The Joy of Nuance
The slow death of boring beats
One of the things I see over and over again as an editor and critiquer is the two word beat. It looks like this:
“Hello,” John said, “how’s it hanging?”
“Mmmhp.” Bill shrugged. “Not so good these days.
John nodded. “I know what you mean, girl troubles right?”
“Not really.” Bill shrugged. “It’s complicated.”
“C’mon.” John smiled. “How complicated can it be?”
If you look at this, you will note that the beats don’t tell us anything about Bill or John. Sure Bill shrugs, we all know what shrugs look like. Because we know what they look like we insert our idea of a generic shrug into the picture in our mind. Every shrug is the same. After the twenty-seventh shrug it gets boring. Imagine the same for glance, smirk and the rest. This is what I call an empty beat. It shows who is talking, but nothing about the characters, setting, or action. We might as well use a speech tag and be done with it.
One option is to expand the beat by using ‘and’ or an adverb to try to spice it up.
“Hello,” John said, “how’s it hanging?”
“Mmmhp.” Bill shrugged and scratched his head. “Not so good these days.
John nodded wisely. “I know what you mean, girl troubles right?”
“Not really.” Bill shrugged and stuffed his hands deep in his pockets. “It’s complicated.”
“C’mon.” John smiled and patted Bill on the shoulder. “How complicated can it be?”
This is a little bit better, but we still have the problem of twenty-seven shrugs, even if they’ve been modified. We are better off if we stop trying to make all those beats interesting by adding more stuff to the same beat. This is where nuance comes in.
Nuance is all about shades of meaning. What is the difference between this smile and the next one? There are plenty of synonyms for smile. Smirk is a slightly nasty smile, useful for bullies just before they do their bully thing. Smirk doesn’t work for friends teasing each other. Grins are wider and goofier smiles. You get the idea. But we can move past synonyms to use the setting and action to achieve even more shades of meaning.
“Hello.” John tied his horse to the hitching post. “How’s it hanging?”
“Mmmhp.” Bill hung his head and plumped himself on the step of the saloon. “Not so good these days.
John sat beside Bill and put his arm around his buddy. “I know what you mean, girl troubles right?”
“Not really.” Bill shrugged off John’s arm and stuffed his hands deep in his pockets. “It’s complicated.”
A tumbleweed rolled down the street. Twangy notes from the saloon’s piano floated out the door. The drink in the saloon promised, if not a solution, at least a way to forget for a time.
“C’mon.” John stood up and clomped across the wood boards to the door. He looked back at Bill and gave a twisted grin. “How complicated can it be?”
Now we know a lot more about who the characters are, what the setting is, and where the action may take us. With a little tweaking the generic dialogue we started with could be all kinds of things. Playing with the beats can shift the tension in the scene too. We can make it anything from the revelation of murder to a precursor to Brokeback Mountain. It all happens in the nuances of what you write between the words the characters say.
You try it now, pick a section of your story which lies there like roadkill. Think about the nuances of what you want to show. What is the reader learning, what are the characters learning? What are the different levels of meaning in the dialogue. What are the tension points?
It is true that writing nuanced scenes takes more work. One must stop and think, even look up new words in a thesaurus. But the result is a scene that will grab your reader and pull them in.
Shades of Feeling
Everyone knows feelings are essential to evocative writing. Without emotions there is little reason for the reader to care about what is going on in the story or what happens to the characters.
So we write how our characters are angry, or sad, or furious, or happy or any of another dozen or so standard emotions.
Take a second and try to imagine how many different emotions we humans have.
I saw a list of emotions that listed 101 emotions, and it stated explicitly it was not a complete list. There are emotions for which we have no words in English, but other languages do.
So how do we write all this myriad of emotions? Do we dig out the Emotional Thesaurus and expand our emotional vocabulary. This is a great book by the way. It gives you an emotion, then the corresponding physical sensations and body language. This is a good start. Using words like cranky or grumpy, or ecstatic to describe feelings will add depth to your writing. Even more so when you start using the corresponding body language to match the words.
When I was studying to be a therapist, one of the things we were trained to watch for was body language that didn’t match what the client said or expressed as feelings. Clients whose bodies said one thing while their words said another were extra challenging. When you asked questions based on the body language, you tended to be more successful working through the issues at hand.
Imagine what you could do with a character whose body language didn’t match their expressed emotions? Your reader knows something is off, but they don’t know what. It is a great device to create distrust toward an otherwise bland character.
The next step is to get beyond the basic four emotions, mad, sad, glad and scared along with their hundreds of synonyms to feelings which are further off the chart. How do you write humility? Loyalty? Disgust? How do you use an emotion which has no name? We use the physical sensations and body language without identifying the emotion we are trying to portray.
This is where the real nuance starts coming in. Stop and think for another minute and list all the physical sensations you use to show character emotion to the reader.
How many did you come up with?
From my editing these are the favourites:
Sinking or rising heart/stomach
Some form of fire/heat/cold/ice
Shaking legs, hands
Of course the smile/smirk/eyebrow and other facial movements and movements of the head
Various forms of crying/laughing
Blushing/heat in the face
and of course the ever present Sigh
As there are hundreds of emotions, so there are at least as many ways we experience the emotions. We experience them intellectually and mostly write about them intellectually. The problem with writing emotions from the intellect, that is describing them through naming and categories, is the reader will process them the same way.
If we use the standard ways to show emotion, we never get below the surface and more to the point, we don’t pull the reader below the surface either. Moving away from the usual ways of showing emotion makes the reader think about the physical experience and label the emotion for themselves. While they may end up with a different word than we had in mind, they will be pulled into the experience.
I suggest that one start with the usual expressions and gradually shift to more unusual ones as the book progresses. In essence we train the reader to dig deeper into their own emotions to understand the emotions of the characters. They feel every emotion the character does.
Writing deliberately nuanced emotions, physical reactions and body language gives us the opportunity to affect the reader in powerful ways.
A fantastic resource for writing emotion is The Emotional Thesaurus
The Dreaded Thesaurus Rex
A thesaurus can be a writer’s best friend, but like all good friends it can lead us into trouble. When we gleefully substitute synonyms for the word we’re overusing it is essential we pay attention to the nuances of meaning. Let’s look at smile as an example.
Here are some synonyms: beam, grin, laugh, smirk, simper
In context beam is a broad smile, especially delighted. A child might beam when given a new toy, for example. But if you simply replace smile with beam, you could end up with a something like this:
Mary greeted John with a tight-lipped beam. “You’re late, again.” She spoke in a fake, cheery voice to hide her anger from the kids.
Even if you take out tight-lipped it doesn’t make sense.
Grin is a wide happy smile, and is probably the closest synonym.
The most commonly used synonym is smirk. It is one of my most loathed words because it is used so often and so often wrong. A smirk is a nasty smile. There is an edge of meanness to a smirk. Synonyms of smirk include sneer and leer. A bully smirks when they know they have you trapped. Yet I have seen sentences like this:
Patrick lifted Lucia’s veil and smirked at her. Married life with her was going to be fun.
Ouch, I wouldn’t want to be Lucia.
Simper isn’t a word we use a lot these days, it is a weak, kind of manipulative smile. A debutante might simper at an eligible bachelor.
All this is not to say don’t use synonyms, but use them with the nuance of meanings clear in your mind.
Let’s take another word; look. Characters are always looking at things, under things, inside of things. We can’t use look all the time. So off to the thesaurus we go, and we hit the jackpot. There are a couple of dozen words we can use in place of look. Most people use three or four of them: glance, notice, stare, and occasionally peek.
As with the synonyms of smile, there are nuances a writer needs to pay attention to. A glance is a brief thing, a second and it’s done. So, if your hero is checking the street for wandering zombie ninjas, he’ll need more than a glance. He may want to inspect the street, or survey it.
You need more than a sparse handful of synonyms to add punch to your writing. Don’t be afraid to use the Thesaurus, but at the same time consider the shades of meaning in different words. Why write ‘He took a quick look.’ when ‘He glanced’ works as well. If your character stares into the depths of a pool, and she’s been doing a lot of staring lately, perhaps she contemplates the depths.
One of the things I find myself saying a lot is to trade in your adverbs for stronger verbs. When you are spitting out a first draft the adverbs are easy. She walked elegantly. He walked stiffly. So you end up using walk a hundred times or more in your story.
When you start the editing process, whether you go chapter by chapter or finish the draft and edit the book as a whole. Do a search for ly which will catch most of the adverbs in your story. For each adverb look at some synonyms for the verb it is modifying to find one that will send the same message without the adverb. She swept into the room. He clumped to the barn.
While I’m here in the land of synonyms and verbs, there are a couple of verbs you don’t want to mess with. Said and asked. As we covered in Boring Beats, modifying said and asked may lead to a condition known a Swiftisms. Named after Tom Swift who pranced across the pages many years ago. Tom is mostly remember now for the perhaps intentional humour of his modifiers.
“We must run!” Tom said swiftly. Google it, laugh, then deep six the modifiers you used to make said more interesting.
Now, resist the temptation to have your characters announce, state, scream, retort etc. This is one area where the Thesaurus is going to bite you. There are six pages of synonyms for say. Use them when you are in narrative summary or a character is talking about talking.
“…and so Jerry just announces he is taking charge, but Hank stated I would take over in his absence. Jerry screamed when I wouldn’t do what he ordered. ‘I’ll just call Hank,’ I retorted. That shut him up.”
There is no need to be afraid of the Thesaurus, with proper use and daily exercise it will strengthen your writing, filling it with subtlety and power.