Make Frog Noises
by Patricia Grady Cox
You will be reading this on New Year’s Eve, and I’ll be on my way to the Boot Drop on Whiskey Row in Prescott. It’s a night for looking back and looking forward. This year, instead of basking in what I accomplished in 2014, I am reviewing some of the writing advice I received during nine semesters in a class taught at Phoenix College by Mr. James Sallis. I need to do this because my resolution is to write better scenes in 2015.
Here are just three of Jim’s statements, which I plan to apply to my fiction writing, and my explanation of what they mean to me. By reviewing them, I hope to have them fresh in my mind when I get back to my current novel draft.
Inhabit each character
You have a point-of-view character, so you must convey to the reader only what that character sees and feels and experiences within the scene. And you must convey everything! This takes deep visualization of the scene. The more clearly you can see it in your mind, the better it will work on paper. Say the dialogue out loud. What are the reactions of the imaginary person you’re speaking to? Go even deeper. Imagine that you ARE that character. How would she react to a situation? What would she do next? Are her feelings hurt? Is she angry? Happy? BE that character. Feel what that character feels. Only when you are experiencing it completely, write it.
Leave room for the reader
Writing is a collaboration between the writer and the reader. Don’t spoon feed the information. Let a character live an experience and then do not explain it. Realize that if you’ve done a good job of establishing the character and creating an experience (not describing it), the reader will get it. This is the classic “show, don’t tell” advice, but many of us show and then tell anyway. Example: Mary got up abruptly and left, slamming the door behind her. This is showing – great! But then we add: She was very angry. Don’t do that.
Make frog noises
This is my favorite advice ever. It summarizes the first two and is all you need to know about developing a scene, recreating an experience, invoking an emotional response, and grounding the reader in the reality you’ve chosen to create. It means don’t forget the surroundings, the background, the little details that can be zeroed in on to make everything real. It means that the interesting stuff sometimes happens on the edges.
Here is an example in which I tried to incorporate all three of the suggestions.
In this example, imagine Mary and John are sitting in their rocking chairs on the front porch of their country home. They are discussing a serious topic. Mary is the point-of-view character.
No frog noises:
John suddenly asked, “Well then, what do you think we should do?”
Mary thought about an answer. She thought for a long time but nothing came to her. The silence stretched between them. “I don’t know,” she said. “And I don’t want to think or talk about it anymore.” (49 words)
With frog noises:
(We already know they are having a conversation and it’s John’s turn to speak; therefore, we don’t need the tag “John asked”)
“Well then, what do you think we should do?”
Moth shadows fluttered below the porch light, dancing on the plain muslin of Mary’s apron. Beyond the pool of yellow light, crickets chirped. They fell silent when a horse whinnied from the corral, then started up again. Mary slowed her rocking until her chair was still. Then she got up and went into the darkened house, letting the screen door bang shut. (71 words)
So we added 22 words, but now, besides being aware that the scene is taking place at night, the muslin apron is a detail that tells us a lot: she’s not so young and she probably works hard. Then the reader experiences the long silence between Mary and John, because fluttering moths, chirping crickets, and horse whinnies are filling it. Maybe the fluttering shadows on her apron mirror the chaos of her thoughts. Maybe the noises reflect the various answers crowding her mind. Did you feel that rocker slowing down? Did you hear the screen door slam (inhabiting the character)? We know Mary has no answers because she doesn’t offer one; instead, she ends the conversation by going inside and letting the door slam behind her (leaving room for the reader). And all the little details that surround the two characters make the scene real (frog noises).
I’m going to look at each scene I write. That’s my resolution. If it needs to be in the story, then it needs to do something and mean something. It deserves the time it takes to flesh it out. Otherwise, I’ll delete it.
Happy New Year!
Patricia Grady Cox is a member of Western Writers of America and Women Writing the West. Her nonfiction work has appeared in magazines, newspapers, and ghost-written memoirs. Patricia has volunteered at the Pioneer Arizona Living History Museum where she experienced, first-hand, the realities of life in the 1800s. Her love of the Southwest – the landscape, the history, the culture – infuses her work with authenticity. Originally from Rhode Island, she moved to Arizona 24 years ago and currently lives in Phoenix. Her debut novel, Chasm Creek, is currently available on Amazon or visit her website. Patricia blogs monthly at Patricia Grady Cox, Writer.