The Editors’ Choices are chosen from the submissions from the previous month that show the most potential or otherwise earn the admiration of our Resident Editors. Submissions in four categories — science fiction chapters, fantasy chapters, horror, and short stories — receive a detailed review, meant to be educational for others as well as the author. This month’s reviews are written by Resident Editors Leah Bobet, Jeanne Cavelos, and Judith Tarr. The last four months of Editors’ Choices and their editorial reviews are archived on the workshop.
I love the setting and the concept of this submission. It’s an unsual cultural choice, to reproduce ancient Mesopotamia in a science-fictional context, and I am there for it.
What I want to talk about for this Editor’s Choice is an aspect of craft that has been pinging my radar for a while. Sometimes I call it “stage business.” Sometimes I refer to it as “framing.” It’s the things characters do in and around their conversations, and the things they do in general: their body language, their tone and expressions, how and when they move within a scene.
Many writers draft dialogue without framing. The lines of conversation float in space. Likewise, when characters move within the narrative, they do it without context. They walk, they look, they talk, but we don’t get the sense of how they do it. What vibe they’re sending off. How they’re feeling about it all.
Other writers go in the other direction. In place of one action or tone or expression, we get two or three or more. We see every stage of a movement. Transitions happen in layers, one action following another into or out of the scene.
This level of detail can be very effective in small doses. Sometimes we do need to see exactly what happens. But when it’s the rule rather than the exception, it can slow the story down. There’s too much detail; too many things happening.
This paragraph for example:
She closed her eyes and frowned as if struggling to remember what she should do next. For a moment, she stood motionless. Then she was running down one particular row of shelves out of many. She turned right, proceeding another dozen paces. Closing her eyes, she furrowed her brow a second time.
This paragraph reads like stage directions, like a list of actions in a script. Prose narrative can leave more to the reader’s imagination; can imply rather than state everything she does in the order in which she does it. The prose writer can choose from the array of possibilities, and focus on the handful of details that are essential in that moment.
What do we absolutely need to know here? What two or three details are essential for our understanding of what’s going on? Do we need two frowns? Do her eyes need to close twice? Does she need to run down two sets of rows? Can we get the sense of both her purpose and her confusion in half the number of actions, and half the number of sentences?
Here too, there’s a lot going on:
His right hand rested against his forehead. He stared at the floor, shaking his head as he spoke.
Is it essential that we know which hand he is resting against his forehead? Does he need to stare, shake his head, and speak, or is there a way to combine these three actions into one single, definitive gesture?
The challenge I would set would be to go through the ms. and choose one action in each set of two or more. When there are two iterations of an action close together, pick the one that most clearly defines the moment. Then see if the narative needs any of the others.
In some cases, the actions themselves might be a little more clearly defined. When the draft talks about a worried look or an irritated expression or a fearful expression, what does it actually look like? What is the character’s face or body doing? How do they show their emotions? It may be a visual, it may be auditory—a tone of voice, for example, or the click of a tongue, or a wordless sound.
It’s all about balance. Balancing actions and words, defining expression and tone. Choosing the exact right detail, the right word or phrase. Making the story as strong and clear as it can be.
— Judith Tarr