Before and After; or, Editing an Action Sequence

(This posting originally appeared on The Melt-Ink Pot)

As promised a couple of weeks ago, this week I’d like to present a before-and-after comparison of a first draft vs. a second draft of an action scene from last year’s NaNoWriMo novel, The Daughters of August Winterbourne.

To set the scene, in an alternate Victorian universe, Celia Winterbourne is at the Royal Academy of Science, studying to become an airship designer like her father. One night, she’s working late in the Aeronautics laboratory, accompanied by a chaperone. But when her chaperone steps out of the room for a moment, a pair of black-clad figures enter the lab and try to abduct Celia. One sneaks up behind her and puts a chloroform-soaked cloth over her mouth and nose, while the other stands waiting. Celia, of course, struggles to break free, but to no avail…

First Draft:

The arms around Celia tightened still further. It was already hard for her to breathe, and growing difficult for her to think, but she continued to struggle anyway. Or at least, she did until the figure facing her reached into his coat, drew out a gun, and pointed it at her.

Defeated, Celia went limp in her captor’s arms. The sudden shift caused him to lose his grip on her momentarily, and the cloth slid away from her face for a few precious moments. She gulped a breath of air and screamed, “Help!”

“Shut up!” growled the man with the gun, advancing toward her.

Celia just screamed again.

The gun’s report was deafening in the enclosed room. Celia felt something punch her in the upper arm, and she looked to see a hole in the fabric of the sleeve of her shirtwaist … one whose edges were rapidly becoming stained with crimson. Her entire arm throbbed with sudden pain. She drew a breath to cry out, but the cloth was once again over her mouth and nose, and the room was beginning to spin around most alarmingly. She tried to struggle again anyway, but every move sent pain shooting through her arm, and she was suddenly more tired than she could ever remember being in her entire life.

Meanwhile, the man with the gun had continued to advance toward her, and now he was close enough to rest the still-warm barrel of the revolver against her forehead. “Hold still,” he rasped.

Celia gulped and complied. It wasn’t easy to do, given the way the room was whirling and the fact that her knees suddenly displayed little interest in holding her upright, but she did her best.

And then nothing mattered anymore, because she was falling into a nameless black void and there was nothing she could do to stop it…

Now, as written, it’s not terrible. The action is clearly described, and we have something of a sense as to how our heroine feels about the situation. But the sentences are long and a bit wordy in places, and I just think it can be better. So let’s take a red pencil to it and see what changes we might like to make:

Before: The arms around Celia tightened still further. It was already hard for her to breathe, and growing difficult for her to think, but she continued to struggle anyway. Or at least, she did until the figure facing her reached into his coat, drew out a gun, and pointed it at her.

After: The arms around Celia tightened still further. Her breath came in hard-won gasps. Her thoughts were mired in treacle. Why couldn’t she think what to do? She continued to struggle anyway…until the figure facing her drew a gun and pointed it at her.

The first thing I wanted to do was to break up that long, compound second sentence. She’s in a potentially life-or-death struggle here. Do we, the readers, really want a long, wordy sentence here? Probably not. So I broke it up into bits. Next, the bits were good enough, but not as immediate, as visceral as I wanted them to be. Which gets the point across better: “It was hard for her to breathe”, or “Her breath came in hard-won gasps”? The second one leaves you feeling a bit more of Celia’s breathlessness, doesn’t it? And saying it was difficult for her to think isn’t nearly as good as telling us her thoughts were mired in treacle. And the last sentence—also a bit long and sedate for the struggle at hand, isn’t it? Do we need to know where the gun came from? Isn’t it enough that he has it? Finally, slowing the last sentence down with an ellipsis changes the pacing of it, makes the action seem to pause for an instant – much as Celia would have done on seeing that gun.

Here’s another one:

Before: The gun’s report was deafening in the enclosed room. Celia felt something punch her in the upper arm, and she looked to see a hole in the fabric of the sleeve of her shirtwaist … one whose edges were rapidly becoming stained with crimson. Her entire arm throbbed with sudden pain. She drew a breath to cry out, but the cloth was once again over her mouth and nose, and the room was beginning to spin around most alarmingly. She tried to struggle again anyway, but every move sent pain shooting through her arm, and she was suddenly more tired than she could ever remember being in her entire life.

After: The gun’s report left Celia’s ears ringing. She felt something punch her in the upper arm. She looked to see a hole in the sleeve of her shirtwaist…and a spreading crimson stain. Her arm throbbed with intense pain. She drew a breath to cry out, but the cloth once again covered her mouth and nose. The room began to spin alarmingly. She tried to struggle, but every move sent pain shooting through her arm. Leaden weight stole into her limbs. She had to fight to keep her eyelids open, her body upright.

“Ringing ears” are definitely more descriptive than “a deafening report”. And again with the long complex sentences. Breaking them up helps. Next, let’s talk about that arm. We don’t need to know that it’s her entire arm; I can just say “arm,” and without further specification you’ll know that it’s the whole thing. And “sudden”? I think the “throb” tells us that it’s sudden, so I chose to say that it was “intense” instead. I may decide to go back later and take that out, though. I’m not convinced that it’s needed. The last sentence again rambles; breaking it up gives it more of a sense of immediacy. And doesn’t telling you that “leaden weight” is stealing into her limbs make you feel her utter weariness more than telling you she’s “more tired than she’s ever felt in her life”?

One more:

B: Celia gulped and complied. It wasn’t easy to do, given the way the room was whirling and the fact that her knees suddenly displayed little interest in holding her upright, but she did her best.

A: Celia gulped and complied. It wasn’t easy to do. The room was whirling and her knees seemed to have little interest in holding her up.

Again, breaking up the long sentence into smaller pieces brings more immediacy. Also, stripping out excess verbiage (who, me?) makes the beats sharper, more intense.

So here’s the passage after all of my re-writes:

The arms around Celia tightened still further. Her breath came in hard-won gasps. Her thoughts were mired in treacle. Why couldn’t she think what to do? She continued to struggle anyway…until the figure facing her drew a gun and pointed it at her.

Defeated, Celia went limp in her captor’s arms. The sudden shift caused him to lose his grip on her. The cloth slid away from her face for a few precious moments. She gulped a breath and screamed, “Help!”

“Shut up!” growled the man with the gun. He advanced toward her.

Celia couldn’t help it. She screamed again.

The gun’s report left Celia’s ears ringing. She felt something punch her in the upper arm. She looked to see a hole in the sleeve of her shirtwaist…and a spreading crimson stain. Her arm throbbed with intense pain. She drew a breath to cry out, but the cloth once again covered her mouth and nose.

The room began to spin alarmingly. She tried to struggle, but every move sent pain shooting through her arm. Leaden weight stole into her limbs. She had to fight to keep her eyelids open, her body upright.

The man with the gun continued to advance toward her. He rested the still-warm barrel of the revolver against her forehead. “Hold still,” he rasped.

Celia gulped and complied. It wasn’t easy to do. The room was whirling and her knees seemed to have little interest in holding her up.

And then nothing mattered anymore, because she was falling into a nameless black void and there was nothing she could do to stop it….

And the best part? The rewrite is 54 words shorter. Every little bit helps!

What are some rewriting challenges other people have faced? How do you approach rewrites?

Advertisements

About sheilamcclune

Aspiring author, sharing the tidbits I've learned along the way.
This entry was posted in Writing and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s