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The Editor’s Clinic: Take a Break

Lots of writing books, including Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, will tell you that you can use your paragraphing to emphasize key points.  Want something to stand out?  Put it in its own paragraph.

Picking which parts of your narrative you want to emphasize is trickier.  As a rule of thumb, it’s a good idea to highlight the moments when your scene takes a sudden turn – when your viewpoint character suddenly realizes something, or another character does something surprising, or the mood of the scene simply changes.  Just let less important moments develop within a single paragraph.

Today’s selection covers a variety of examples.  Two of the mood changes – when Kellyn first feels threatened by the milk guy and when she begins to sympathize with him – are buried mid-paragraph.  So is the moment of shock when she spots the sinister man staring at her.  The moment when the milk guy first starts dumping milk does begin a new paragraph, but the writer could emphasize it even more by giving the sentence its own paragraph.  Her decision to ignore the man in the suit is given its own, single-sentence paragraph, even though it’s a relatively minor development.

This confused emphasis makes it hard to track how Kellyn’s reactions build over the course of the scene.  Take the metaphor of the eighteen-wheeler, for instance.  It’s a good image, clear and powerful, but we don’t understand why she reacts to milk guy with such panic, then moments later is worrying about only finding change in her purse.  If you would like to keep the metaphor, we need some interior monologue to explain her reaction.

Instead, I’ve simply cut it, and adjusted the paragraphing so that her feelings about the milk guy follow a clearer arc, and the panic she feels when she first spots the stranger continues to build.

Because it’s hard to judge the pace of a passage that’s been marked up as much as this one, I’ve decided to include a clean, as-edited copy as well, so you can get a feel for the finished product.

 

The man at the dairy case was clearly insane, Kellyn decided. [1]  Scruffy, unshaven, tattered coat:, he looked homeless.   but He didn’t quite smell the part, though, reeking more of paint than filth. The guy picked up a gallon of milk, and muttered something to himself, and put the carton back, either commenting on it or talking about the carton or to it. Interesting. ,

[Paragraph added] [2] bBut that didn’t matter. She Kellyn needed to get a jug of skim for the week.   She sidled in and grabbed the nearest half gallon.  The man snatched up another carton and . He peered at the label. “Ah,” he said, “ah.”

[Paragraph added]  Then hHis fiery gaze fixed on her. “You.”   [3]

The world raced by like an eighteen wheeler past a pickup truck. A rush of air, vibrations in the metal frame. She steadied herself against the dairy case. Definitely crazy. Off his meds, no family to make certain he swallowed his pills. Or no family that stuck around after the last trip to the loony farm. Poor guy. [4]  Yeah, he could be high off drugs he’d dug from a trash can, but she knew high and this wasn’t it. More like off his meds.  Next he’d be begging her for spare change, she’d bet her measly paycheck on it, and she dug through her purse for a dollar. Found only change. Typical.

“This jug will outlast me!” The man shook it in her face as she laid a quarter on the dairy case frame. She blinked. “I’ll die before the milk goes bad!”

“Do you need help, sir?” She dug through her purse for a dollar, found only change.  Laid a couple of quarters on the dfiary case frame.  Maybe the store could work a deal with their pharmacy and buy his meds. Write it off as a charitable donation on their taxes. “Sir, is there something I can—”

He unscrewed the lid and poured the milk on the floor.

[Paragraph added]  It splashed on the tile, a milky mess puddling around her work boots. She jumped back, scrambling onto the dairy case frame, toward the infinite span of yogurt, the endless varieties of cheese. Maybe she’d skip the milk. Milk had calories. If she lost enough weight, maybe men wouldn’t recognize her. And maybe she ought to get the manager. This guy needed help, pronto. Like, last week.

“I won’t be outlived by a freakin’ gallon of milk!” He hurled the plastic bottle at a display case, narrowly missing a shopping cart. “It’s killing me. Do you hear me?” He snatched up a new bottle and punched the air once, twice, three times, before twisting off the lid and dumping the milk on the floor. [5] “It’s killing me, d Do you hear me? Do you hear me?”

The entire damned store probably heard him. A crowd had formed, whispers buzzing. No one stopped him. The guy kept opening and pouring out jug after jug of milk. Skim, two percent, full fat, buttermilk, chocolate, the whole works, the bottles and lids skidding across the floor in every direction.

[Paragraph added] Then she recognized tThat gleam in his eyes. He wasn’t crazy, he was having fun.she realized, [6]

[Paragraph added] She loweringed her feet into the puddle. He was having fun. She should get the manager and let him strangle the man, or at least have him tossed in jail for destruction of private property. She didn’t.  [7]

H[Paragraph removed] But hadn’t she imagined doing the same thing whenever she shopped:? rRip open bags, unscrew lids, squirt tubes of toothpaste on the floor in protest of life’s injustices? Wrong, yes, but oOh so satisfying. Oh so wrong.

She bBacked ing toward the cereal aisle, Kellyn watcheding the crowd, absorbing the unease rustling in the air. Phones recording, feet shuffling. Everyone was watching the man.

[Paragraph added] Everyone, that is, except one man who. He was staring at her.

He stood on the outskirts, without a cart or basket or single grocery item,.  His  wearing an expensive suit stood out and bowtie among the sea of jeans and t-shirts, a.  And he looked at her, unblinking, as if he’d stared at her before and she just didn’t remember.

[Paragraph added]  Heat rolled down her spine. Was this a john she’d screwed years ago? Some bastard who’d stumbled on kiddie porn of her? His gaze bore into her, as if he saw beneath the clothes to her flushed skin. Prick.

She ignored him.  [8]

The store manager was pushing his way through the crowd. Milk guy stopped, tossed the last bottle over his shoulder, wiped his hands on his splattered jeans, scooped her quarters off the case frame, and bowed to the red-faced manager, all in one fluid movement. When he rose, his eyes met hers. Holding up the quarters, he winked at her.

She winked back.  She couldn’t help herself.  [9]

It was a mistake.  Maybe Suit guy must have thought that wink was for him, because now he moved toward her. His path was blocked by a gawking shopper and her piled-high cart. [10] He was smiling, the kind of smile only a rich man can afford, the kind that screamed you need me and my money. Her eyes darted between him and where the milk-dumper was explaining himself to the manager. Grinning, Milk guy gestured toward the dairy case, the mess on the floor, the crowd, and then he spotted the man in the suit and his face hardened for a second as he looked at the man in the suit.

Milk guyman’s eyes turned to her. He gave a sharp nod. A signal? To her? To About the predator weaving through the crowd, relentlessly making his way to her?

[Paragraph added]  Kellyn slipped down the aisle and ducked into the express lane.

 

NOTES:

  1. You show her deciding this.  Keep the focus on him for the moment.
  2. The paragraph break works best when it comes at the moment she decided to ignore milk guy.  Her reaching for the half gallon, which follows from that decision, belongs in the same paragraph.
  3. This is the spot you want to emphasize, even with her reaction toned down.
  4. Her thoughts about what might be wrong with milk guy seems like a distraction.  Stay in the moment.  I did keep the trash can line, though, since it says something about Kellyn’s history.
  5. The rapid-fire actions give a sense that the scene is driving forward.  Don’t interrupt them.
  6. The moment when she realizes he’s having fun is when the tone of the scene changes.  It deserves its own paragraph.
  7. Here I don’t think we need a new paragraph, since her recognition that she’s thought about doing the same thing grows out of her realization that he’s having fun.  It is all the development of the same emotion.
  8. Here you’re setting off a mood change, but the change isn’t particularly significant.  She sees the guy, recognizes the menace, then decides to ignore him.  Better to let her keep her sense of menace rather than have her calm down, then rev up again when he starts walking toward her.
  9. If she’s still feeling the threat of suit guy, then you needed a bit of interior monologue to explain why she does something as light-hearted as wink at milk guy.
  10. The action is developing.  Don’t interrupt it.

 

CLEAN COPY

 

The man at the dairy case was clearly insane. Scruffy, unshaven, tattered coat, he looked homeless.  He didn’t quite smell the part, though, reeking more of paint than filth. The guy picked up a gallon of milk and muttered something, either talking about the carton or to it. Interesting.

But Kellyn needed to get a jug of skim for the week.   She sidled in and grabbed the nearest half gallon as the man snatched up another carton and peered at the label. “Ah,” he said, “ah.”

Then his fiery gaze fixed on her. “You.”

She steadied herself against the dairy case. Definitely crazy. Yeah, he could be high off drugs he’d dug from a trash can, but she knew high, and this wasn’t it. More like off his meds.

“This jug will outlast me!” The man shook it in her face.  “I’ll die before the milk goes bad!”

“Do you need help, sir?” She dug through her purse for a dollar, found only change.  Laid a couple of quarters on the diary case frame.  “Sir, is there something I can—”

He unscrewed the lid and poured the milk on the floor.

It splashed on the tile, a milky mess puddling around her work boots. She jumped back, scrambling onto the dairy case frame, toward the infinite span of yogurt, the endless varieties of cheese. Maybe she’d skip the milk. Milk had calories. If she lost enough weight, maybe men wouldn’t recognize her. And maybe she ought to get the manager. This guy needed help.

“I won’t be outlived by a freakin’ gallon of milk!” He hurled the plastic bottle at a display case, narrowly missing a shopping cart, snatched up a new bottle and punched the air once, twice, three times, before twisting off the lid and dumping the milk on the floor. “It’s killing me.  Do you hear me?”

The entire damned store probably heard him. A crowd had formed, whispers buzzing, but no one stopped him. The guy kept opening and pouring out jug after jug of milk. Skim, two percent, full fat, buttermilk, chocolate, the whole works, the bottles and lids skidding across the floor in every direction.

Then she recognized that gleam in his eyes. He wasn’t crazy.  He was having fun.

She lowered her feet into the puddle.  She should get the manager and let him strangle the man, or at least have him tossed in jail for destruction of private property.  But hadn’t she imagined doing the same thing whenever she shopped?  Rip open bags, unscrew lids, squirt tubes of toothpaste on the floor in protest of life’s injustices? Wrong, yes, but oh so satisfying.

She backed toward the cereal aisle, watching the crowd, absorbing the unease rustling in the air. Phones recording, feet shuffling. Everyone was watching the man.

Everyone, that is, except one man who was staring at her.

He stood on the outskirts, no cart or basket or single grocery item.  His expensive suit and bowtie stood out among the sea of jeans and t-shirts.  And he looked at her, unblinking, as if he’d stared at her before and she just didn’t remember.

Heat rolled down her spine. Was this a john she’d screwed years ago? Some bastard who’d stumbled on kiddie porn of her? His gaze bore into her, as if he saw beneath the clothes to her flushed skin.

The store manager was pushing his way through the crowd. Milk guy tossed the last bottle over his shoulder, wiped his hands on his splattered jeans, scooped her quarters off the case frame, and bowed to the red-faced manager, all in one fluid movement. When he rose, his eyes met hers. Holding up the quarters, he winked at her.

She winked back.  She couldn’t help herself.

It was a mistake.  Suit guy must have thought that wink was for him, because now he moved toward her. He was smiling, the kind of smile only a rich man can afford, the kind that screamed you need me and my money. Her eyes darted between him and where the milk-dumper was explaining himself to the manager. Grinning, milk guy gestured toward the dairy case, the mess on the floor, the crowd, and then he spotted the man in the suit and his face hardened.

Milk guy’s eyes turned to her. He gave a sharp nod. A signal? To her? About the predator weaving through the crowd, relentlessly making his way to her?

Kellyn slipped down the aisle and ducked into the express lane.

 

As I tell my clients, your mileage may vary.  So what would you have emphasized in this passage and why?

 

About Dave King

Dave King is the co-author of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, a best-seller among writing books. An independent editor since 1987, he is also a former contributing editor at Writer’s Digest. Many of his magazine pieces on the art of writing have been anthologized in The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing and in The Writer’s Digest Writing Clinic. You can check out several of his articles and get other writing tips on his website.


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About Mary Ellen Bellusci

Mary Ellen Bellusci is a longtime resident of Baltimore, Maryland... A foodie, traveler, writer, and pursuer of happiness.