How much violent action is too much?; Is someone waiting 'on line' or 'in line'?
Published: October 19, 2010
Q: I’m having trouble with a violent scene in my novel. I keep coming back to this question: How much action is too much?
A: Violent scenes need the same treatment as any other scene. You wouldn’t focus all your attention on your character’s action while she’s out jogging with a friend:
Holly put one foot in front of the other while her arms pumped at her side. She reached around to scratch an itch on her back. A tiny pebble trapped in her shoe dug into her big toe. A violent scene can also suffer with too much focus on action:
Fiona felt a hand on her shoulder, then a sharp pain in her legs as they were swiped out from under her. Her face was pressed to the concrete, a knee or an elbow jammed into her lower back, pinning her down. While something is happening to the physical body, the other facets of the human experience—emotions, fears, desires—are absent.
In Russell Banks’ novel The Sweet Hereafter, a school bus accident kills most of the town’s children. In the first chapter, Dolores, the school bus driver, documents the events of the morning of the accident. She describes all the stops she made and lingers on the “red-brown blur” that she swerved to miss, thinking it was an animal or a child:
For the rest of my life I will remember that red-brown blur, like a stain of dried blood, standing against the road with a thin screen of blown snow suspended between it and me, the full weight of the vehicle and the thirty-four children in it bearing down on me like a wall of water. And I will remember the formal clarity of my mind, beyond thinking or choosing now, for I had made my choice, as I wrenched the steering wheel to the right and slapped my foot against the brake pedal, and I wasn’t the driver anymore, so I hunched my shoulders and ducked my head, as if the bus were a huge wave about to break over me. There [were] . . . the children of my town—their wide-eyed faces and fragile bodies swirling and tumbling in a tangled mass as the bus went over and the sky tipped and veered away and the ground lurched brutally forward. The character’s state of mind is important in all scenes, including those that have intense action. In Nelson Algren’s The Man With the Golden Arm, Frankie Machine, a card dealer and a junkie, is running away from the police. A bullet hits him as he flees: “a brief, cold, painless flame, like the needle’s familiar touch, brushed his heel.” It’s not until later, when Frankie is on the El that he realizes he’s been shot:
But it was hard, with the breath hardly back in his lungs, to ease himself far. He counted three stations: they had just passed Franklin and Wells when the sweat in his socks began stinging and he looked down. You’ll need to address action, but don’t let it take over. In fiction, physical action gains emotional heft and meaning when filtered through your character’s experience of it.
He was on his way all right. With a sockful of blood.
Q: Is someone waiting “on line” or “in line”?
A: Grammatically speaking, people lined up—at the box office, the grocery check out, or the bank—are waiting in line. “In” is a preposition that, in this case, indicates inclusion. “On” has several meanings. The most relevant indicates contact with something and perhaps support: “Leslie is sitting on the chair.” These days, you’re only “on line” if you’re on the Internet, and even then, it’s spelled as one word (online) or, less frequently, hyphenated (on-line).
That being said, if you find yourself in a queue in New York City and the lady next to you is on her cell phone explaining where she is, you may very well hear her say she’s on line. She’s not talking about her cell phone’s Internet capabilities. She’s using a phrase that thousands of people from the Northeast of the United States use. This is a regionalism and it’s just one of many. Here are a few others: Carbonated beverages are often called “pop” in the Midwest and “soda” on the East Coast. You’ll hear “y’all” in the South and Midwesterners are known to say “you guys” in reference to more than one person, regardless of gender.
Stay true to your character, even if it means bending the rules of grammar.
Brandi Reissenweber teaches fiction writing and reading fiction at Gotham Writers' Workshop and authored the chapter on characterization in Gotham's Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide. Her work has been published in numerous journals, including Phoebe, North Dakota Quarterly and Rattapallax. She
was a James C. McCreight Fiction Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for
Creative Writing and has taught fiction at New York University,
University of Wisconsin and University of Chicago. Currently, she is a
visiting professor at Illinois Wesleyan University.
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