Pacing, Dialogue, Emotion, Info Dump & Symbolism

Blogging the Editing Day #8

The biggest problem with Chapter 6 began with its pacing. Having followed on from a few intense scenes, this chapter needed time to build on characterisation and fill in a couple of plot holes before they grew into chasms. As my characters stopped to catch their breath, I realised it was the perfect opportunity for the reader to see them being themselves. After all, too much fast action can end up being as boring as too much slow.

Unfortunately Chapter 6 was both slow and boring for a number of reasons.

  1. The dialogue was wooden and unnatural.
  2. Too much info dump via dialogue.
  3. Too much description of setting told through the eyes of the writer instead of the POV character.
  4. Important stuff happened, and although emotion was shown through body language and introspection, it was not enough. Opportunities for irony, character-centric reactions and symbolism were mostly ignored.

Here’s a snippet of what I started with. First draft material with little sense of character:

Em had spent the entire week searching for him, wishing they’d not fought, afraid she’d not see him again, admonishing herself for not listening to him when he’d begged her to. It wasn’t until she knocked on his bare wooden door only to have it opened by a stranger, that she realised it was time to face the truth.

“Everyone’s moving out,” the woman said. “No one likes the new laws. Did you know you can’t even get a stamp on your work card unless you work overtime? Who’s going to look after my dead sister’s kids while I’m working? If I can’t pay the gas bill, we’ll freeze to death by winter.”

Em blinked back tears. That was it then, Forley was gone.

Yeah, conveniently contrived info dump. Meandering and wooden dialogue. Bland, clunky description for the sake of description. Furthermore, I’ve told my readers that Em is feeling regret, but I doubt they’re convinced.

To fix this, I had to figure out ways to deliver information by weaving it into the drama, while at the same time keeping the dialogue natural. I also needed to remind myself to not give out too much info dump at once. In this particular scene, it would be best to let things unfold naturally as it would in real life so the reader can experience it along with the character and feel their emotion without being told.

At first I stared at my computer screen, wondering how to start. Then I realised my mistake. I was thinking too much about plot and not enough about character. I took a step back and reminded myself of my hero’s inner and outer conflicts, motivations, temperament and backstory. I thought about what information needed to be given, then imagined my hero receiving it.

In the end I decided that after all that had happened in previous scenes — and all that would happen next — the only  piece of info dump required at this point was the fact that a small number of people were leaving town because they didn’t like the new laws. Next I needed to embed it in drama, which in this case, was Em receiving evidence that her fiancé had bailed.

Here’s what I ended up with, though it’s still in need of yet another edit and polish:

Yesterday, she’d called into Forley’s tenement for the fifth day in a row, only to find his room newly occupied by five skinny children and a dilapidated aunt. Everything Forley had owned — his clothes, bedding, utensils and furniture — was gone.

“Not our doing,” the aunt said. “The landlord told us the last tenant had shot through. Defaulted on his rent.”

“Blame Grimsby,” chimed in a neighbour wearing boots that looked decidedly like Forley’s. “He turfed out your suitor’s chattels and sold them off. Dirt cheap.”

“Did Forley tell you where he went?”

The neighbour shook his head. “He wouldn’t be the first to disappear. Not since the new laws. I wouldn’t put it past him to have found somewhere better.”

Em stared at his boots. Definitely Forley’s. The leather was already scuffed, but what did she expect? Like everything at The Edge they’d be overworked, worn out and discarded. 

“Those boots,” she said at last. “Make sure you look after them.”

This time, there is no blinking back tears because that was set up and dealt with in a different scene. Now she’s past denial, past crying and moving on to acceptance. The boots are a symbol of Forley and his reason for leaving. My aim is for the reader to feel Em’s current emotions without me having to tell them in stereotypical ways.