Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Self-Editing Checklist: Externals

In my limited experience as a contest judge, I'd say there's one common mistake among all beginner writers:

Too much internalization.

Thinking and walking. Thinking and driving. Thinking and eating. And somewhere along the way, *bam* there's another character who talks! Then it's back to thinking and walking. Thinking and driving, etc., etc., etc.

In order to create a compelling story, we can't ignore the externals. What do I mean by externals? I'm glad you asked. :-)

By externals, I'm talking about physical actions, body language, and the five senses. Internalization and dialogue aren't enough. Establishing the setting isn't enough (more on how to do that in a future post). A perfect blend of these elements along with externals creates a can't-put-it-down kind of book.

So let's get to the meat, shall we? Here are some things to check for:

1) Do you have a good balance of physical movement in your scenes? Is your character sitting in one paragraph, then all the sudden she's standing next to the window in the next? How did she get there? Act it out if you have to.

I'm not saying you should outline every single physical action. Too much non-crucial stuff keeps the story from moving forward. But the goal is to combine action with emotion. For example, instead of just having your character walk, you could say, "She paced from the couch to the fireplace and back again, her feet gaining bounce with each step." Now we can see firsthand she's excited about something.

2) Do you show a character's reactions and emotions through appropriate body language? Casey did a fabulous post about body language a couple months ago. It's a must-read. The key is making sure you vary the physical reactions, making them unique to each character and to the situation.

3) Do you use all five senses effectively? Are they appropriate to the scene and the character? Do you fuse them with emotion to enhance the story? Here's an example:

"The dingy walls crept closer, and the basement's musty smell pressed deep into the crevices of her being. How could she follow through on his offer when she wanted nothing to do with him?"

This character is struggling with a choice, and the setting and smells of the basement mirror her feelings of being trapped. So using the five senses is more than just having smell, taste, sound. It's about using them to enhance the scene and make the reader feel as if they're living the scene with the character.

Resources: In my mind, there's one primary resource when it comes to writing externals. I'm a huge fan of Margie Lawson's classes. If you haven't checked out her lecture packets, what are you waiting for? :-)

Your homework, should you choose to accept it: Analyze your scenes and act out the physical action if you need to. Study the body language and senses, making sure you have a variety that is unique to the scene and the characters.

So tell me, have I missed any "externals"? Are there any tricks you use to make sure your manuscript has the right blend of movement?

*This post is part of the Self-Editing Checklist series. For the rest of the series, click here.

**Edit photo by ningmilo /
***Jumping photo by photostock /


Miss Good on Paper said...

Great homework assignment! I might pass this on to my students, too. I talk a lot about the importance of the senses and using sensory detail. The body language is so important, too. That's one way to learn about real people; why wouldn't we learn about characters in the same way? Thanks for this post!

-Miss GOP

Silent Pages said...

Great post! I think this is definitely one area where I struggle, in my rough drafts at least. Lots of internalization, and what physical movements there are tend to all be the same.

Stacy Henrie said...

Awesome post! I tend to pay more attention to the sensory stuff when I'm revising. The acting out stuff is a great idea (and makes for some good laughs during critique group). :)

Sarah Forgrave said...

Miss Good on Paper - I like to think my writing habit gives me an excuse to feed my people-watching habit. :) Thanks for stopping by!

Silent Pages - I hear you. I hope no one ever has to suffer through one of my rough drafts. I get stuck on the same movements, too. :)

Stacy - I add a lot of sensory details in my edits, too. In fact, sometimes in my draft, I'll put brackets and say [Add senses later] in a spot where I know there's a way to enhance it...I just don't want to take the brain power to do it and break my draft flow. :)

Jeanne Takenaka said...

Sarah, what a great and practical post. I think I tend to internalize, too. :) I know I need work on using the setting to display/show emotions. What you shared today is very helpful.

It's a relief to know it doesn't have to be "all there" in my rough draft. That takes some pressure off. :) Thank you!

Sarah Forgrave said...

So glad to take the pressure off, Jeanne! :) When you're writing your draft, just let it flow and enjoy. :)

Pepper said...

Thanks for this reminder, Sarah.
I find that I use too many beats most of the time and it can get overwhelming.

REading it outloud (or acting it out) sometimes helps me.
I'm much better at picking those things up during edits - but boy do I have a lot to learn.
Margie Lawson's classes are awesome!

Sarah Forgrave said...

Pepper, Good point about reading it out loud. I'm always amazed at what I catch, even though I've read it in my head 50 times before. :)

Angie Dicken said...

I have found that when I start seeing too much internalization during edits, I usually can figure out a way to show it through character interaction or a simple gesture of the character.
As far as sensory details...I sometimes overload my wip with them! I love description to a fault. :)

Sarah Forgrave said...

Angie, Good point about switching internalization to "showing"!

Lauren F. Boyd said...

Great post! Thank you!

I'm following your blog and will be back again soon! Thanks! :)

Unknown said...

This is really helpfull .It is great to see that there are reliable post .i want you to post something related with Essay Editing Checklist