Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Busted!—Diane Setterfield Caught Rendering Poignant Turning Points

Sometimes novels come up short. It may happen to you. Before beefing up the story with new characters and subplots, however, make sure you’ve tended to its depth.

You might want to follow this simple plan:
  1. Seek out the “hot” story moments worthy of further mining (they will look suspiciously like emotional turning points).
  2. Apply added word count there. 
We readers want to linger in emotionally rich moments. Such turning points are the purpose of the fiction—we've suffered along while extreme pressure is brought to bear on the protagonist, and reveling in her moments of indelible change, both small and large, is our reward.

To make that change believable the reader needs access to the inner torment of the point-of-view character. Real change never results from hasty decisions—the protagonist needs to be wrestling with some big issue that will ultimately reveal her true character.

In the gothic novel The Thirteenth Tale, here’s how author Diane Setterfield pulls off a long-awaited moment in which the narrator Margaret, the woman reclusive author Vida Winter has chosen as her biographer, shares her own deep wound. It is a secret that was kept from her most of her youth, and then kept by her, so we know that airing it has the power to change her. The death of a character both Margaret and Vida Winter cared for, on top of an entire book worth of confession from Vida Winter, finally prompts the revelation:
My scar. My half-moon. Pale silver-pink, a nacreous translucence. The line that divides. 
“This is where she was. We were joined here. And they separated us. And she died. She couldn’t live without me.” 
I felt the flutter of Miss Winter’s fingers tracing the crescent on my skin, saw the tender sympathy on her face. “The thing is—” (the final words, the very last words, after this I need never say anything, ever again) “I don’t think I can live without her.” 
“Child.” Miss Winter looked at me. Held me suspended in the compassion of her eyes. 
I thought nothing. The surface of my mind was perfectly still. But under the surface there was a shifting and a stirring. I felt the great swell of the undercurrent. For years a wreck had sat in the depths, a rusting vessel with its cargo of bones. Now it shifted. I had disturbed it, and it created a turbulence that lifted clouds of sand from the seabed, motes of grit swirling wildly in the dark and disturbed water. 
All the time Miss Winter held me in her long green gaze.
Let's look at how this works.
  • From a character given to languid structures such as the one in the third paragraph, note the child-like sentences. They evoke stuttering; this is hard for Margaret to tell. 
  • Note the parenthetical delay set off by an em-dash—(that underscored the importance of her words, should the reader somehow fail to intuit them) before Margaret utters her conclusion.
  • Note the amazing one-word dialogue from Miss Winter—every aspect of the book has brought them to this point and this one word says it all. Margaret incurred this wound in toddlerhood and carried it alone to womanhood. She needs mothering, from an old woman who has never been a mother, but who knows what it is like to lose a twin. The one word she utters—“Child”— is just right.
  • And note Setterfield’s nod to this technique: her character was kept captive by the long green gaze just as the writer was held by a moment Setterfield wisely refused to turn from.

Try it. Before you broaden your story, make sure you’ve mined its depths for all they’re worth. You may have more story yet to tell!

For more on emotional turning points, see my previous post, The Plot that Swam Away.

Kathryn Craft is a developmental editor at, an independent manuscript evaluation service. What she believes: 1. Editing forever changed the way she reads. 2. Well-crafted moments of brilliance help her forgive many other problems in a manuscript. 3. All writers have strengths and weaknesses—but why settle for weaknesses? 4. We can learn as much from what other authors do right as we can from what we do wrong. This is her series, "Busted!—An author caught doing something right." Connect with Kathryn at her Facebook Author Page and Twitter.


  1. This is very relevant to me as I'm a bit of a queen of the understatement. Sometimes I need to be reminded to do more than just hint.

    Love this new photo of you, Kathryn.

  2. The oddly (and, I would argue, wrongly) punctuated paragraph engaged the editor in me and actually pulled me out of the vignette. More conventionally rendered it would be:

    “The thing is...”—the final words, the very last words, after this I need never say anything, ever again—“I don’t think I can live without her.”

    Okay, matter of opinion and choice, but it is just that moment in the dialogue with the reader that you don't want misplaced peculiar punctuation to leap up, particularly as the speaker was not interrupted and suspension points inside the quotes are truer to the mental pause.

    Picky, picky, picky, I know. And I may be wrong here, but my point is that there are times, such as here, when the very last thing you want is for the punctuation to jump to the foreground because the tension and emotion are everything.

  3. Thank you. This is exactly what I need to know right now, as I am about to start revising my new novel.
    SC Skillman, Author, Mystical Circles (romantic suspense)

  4. Elle: You bring up such an important topic, the one of balance. I see both richness and understatement in this passage—as a matter of fact, I will use it as an example of understatement in an upcoming workshop. The building of tension by giving voice to her inner conflict and then capping them with that one word of dialogue creates balance here. Setterfield could have justified more dialogue, but the scene wouldn't have been as powerful.

    (and thanks about the pic!)

    Hope that helps you too, SC, and thanks for reading!

  5. I, too, tend toward bare-bones. Good advice. Take what's there and enrich it rather than throwing new stuff in for the sake of word count. (Then again, throwing stuff in should never be done simply for word count.)

    Terry's Place

  6. Terry: I call "for the sake of word count" the "NaNoWriMo syndrome." Problem is, once all those unneeded words are in there it can be hard to part with them. Especially with dialogue, when we writers can convince ourselves that our characters "actually said that."

  7. I really enjoy this Busted series you do, Kathryn. You always have such a good lesson and wonderful examples that create those "aha" moments as we writers absorb the lesson. I immediately thought of a place in my current WIP where I can go back and delve into the depths with it. Thanks.

  8. Thanks for sharing that, Maryann, awesome! I can't tell you how inordinately happy it makes me to walk into my office each day to see my writing friends (the novels on the shelves) and my mentors (the craft books). In this series I hope to share their awesome examples with others. :)

  9. Yes, it's a good idea to draw out those turning points in a novel and let the reader savor them!

    Morgan Mandel

  10. Most of my characters are about an inch deep ... kinda like their creator ... they tend to skim along the surface of life, avoiding potholes, sinkholes or anything else that might suck them into an emotional response.

  11. Thank you for this wonderful post. I am at the point in my narrative that my character needs to emote more and experience less. She has been a leaf on the water but now that she has settled she needs to open up and let go.
    This post could not have come at a better time!

    Wonderful stuff.

  12. I love the idea of Diane's series. We can learn as much from what we and other authors do right as we can from what we do wrong.

  13. I agree with Larry about the punctuation. It didn't jump out at me as much as it did for him, but I remember having to re-read that particular piece.

    LOL at "NaNoWriMo syndrome".

  14. All I notice is Kathryn's terrific author photos! Your son was the photographer on all? Nice job!

  15. I love the idea of mining the current story before jumping into additions that might take it in a different direction.

  16. Kathryn, this post alone is a mine to be delved into! For one who writes fast, this is sage advice for me deep in the revision process. This is the perfect time to put up a sign over my computer "MINE AHEAD - GO SLOW - PROCEED WITH CAUTION". If we're not careful we can easily pass over those moments that are hidden and full of richness in a tale. As a writer it's easy to overlook as we want to rush to the end, but as a reader it's not - for as you say, readers want that emotional powerhouse moment to last! As a reader, we want to savor it as we have been following the built path toward it and longing for it to happen. And as a thriller/suspense writer I especially need to remember this, as I want the action to continue at break neck speed. But its in the rich emotional moments that suspense can dwell as well. So thanks for the reminder!

  17. Wow, somehow I blinked and it's two days later. Sorry to be late responding, thank you all for reading!

    Christopher and Debra: Although your comments are very different, they touch on a similar subject: what if your character just doesn't want to open up?

    This sort of thing certainly can't be forced. Your character may be telling you that enough pressure has not yet come to bear on him/her to force his/her interior world to crack open. So, you rewrite. We have enough aloof characters in the real world. We love story because of its uncanny ability to allow us inside the mind of another.

  18. Larry and Elle: I think as creative writers we need to allow ourselves to be creative with punctuation as well as words. (Ack!—did I say that on an editing site?) Agent Noah Lukeman's book "A Dash of Style: The Art and Mastery of Punctuation" puts forth a similar premise. Punctuation can be used creatively in fiction as long as the intent is clear.

    Of course this is taken out of context. You have not followed along for a few hundred pages with Margaret to know how meticulous she is in all things. But if you had, you would see this for what it is—this emotional spilling is uncharacteristic and jarring for her. The odd punctuation shows how flustered she feels.

    Editors sometimes need to remind themselves to enhance creativity and expression, not quash it. Food for thought!

  19. Linda: Sometimes we do have to trust that initial inspiration that said this would be a certain kind of story, and find a way to tell it more indelibly.

  20. Donna, your comment made me think of the ways we use word count to adjust pacing. Especially in suspense there are times we want to slow things way down to ratchet up the creepy factor, right? A great time for a surprise plot twist is when the character is deep in thought, perhaps conflicted about how things are playing out and about to make a big change. The reader is engrossed—and has stopped waiting for the other shoe to drop. Then BAM!

  21. Thanks for reading, BRP blogmates Morgan and Helen!


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