Toing and Froing

We’re going to build on elements from Using One-Line Summaries to Write Better Stories and Flashback as Story Frame to deal with another story challenge that often leads editors and publishers to stop reading and reject a story: Toing and Froing (To-ing and Fro-ing), something I first wrote about in Quit Stage Directing.

Simply put, Toing and Froing occurs when the writer/author has their characters move around or do things for no real story purpose; there’s no character development, no character revelation, the atmosphere doesn’t change, no plot elements are furthered or revealed, the movement is irrelevant to any established or impending plot points, the movement is unnecessary to the dialogue, et cetera.

The end result is weak writing, exposition, narration, and lots of uninteresting things happening just to fill the page. Most writers/authors fall down on “movement is unnecessary to the dialogue.” They’ll have two or more characters talking and feel the characters should be doing something while they talk.

The desire to have characters do something while talking is good, the execution is usually poor, and now we’re dealing with attribution via action which I’ll cover in another post.

Eating my own dogfood
I’m currently editing Cicatrix, a work-in-progress last picked up and put down in late Feb 2019.

What follows is the ninth scene in the story. I’ll share the scene’s original form first with brightly colored “Problems” buttons after each weak paragraph. Click on the “Problems” buttons for examples of that paragraph’s problems. Next I’ll share share a rewrite with brightly colored “Solutions” buttons. Click on the “Solutions” buttons for explanations of why the rewrite is better.

PS) this is more for my edification than yours. Feel free to disagree. Please make sure you explain your disagreement and offer suggestions for improvement. Always happy to learn, me.

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  • This might be a reasonable opening in literary fiction but not in genre fiction. There’s no real action, no tension, no real hint of conflict. It sets the scene but takes too long to do so and slows the reader down for no real reason. You want your reader to move forward into the story, not nod off reading a setting description which provides little momentum to your story.
  • Several sentences are clause heavy for no reason. Example: A breeze, heavy with salt and damp from the southern Maine coast, frilled the curtains, making them dance on their rods.
    Most readers pause for each comma, meaning just as you want them accelerating into the scene you force them to repeatedly hit their brakes. Clause heavy writing often occurs when the author isn’t sure of what’s happening, what’s suppose to happen, or what they want to have happen. Think through your story (if not your scene) before writing. I know Pantzers are holding up crosses reading that, and even die-hard Pantzers do a little plotting. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t have a story. They may do it in the rough draft, in the rewrite, in the final edit, and they do do it.
  • There’s repeated mixed tense (a particular insidious problem, this). Verbs must be matched to their subject, and the first matched verb determines the tense of the similarly matched verbs in the sentence. Example: A breeze, heavy with salt and damp from the southern Maine coast, frilled the curtains, making them dance on their rods.
    Here’s what happens when a sentence is clause heavy. Remove the clause and you have A breeze frilled the curtains, making them dance on their rods. If this sounds strained to you, good! Consider A breeze frilled the curtains and made them dance on their rods. The clause is replaced with a conjunction, the mismatched verb is matched.
  • The Toing and Froing comes in because the reader’s taken on a tour for no reason. The author’s basically saying “Look here. Okay, now look there. Okay, now look over this way again. Now that way.” There’s nothing offered which is crucial to the plot

Everything in a story should have a throughline. The entire novel, the story, the chapter, the scene, the paragraph, the sentence. The throughline is the story’s logic, meaning A must happen before B before C before… and so on.
The reader has no idea why Maschaak raises his head, why he huffs, the significance of the Dodge Dart, why Paul and his dog are lucky, or who’s half an hour late until the next paragraph. In other words, B, C, D, E, and F occur before A.
Note that a story’s throughline isn’t the same as the story’s timeline. The timeline can jump all over the place. Another work-in-progress, The Inheritors, jumps all over the place timewise, and it was work to make sure the throughline remained stable.

Slamming the car door and Liz’s outburst are not precedented. At best they turn her into pure stereotype, at worst pure caricature. They may define her but the reader has nothing else to compare these to at present, and any character who’s more than stage directing needs some depth.
It may be the case that the Liz character is monodimensional, except we’ve given her a name and significant screen time, therefore she must expand into some kind of recognizable personhood.

This is where the scene really starts. The character is described, her attitude towards Paul is defined, and conflict is set up. Everything up to this point either goes after this is established or can be removed; it’s Toing and Froing to get the reader here and isn’t necessary (at least in the order presented).

The Liz character is introduced, defined, the conflict and the scene’s atmosphere are set in the opening paragraph.