Tami Lewis Brown lives in one of the oldest houses in Washington, DC. It is (mostly) ghost-free. She escaped from a career as a trial lawyer to obtain an MFA in Writing For Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. And she’s the author of the forthcoming RADIANT MAN along with SOAR, ELINOR! and THE MAP OF ME, all published by Farrar Straus and Giroux Books for Young Reader.

This is like the one strange fruit ads that promise to flatten your stomach- but this writing tip really works.

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You’ve heard about it before here in the Tollbooth– but after reading a beginner manuscript earlier this week I figure it’s time for a quick refresher.

Our out of shape writing problem for today is a narrative that jumps erratically from one position in a scene to another. To illustrate, follow me through a hypothetical opening paragraph-

Sentence one-

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The mountain peaks were frosted with a blanket of deadly snow.

Sentence two-

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Nervously, Cindy dug for the keys at the bottom of her handbag…

Sentence three

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as Madonna’s Sorry pulsed through her ear buds.

Sentence four

Cindy was sorry, all right.

For the cold. 37864418.thb

For the keys. 26278644.thm

For the stupid music on her Ipod. imgres

But most of all for how late she’d be picking up the kids from daycare. 34674732.thm

What’s wrong with that? It’s an active opening paragraph. It introduces a problem. There’s at least a mild sense of suspense. But it doesn’t work.

The reason (one of them, anyway) is psychic distance, a concept explored by John Gardner in The Art of Fiction and explained in beautifully clear detail by Robert Olen Butler in From Where You Dream.

The hypothetical paragraph reads like a stream of consciousness rather than a purposefully directed narrative, shifting from far away hills, to the curb outside a car, to the inside of a purse, to music pounding inside the character’s head, even off to an unseen daycare center. True, it could be worse. At least all these images are tethered to our main character. But this paragraph doesn’t assign the reader a “place to stand and observe,” bopping him all over the landscape, without any good reason. It’s the first paragraph of the novel and the reader is left more confused (and thus bored) than intrigued.

So here’s the one simple trick. With a little practice it will feel natural.

When you’re constructing a scene think of yourself as a cameraman, trollying a movie camera in and out. Sure there will be closeups. Of course the film can cut from next to the main character to a far away shot. But you must have a reason to move the camera’s angle.Veering off to focus on those snow-packed hills pulls the reader’s attention from the immediate point of the scene. Don’t do it unless the pay off is justified.

Stick with Cindy by her car. Let her fumble for keys and worry. Show her shivering. Make her hands tremble. Give the reader a place to stand and observe. Then move on.

Want to learn more? Read Tollboother Sarah Aronson’s article Think Like a Director in the VCFA literary magazine Hunger Mountain. She explains this and more way better than I can.

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But first grab another piece of fruit, pick up your pen and try this one weird trick to watch your fiction bloom!

~tami lewis brown