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The Proof is in the Prose

I’m working on a lot of freelance editing client manuscripts these days and loving it. (Maybe working a little too hard, hence the blog neglect!) Every time I make a note that I think will be a good post, or that can apply to more than just the moment in question, I flag it for potential follow-up on the blog. I’ve now stockpiled so many that I have material for weeks. All I need to do is figure out the most engaging way to illuminate all of these craft issues that I’m feeling so passionate about for a wider audience. (Easier said than done, ha!)

Today, I want to talk about “blah” words as they pertain to your objectives and motivations. This is a topic I’m super intense about. I’m writing my annual article for the Children’s Writers’ and Illustrators’ Market about it, in fact. (Which reminds me, I should really get on that…) My theory is that it’s more difficult to engage with character if we, as readers, don’t know what they’re doing (in the small and large sense over the course of your story), or, very importantly, why. And if you’ve followed me for a while, you probably know what I mean by “blah” words. If you have no idea, check out this post. To summarize, they’re generic words that have shallow emotions attached to them because they can mean many different things to many different people.

I encountered a character recently who made plenty of statements about motivation. This is great. I was excited. Hearts popped out of my eyeballs, anime-style. But something was wrong. Instead of being specific about motivation/objective, the character resorted to “blah” words. What does this look like? Example time:

I’m seeking the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
He won’t stop until justice is served.
Her highest goal is peace.
If I could only get proof.

These are not from client work, or any work. They’re merely samples. Do you see a connecting thread, though? They all rely on “blah” words (truth, justice, peace, proof) that are connected with positive, wholesome emotions, but don’t really tell me much of anything about the character or the plot at hand.

A character will ideally have many small pieces of objective (what they want) and motivation (why) throughout a story. These elements exist from scene to scene and overall, for the entire arc. These “blah” words tend to work themselves into the larger objective/motivation that drives the character throughout the story.

You’ve long heard me say that generalization or the generic are the enemies in fiction. Specificity is where it’s at. Instead of having a character walk around talking about achieving justice or getting proof, break it down further so that it applies to the character where they are in the story and the plot as it’s progressing. For example:

If I could only get proof that Sadie stole the parade float, I’d feel so much more at peace. The Girl Scouts have been framed, I just know it. Nobody will listen to them, and that’s an injustice. And, worse, nobody seems to want to know the truth. Hmm, I wonder if the gas station across from the high school has any video footage from last night…

Here, we have tons of “blah” words (proof, peace, justice, truth), but they have taken on a concrete meaning in context. Not only do we get a sense that morality and “the right thing” are important to the character (this is likely applicable story-wide), but we get a sense of what’s going on now, what’s driving the character now, and what they plan to do in order to achieve their specific objective in this section of the story. The vague has become the specific, and now it applies directly to the events at hand. Establish and reinforce objectives/motivations through, on a scene-by-scene level, and for the larger arc of your manuscript. Don’t rely on some “blah” words and principles to stand in for specificity.

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  1. Christina C.’s avatar

    You’re so so right (of course :) ) because when I pick up a book, or even read the summary on the back, I want to know about what’s important to the character in terms of concrete things in her life. That’s what gets me hooked, gives me a sense of who she is, and what makes her story different from everyone else’s. I mean, justice to a mafia boy-wonder might mean taking out his rival hacker. But to the girl next door it might mean making sure her sister’s boyfriend knows he’s being cheated on. And that he’d do better with her than her sister. And that her sister finally realizes that her man-izing (I know, I made it up!) hurts people.

    Like what you said that motivation and objective changes, but must always be specific and concrete.

  2. Stephanie Scott’s avatar

    So what you are saying is, stop the political-speak. :)

    (I’m always annoyed by the politician mantra “cut spending!” and yet we don’t hear what spending will be cut.)

  3. Shelley’s avatar

    Yay! You’re back! I’m glad to hear things are going well and look forward to more posts. They are such great writing motivation! Speaking of specifics, I love how specific your tips are. No generalizing — things we can actually use.

  4. Jennifer at WriteKidsBooks’s avatar

    Helpful post; thanks! So you’re saying that, like cliches, we should avoid blah words “like the plague.” :-D
    When I first started writing freelance, I was given a hint by a veteran writer about talking to interview subjects – don’t let them be general (or “blah,” to use your word). Don’t let them say they “volunteer for the good of the community” … ask for specifics, and you’ll get great, concrete stuff, like the fact that they dish out soup and cookies to homeless druggies in a synagogue basement once a week.

  5. laure l thomas’s avatar

    sounds like marketing speak and feature film trailers. They never specify and more often then not the movie leaves much to be desired.

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