May 28, 2011

Word repetition can either work for or against a writer.  Seeing a name, noun, or verb (especially a passive word like “was”) can suck the life out of otherwise compelling prose.  So under what circumstances, does repetition enhance a story?  Consider the following passage from Richard Wright’s Native Son:

“He lay on the cold floor sobbing; but really he was standing up strongly with contrite heart, holding his life in his hands, staring at it with a wondering question. He lay on the cold floor sobbing; but really he was pushing forward with his puny strength against a world too big and too strong for him. He lay on the cold floor sobbing; but really he was groping forward with fierce zeal into a welter of circumstances which he felt contained a water of mercy for the thirst of his heart and brain.”

Here Wright is essentially punctuating the complex feelings of Bigger through repetition of his physical state.  The rhythm of the words is in perfect harmony with the dire situation in which Bigger has found himself.   

Repetition can also be used to give voice to a character. Throughout Native Son, Bigger has to make some difficult and important decisions.  In these moments Wright often starts out Bigger’s internal thoughts with either “And yes” or “And no.”  It works because Wright uses the device consistently and the reader believes that this is how Bigger reasons through problems.  In essence, the repetition is consistent Bigger’s voice and enhances the characterization of the narrator’s personality.

Digging Deeper

May 14, 2011

It is not enough to say your character is uncomfortable, or that he or she fiddled with her necklace while waiting to be called into a job interview, or that their insides felt this or that way. A writer needs to dig deeper. Take, for instance, this scene from Richard Wright’s Native Son:

He wanted to wave his hand and blot out the white man who was making him feel this. If not that, he wanted to blot himself out. He had not raised his eyes to the level of Mr. Dalton’s face once since he’d been in the house. He stood with his knees bent, his lips partly open, his shoulders stooped; and his eyes held a look that only went to the surface of things.

Notice how Wright uses a mixture of internal thought and physicality to convey the character’s (Bigger’s) discomfort. Wright shows us Bigger’s attitude, rather than telling the reader straight out. If you are struggling to reveal a character’s emotion, look around the setting and see if you can find an object or person to use. Then dig deep and overwrite. Find at least three sentences. Then take a break and review what you’ve created. You may not end up using it all, but chances are by digging deeper, you’ve found a fresh way to portray your characters emotions.

I struggle with trying to capture melancholy in words. What emotion(s) do you find hardest to capture?