in Kris’s POV, and she is a teen, how does she understand Mr. Thomas is taking “inventory” of everything that is happening to Rellie? She couldn’t know unless she was Mr. Thomas. Also, I’ve used an –y adverb when I could do a much better job by showing Rellie’s anger. Even writing “Rellie stormed off” does a better job than saying she angrily walked away.

Otherwise—everything was fine.

Until…

I heard that waters are very calm just before a violent storm.

Let me tell you, this is true, especially for Rellie.

I laughed when I read this. I think I was being dramatic when I wrote it, but it comes off as strange. Otherwise everything was fine? You have a girl who hardly speaks, a teacher trying to get under her skin, kids whispering about Rellie and then ignoring her…and otherwise everything is fine? Isn’t all that enough to show that things aren’t fine?

The part that really got to me was the over-the-top “Until…” Ooh. I’m getting nervous. Until what? Do tell before I fall off my chair in anticipation.

The “until” does nothing for the reader. Oh wait. I take that back. It does. It confuses the reader because if you add the next sentence it sounds like: Until I heard I heard that waters are very calm just before a violent storm.

Ah. Everything was fine until the character heard that saying. Uh, right.

The last sentence gives us good character voice, but we’ve gone from third person to omniscient (with Mr. Thomas’s motivations well known) to first person talking to an invisible listener. (The reader?) Wow. This scene is full of confusion.

Some say Mr. Thomas started it. They say he became ruder and ruder to her everyday, asking her how her parents died and if she was glad because of all the attention she was getting now.

Others said that she couldn’t take the students in school ignoring her, and her now frequent failing marks on her test papers.

Still others say she was really on drugs the whole time, and this time it became worse.

I think it was because everything was still bottled up inside of her, like her grandmother was saying.

Whatever became of those tests, I don’t know, but I don’t think they could have ever prepared anyone for something like this.

So now we have other students taking note of Mr. Thomas observing Rellie. Would he really say all those things to Rellie? Especially in front of witnesses? I could understand it if another student acted that way toward her, and in my rewrite, that’s what I would do. All the gossip I would handle through either Facebook posts or text messages. More overt, less public. The sentence about the drugs doesn’t make sense. On drugs what whole time? Her whole time at school? The whole time she started to act strangely? Not clear. And what became worse? The way she was acting? It really leaves interpretation wide open, and as an author, I don’t want to do that. I’ve heard so-called artists say, “Well, I’m leaving it up to the viewer/reader to decide what it means.” It’s a bunch of bull. Whenever I hear that I think, “You don’t know what it means, either, so-called artist.” You, the creator, must know what idea you are relating to the viewer/reader. It can be subtle or hit-‘em-over-the-head, but the idea must be available to understand.

Okay, off my soapbox. Next in this piece is a mention of the grandmother and something she said. We sure could use reminding. What was it the grandma was saying that relates to this? Don’t make us go back several pages to locate the quote ourselves. Tell us. Now.

The mentioned tests confuse me. Why does it matter? Don’t students usually see their grade and recycle those papers (maybe keeping the best ones to prove to their future children they aren’t inept after all)? How are they to prepare others for what might come? I wish I could get into y teen mind to understand what I meant, but unfortunately I can’t. So I’d get rid of that last paragraph altogether when I went to do my revision.

So here is what you, the writer, needs to consider: 1) Is my setting clear? 2) Is my POV character obvious? 3) Does everything make sense? 4) Are the other characters in my story acting appropriately? 5) Am I showing what’s happening in the scene instead of simply informing the reader?  6) Are there any –ly adverbs I can remove? 7) Does the reader need any information reiterated from previous chapters because it may have been forgotten? 8) Am I using the wrong vocabulary to effectively dramatize my scene?

When you check your scenes for clarity, remind yourself that the reader will not automatically understand your characters and their motivations. You must make it clear without being too obvious. Your characters may not understand why they do the things they do, but you need to know and make sure they act accordingly. Good luck!

Spelling error answers:

Even when he noticed nobody payed any attention to Rellie’s moods anymore… (should be paid.)

They say he became ruder and ruder to her everyday(should be every day.)

#revision #YA #character #editing #clarity

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