Kathleen Nance


Margin Notes

What are margin notes? They're brief reminders you or your critique partners might scrawl in the manuscript margins. They're quick memory cues to bits of advice culled from classes, books, lectures, or your own experience which summarize a technique of telling a story.

On this page, I'll be sharing some I've learned, and I hope that other authors will e-mail me and share theirs for list.

Margin Note #1: Characters never meet to pass the time of day.
Margin Note #2: RUE
Margin Note #3: Story Structure
Margin Note #4: POV

Margin Note #1 - Characters never meet to pass the time of day

I learned this in my first writing class from Martha Corson, who wrote as Anne Lacey and was a student of Dwight Swain and Jack Bickham. She said she was critiquing a student's work and when she asked what the purpose of the scene was, the writer answered, "Oh, they're just passing the time of day." Her reply was the statement above: characters never meet just to pass the time of day.

When I write a scene, I use this as a succinct reminder that _something has to happen_. The scene should have purpose and movement, whether it's action, events, dilemmas, choices, or decisions. I ask myself, what's going on and what am I trying to accomplish?

I also use it when I look at dialogue and see I've written something like:

"How you doing?"

"Fine, fine. And you?"

"Passing fair. Been feeling the lumbago in my bones.

Means we're going to have rain."

"Sure could use some. It's dry as toast out there."

"Say, did you know that Jed Clampett's back in town. Seen him myself."

Unless I'm using this for character development or sharing something important to know about lumbago, the drought, or Jed, these characters are passing the time of day.

Margin Note #2 RUE -- Resist the Urge to Explain.

A handy little mnemonic from Renni Browne and David King’s great book: Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. They discuss it in the chapter on dialogue as a reminder to make your dialogue strong enough to stand alone without adding repetitious descriptions of how the speaker felt or how the dialogue was said. My critique partners and I are forever penciling RUE in the margins of our drafts in places beyond dialogue, however, as a short-hand version of that other piece of writer advice: Show Don’t Tell. Your prose, your dialogue, your characters’ inner turmoil should stand clear on the page - resist the urge to explain what you meant.

RUE is a reminder to examine whether I’m approaching the scene as a participant or an observer. To ask, am I writing the line as explanation or as feeling? It tells me to look at those wordy passages in my drafts - the ones with the prepositional phrases and the adverbs and the descriptive clauses. Inevitably I find I can cut redundant explanations or choose words of greater precision and passion. Yes, it’s more work, but it makes for a better book. RUE. Explain what’s necessary, but resist the urge to take the easier path of describing how your character feels instead of dramatizing it for the reader.

Margin Note #3 -- Story Structure

This is another one from Martha Corson, instructor for one of my first writing classes. It's how she describes the basic structure of a book: Objective, obstacles, outcome. The key is the center is the biggest. Once your story has opened and the characters' objectives are established, start throwing obstacles in their way and keep making the conflicts larger and more difficult. Once the obstacles are over, wrap things up (the outcome) and type The End.

Margin Note #4 -- POV

POV = Point of View. In its simplest definition it asks: Who’s head are you in? Through whose eyes is the reader experiencing the story?

POV in the margin can mean different things. A critique partner may scrawl POV next to a line when you’ve slipped in something the viewpoint character had no way of knowing. If you’re in Charlie’s head and write, “Charlie didn’t realize it, but his life was about to change, as soon as he opened the wrapper of that chocolate bar,” then you’ve slipped out of viewpoint. Or, for a more subtle example, if Charlie sees a new woman at the bar, then decides to go over and meet Grace, he has to have learned her name from someone before he can think it. Otherwise he’ll think about going over to meet that hot blonde.

Another margin note use of POV is when you have switched from the viewpoint of one character to another. Writers differ on their opinion of POV changes. Some refuse to change POV within a given scene. Others hop all over the place. In both camps are writers who use the techniques brilliantly and other writers who are less effective. Personally, I will use whichever method best tells the story and dramatizes the scene. However, before I make random switches, I ask myself if I can effectively get the information across without switching, and I try to make it clear that I’ve made the switch. Abrupt and frequent changes can be confusing or jarring for the reader.

There’s another nuance to the term POV however, and that involves immersing yourself in what’s been termed deep POV. This is a little harder to describe (and a lot harder to do). It means that when you are writing in a character’s viewpoint everything comes from that character: word choice, what he notices in the scene (and what he ignores), thought patterns, opinions. It means not using big words if your character is simple minded or avoiding slang if your character is a stickler English language teacher. It means using jargon and similes and metaphors that have meaning to your character. It means, if you are in the viewpoint of your villain, he’s not thinking about how evil he is, but rather how much fun it is to hear people scream. It means not have a character mull over things he takes for granted, even if that information is something the reader needs to know. Find another way to get it in. I heard a panel discussion on POV once, and one of the writers mentioned that she uses pronouns more often rather than the character’s name when she was in that character’s viewpoint because we don’t tend to think of ourselves by our own name. In deep POV, your reader will share, in intimate detail, the same experiences as your character.

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