Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Facing up to goodness – Getting to the Good Parts Version of Mary Sue (and that's what you really want)

Symptoms and diagnosis:

"Mary Sue"  is a term in literary analysis/nitpicking that is something like "paranoia" or "neurosis" in psychology: its original narrow (and useful) meaning has been largely swallowed in an overbroad application.

Originally a "Mary Sue" was a character in fan fiction who was transparently the writer living out an imagined-to-be-perfect existence in the fictional world of which the writer was a fan. The stereotype was female, perhaps because the stereotypical fanfic writer was female*.

The classical Mary Sue is easy to parodize in other people's work, depending on your mood and how much you like cruelty to the defenseless. It might be Euphoria Understanden, Sherlock Holmes's perfect girlfriend who also happened to have twenty cats, loved to sip tea and listen to Vivaldi, and was really too sensitive to be working in a bookstore where people made her carry heavy boxes, and was always there to add that little human feminine touch to Holmes's reasoning. It could be Gagaliol Eaglesfriend Baggins, who married Frodo Baggins after he went west, because it turned out that old Frodo had a thing for a well-read elf with meat on her bones. Less commonly it might be Ensign Studly, the bodyguard assigned to Deanna Troi, who fixed everything for her, rubbed her back after a long day, provided sensitive insights into her most difficult cases, and then made her forget all about all those macho guys.**

Back when Mary Sues were purely wish-fulfillment in borrowed universes -- in effect making the perfect world the fan wanted to move into just that bit more perfect -- the charge of Mary-Sue-ism was a slam dunk in the literary prosecutor's arsenal. Narrow-sense Mary Sues were somewhat embarrassing, and the solution to them was to just not do them, and if people got caught at them it tended to be painful for everyone.

But the universe has marched on and workshops have become an industry. The compulsion to say something (especially when there is nothing to say other than "keep going, it's okay") drives too many workshoppers. The aggressive colonizing of reader mindspace by workshopper tropes also shows up in the slow creep of workshopese into Goodreads and Amazon reviews, especially among people who have a hard time differentiating between writing that didn't please them and writing that made technical errors. (If you don't like chicken, you won't like chicken tetrazzini , but it will not help you find out what you do like, or the writers to please you better, if you tell them that they broke all the rules for making pork lo mein).

As a result, "Mary Sue" has become short hand for something rather like "I didn't like that character" (especially that main character) "because she was just too impossibly good, virtuous, competent, strong … " and the list goes on. Too much gooditude spoiled the character, at least for that critic/reader.

At first this may seem a bit odd in a culture that not only invents huge numbers of superheroes (literally or figuratively) and also has something of a fascination with the inverse of super-heroes, monsters of one kind or another (ranging from real ones like serial killers to the literal ones like Dracula all the way up to the archetypal ones like Satan). The overbroad definition of Mary Sue, a character who is "just too good" or "just too perfect" sounds something like the complaint that Mozart wrote too many notes, Van Gogh's colors were too vivid, or that it's hard to figure out Shakespeare's or Tolstoy's characters.

I suggest that Mary Sue is the lit-crit equivalent of cellulite, i.e. it's not actually a health of the story issue, it's something that a few people find unattractive and will pick on you for, and to a great extent you shouldn't let the mean girls (of whatever gender) make you self-conscious; a large part of the fix is just to realize that tons of people will love your story even if it's got a little cottage cheese on its muscular thighs.

Quack remedy and why to stay away from it:

Like any problem that is largely illusory and a matter of making the recipient of the criticism feel unloved and ugly, Mary Sue-ism carries with it some popular patent remedies. One of them is the frequent demand that you "dirty up" the main character, and make them "gritty," whether it's really appropriate or not.

In fact, many writers who haven't read enough of their intended genre – and there are more of those than you would think, and sadly some of them get pretty far in publishing before it catches up with them – seem to be reacting to a morally pure universe in pop fiction that hasn't been there in a long time; I've seen work at the close-to-publishable stage from people who seem to think they're "breaking through" by including an angsty hero with an unpleasant character defect. I have actually heard a would-be writer say he wanted to create a character who would be "like Batman but not such a goody-goody Boy Scout." (Yes, I suggested he read anything about Batman published in the last thirty years; he didn't think he needed to because everyone knows Batman. Oh, well. Horse, water, drink, etc.)

Then too, the same workshoppers who feel compelled to say something (whether or not they have any idea what to say) very often have some formulas that nearly always work, and complaining that the hero/ine is "too goody-good" or "too super-competent" may simply be a way for a critiquer out of depth to conceal his/her limitations. Maybe you just need to stop going to that particular workshop, or to stay home and write.

Of course one reason the quack remedy remains popular is that frequently, introducing a defect, or seven, into a character does improve the character, not because it de-Mary-Sue-ifies the character but just because the defect itself is interesting to read about, or makes the agon that is central to the plot more challenging to the character. Let us suppose you have written a story with a too-centered-on-a-fantasy-of-perfection heroine: a natural flame-redhaired perfect-skinned werewolf vegan vampire reformer (she works in a no-slay secret organization with a charter that fully respects undead rights) who volunteers on the crisis hotline. Almost any personal problem would make that character a bit more likeable and interesting, and if you can invent a problem that makes her most important fictional task harder, you'll genuinely have improved the work. Just because a lot of over the counter stuff is overhyped and ineffective doesn't mean aspirin won't fix your headache.

Maybe she was cheating on her boyfriend when her co-cheater turned out to be a vampire and bit her, and now she's got till sundown to find a very liberal priest to do an exorcism, and she needs the vampire's fangs for the ritual, and you normally get a vampire's fangs by picking them up after slaying him, and worse yet, she really doesn't like her boyfriend anymore anyway ... that sort of complexity can give you at least some sort of plot. Binge-drinking might not, and an uncle with early Alzheimer's probably not either. (Though if you have to watch your uncle with early Alzheimer's and fight vampires and your long-dead aunt is a vampire that he would let into the house in a heartbeat (his last)... hmmm. It's surpisingly hard to write examples of genuinely impossible fictional ideas).

But usually my book doctoring clients have been long past such easy problems that have such easy fixes. Too often "dirty that character up" is kind of a Band-aid on a story, hiding but not healing a raw spot, and at best allowing you to focus your attention on something more important. So if that's the first suggestion you get, either from a reader or from your own subconscious, don't ignore the possibility, but think things over first; maybe there's more to it.

Which brings us to: When Mary Sue is serious, and a little grit won't fix her

Mary Sue might not be a symptom, but the complaints about Mary Sue-ism might be; if people are seeing her, it might be all them, or partly them, but there might be a part that is you, and that's what you want to chase down and repair.

As a book doctor, I prefer deeper fixes with more pervasive effects, and it has seemed to me that stories that are indicted for Mary Sue-ism are often suffering from a problem that is much more serious, interesting, and worthwhile.***

Mary-Sueism may appear exactly because you're trying to do something hard. Quite possibly your impossibly goody-good character has popped into your draft because material for a much better story is frantically signaling its presence, and you wrote Lady Perfection or Captain Paragon while you were distracted in digging for that vein of gold. If you can connect to that difficult material or idea, whatever it is, and let it take over your story, you'll ultimately be much happier with the results.

The single reader reaction of "that's a Mary Sue" can mask several different causes. Your workshoppers, editor, trusted beta readers, or agent are probably on to something, even if it's not the apparent Mary Sue, and your problem is to locate that real difficulty, and center your story's implied artistic effort on solving that. In such a case, you have a starting place for something that may eventually be really excellent, and Mary Sue pointed you to it. So don't throw mud on her perfect white dress until you're sure she's got it coming. She might be on your side. Here are five interesting places she might lead you:

Possible hidden cause of the Mary Sue complaint #1: s/he feels manipulative; s/he looks like a key prop in some little sermon that the writer would really rather give you instead of this story. Some writers do have the idea that they are going to put some religious/moral/political message out there with a clever story that is going to be a best-seller, and unfortunately some of the ones who want to do that happen to be natural-born clever storytellers, so they get a long way, all the way to an editor's or agent's "maybe" pile, before their intended hostile takeover of the reader's belief system finally sets off too many bells, and the book goes off to the book doctor. Possible remedies:
a. Stop preaching and tell a damned story. It's a higher calling anyway. Surprising numbers (as in, two) of my clients loved writing fiction, were born to do it, but were attached to a person (a husband, a mother) who did not approve of fiction for its own sake, and to get that screeching "You are wicked to spend time on this foolish pursuit" monkey off their backs, the writers were trying to write fiction that trotted out the favorite hobbyhorses of their fiction-hating loved ones.
b. Get honest about how tough it is to live according to any principle. If Mary Sue absolutely has to be a Christian model of virginity till marriage, she needs to be soaking her pants every time she smells her boyfriend's cologne and avoiding the cucumbers in the produce aisle, and all the thou shalt nots should be driving her crazy, not making her happy. If Captain Paragon will never ask a man to do something he wouldn't do, or leave a man behind, give him acute claustrophobia and no volunteers when he asks for who will go back into the collapsing mine to either confirm that Private Friendless McAsshole is dead or bring him out alive.

Possible hidden cause of the Mary Sue problem #2: s/he violates the sympathetic contract; despite the drippy little whines that you hear from too many people, there's no requirement that a character be admirable or likeable, but there is a requirement that the character be interesting. Clause one in the sympathetic contract is, Give this work your attention, follow this guy/girl that the work is following, and sooner or later something interesting will happen.**** In a good sympathetic contract, sometimes there's a fun diversion of attention, so that you follow a character for one reason and then are delighted to find out that there's was something else entirely interesting – we follow Percy Blakeney because it's funny that a brainy spitfire like Marguerite has married a foppish tool like Percy, until the moment when, with nowhere else to turn, she tells him about the menacing French agent – and then we laugh in a different way when it turns out that his apparent brainlessness was all an act and he's actually the Scarlet Pimpernel. Marion Crane (Janet Leigh's role in Psycho) looks like the focal character of a caper movie till she abruptly turns into the victim of a monster movie; that stretches the sympathetic contract in a fun way but doesn't break it.

But Mary Sue starts out too perfect to believe, losing all interest because perfection is predictable, and then stays that way. We followed her on the writer's promise that she would become interesting, and when she obstinately didn't, we hate her, the story, and the writer. Scarlett O'Hara needs to do everything that a proud Southern belle will never do to save Tara, Clark Kent needs to give up his amiable bumbling and rip his shirt open, and 
Spoiler ===> Captain Reynaud needs to find his patriotism and cover up Major Strasser's murder. Nor does it have to be a reversal: in High Noon, Spoiler ===> smugly righteous pacifist Amy discovers her real principles when she shoots Frank Miller to save her husband's life, and in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Spoiler ===> John Wayne coldbloodedly shoots a man in the back without warning, and destroys all his own hopes for future happiness, because he's a Code-of-the-West moral paragon. The terrifying irony of The Postman Always Rings Twice is that (this isn't really a spoiler, the book is much more about how it happens than about what happens) a sniveling little shit who has no problem with murdering a man who has always been kind to him in order to get his friend's sleazebag wife for himself eventually goes to the gas chamber because he and his lover are too sleazy and petty to hold together their perfect murder.

In all those cases, the sympathetic contract works with, not despite, excessive character consistency. The sympathetic contract demands a payoff for monotonic goodness.  (and one reason I ended up flagging so many spoilers above is that payoffs tend to be potential spoilers). The reader will tolerate, even love, your story as long as perfection (in good or evil) leads to an "of course!" surprise. Hence the remedy: pay up. Put the payoff in. (I hasten to add, having Mary Sue die tragically after a last kiss with the main character is NOT such a payoff).

Possible hidden cause of the Mary Sue problem #3: s/he drenched in "should," which we don't feel. We want to feel "is"

 Sometimes the Mary Sue complaint is phrased as "just too big for life." 

The nature of life is that the unbelievably talented don't think they're unbelievable, they just use their talents. The incredibly virtuous think everyone would have done the same thing. Maybe your Mary Sue is too aware that she's amazing, and all you need is to insert a gentle undertone of "doesn't everyone?"

After all, who's bigger than life? Robin Hood. Lancelot. Kip in Have Spacesuit Will Travel. Hap and Leonard in Joe Lansdale's terrific mysteries. Scarlett O'Hara. Captain Peter Blood. D'Artagnan. Hercules. 

Why aren't they Mary Sues? Because they have a force-of-nature quality about them – they just are that way, this is who they are and what they do, and to some extent they are matter of fact about it. D'Artagnan knows that he's a natural wizard with a sword, so fighting three duels in three hours against the cream of the King's Musketeers … piffle, of course, that's who he is. Scarlett O'Hara can't conceive of any man she meets not being locked on getting under her hoop skirt (which is why putting her up against Rhett works so well). Robin Hood never shoots without being sure of hitting his target, and when Ben Grimm decides it's clobbering time he doesn't wonder whether he'll be the clobberer or the clobberee. Roy Rogers doesn't think about whether, maybe this time, he'll take a big bribe from the crooked cattle baron and let the struggling ranch family go under. A character that is good (in either the sense of talent or virtue) is a totally different thing from a character that ought to be good for the message, needs to be good for the plot, or exemplifies good.
Remedy: get it back to
I ain't braggin', it's understood,
Everything I do, I sure do it good.
and lose any traces that your character is being good (moral/competent) for any reason other than that's just how they are. (Big hint, though: a character who is good both ways is hard to pull off. Not impossible -- Superman, Green Lantern, and the Flash in their traditional versions certainly had a good long run—but in a general way a character who knows absolutely what's right will benefit from some doubt about his/her ability, and a character who can always do whatever is needed should have some deep doubts about what that is).

Possible hidden cause of the Mary Sue problem #4: s/he is a winner as imagined by a loser. This one's touchy, and for the love of all that's holy please don't sling this around in workshop and maul the other members, but nonetheless I've seen it with several clients.

But this is just you and me and the little black bag, right? Look around and make sure no one is looking over your shoulder.

Okay, now trake a deep breath and face up to things here. Is your experience of success limited, far in the past, or nonexistent? Have you felt "no good at anything" for as long as you can remember? Have you never won a game, gotten the much-sought-after romantic partner, set a record, made the final bracket?

And if so, is what you imagine success would be like the emotional core of your Mary Sue? Natural Charlie Browns (as in Peanuts, not the several others in literature, arts, and sports), the Omegas of the pack who would love to just be low Betas but can't imagine rising that far, usually have very odd notions of what it's like to succeed, sort of like anorgasmic virgins trying to imagine sex, people who have never traveled imagining being seasoned travelers, people who have never been in any kind of fight imagining violence, etc. 

Please note, some people can write very well about experiences they have not had (and even ones for which they have had no analogs). See The Red Badge of Courage as one example, or Len Deighton's WW2 aviation novels for another. Some others can produce a version more convincing than real life: successful Westerns are written all the time by people who have never ridden a horse. 

But some people can't imagine some experiences without having been there, and some of the most difficult things to describe without having been there are psychological/ relational/cultural. It wasn't until quite recently in my own life that I had any idea what it was like to be in an affectionate, supportive family; I wrote functional families in short superficial scenes, or I wrote about orphans, or when backed into a corner I just plain wrote unconvincingly. I worked with one writer whose work took a dramatic turn for the better because in the REBT that he was using to cope with his Asperer's, he had the breakthrough of realizing that most people do have an idea of what the person they're talking to is feeling, and thus there started being real characters in his stories in addition to the viewpoint character.

I think, based on three problems I've seen with apparent Mary Sues, that success is like that for some people. Their Mary Sues are perfect and smug because the writers are imagining something better than they've ever had, and it's not only not convincing, it's about the wrong things, a little like the way that men who don't know very many women well will write female characters who think about their own breasts all the time (because that's the thing the man thinks about, so he imagines that women, in the constant presence of real, actual boobs, must be unable to stop thinking about them).

To many perpetual losers, winning would mean being able to sneer at the former champion, or be effusively condescending or improbably supportive to the loser, or even just enjoying the absence of pain far more than people do in real life. (If you had a left knee that ached ceaselessly from birth, you might write a character who was forever noticing a total absence of pain in his left knee, and indeed most characters do have left knees that don't hurt, but the rest of us out here in Reader-Land wouldn't see why that mattered). This tends to create Mary Sues who are condescending, passive-aggressively spiteful, impossibly nice, or all of that at once, and they really stick out like sore thumbs.

The remedy, if you're having a sinking feeling about that Mary Sue character, is in steps. 

One, find something to be good at. Bruce Sterling did a nice job of explaining it in Heavy Weather: everyone needs something they can hack, i.e. make do whatever they want it to do. Bake the best muffins, fix old typewriters, clean the bathroom faster and cleaner than anyone else, but get something you excel at. (Big warning: some activities, like snarking, eating, hurting feelings, or disgusting people, are impossible to excel at meaningfully).

Two, find out what that feels like inside.

Three, think about your Mary Sue's reality. Being really good at anything comes in very different and highly specific flavors, not in a broad brush haze of happy self-satisfaction. Narrow it down to his/her specific experience of goodness.

If Madame Parfait knows that the moment someone pulls a neural disrupter she'll have hers out and firing before the thug that drew on her has his all the way out of the holster, then she's probably at home in the spaceport bar and the presence of rough types is about as meaningful as a couple of yellow jackets at a picnic; she has to watch them but not fear them. If Sir Ultimate has killed four dragons but come close to being killed twice, then when he goes in for that special place in the pectoral scales, he's terrified but he's on top of it -- and that's not at all the same thing as Madame Parfait. If everyone sucks up to her because she's the beautiful daughter of a billionaire with a penchant for petty vengeance, Lucienne Ihateher isn't surprised or arrogant about the attention but she does expect everything to go her way; depending on many things, she may see her "success" as bogus (and be trying to avoid being reminded of it) or think she hit a triple because was born on third base, but one way or another, the success is just there, like her height or her thumb. Winning comes in more flavors than losing (and it's not just the absence of losing, any more than vanilla is the absence of chocolate).

One last thought about this, peripheral to the Mary Sue problem: there is sometimes something curiously flat and odd in tone when people write about being good at something that they are actually really good at. I'm fairly indifferent at some of the things I describe very well, and quite good at some things I never feel like I get right, and I have talked about this with half a dozen writers who have similar experiences. I have no idea why this is.

The key, though, is that to describe success (and thus characterize Mary Sue) accurately in anything, you have to have experienced it, for real or vicariously, at something; that's how you find the specificity that makes it real.

Possible hidden cause of the Mary Sue problem #5: s/he is actually from a too-small conventional world, rather than from your fictional one.

 If Countess Mary Sue is a medieval aristocratic woman in a Europe of feuding petty lords, she is very apt to have virtues like pragmaticism (she knows what has to be done if the castle is attacked while the lord is away, and how much has to be in the silo and the smokehouse to get them through a winter siege); fierce personal loyalty (she might wait a decade till she can avenge a kinsman's murder); certain kinds of Christian charity and pity (and in her world, pity is an important virtue). 

She is less likely to be gay-positive or broadly in favor of learning, so if she needs to be for the story you want to tell, you'll need to deal with why and how she's that way. And not having encountered the kind of racism that begins with the modern age, she really isn't likely to be anti-racist as we know it. 

This doesn't mean she can't be; perhaps a portal to the Unseen Realm opens in the castle's chapel, and she accidentally invents most of the modern world among the gnomes and fairies before what has happened teaches her some valuable lessons while giving the reader an insight into what our culture became instead of what it might have been. But the farther the virtue is from Mary Sue's culture, the more the story must be about how she happened to have it; you can't just tack it on like lace curtains on a missile launcher. Remedy: Take the culturally improbable perfections and either cut them or make them what the story's about.
*I've always wondered if it was just that female fanfic writers were more willing to let other people know they wrote fanfic, in those long-ago days when it was a subject of shaming, which happened to coincide with a period in English-language culture when women found it easier to have friends than men did.
**Some fan writers referred to such male Mary Sues as Marty Stus, but that never seemed to me like a name a guy would give himself. I would bet that if you are a guy and your name is Martin Stuart Somethingorother, you do not tolerate people calling you "Marty Stu" and I, for one, would not fault you if you popped the presumptuous son of a bitch a good one in the nose.
***If you want to write something good, difficult problems are a good thing. It's my belief that most great stories solve, successfully or not, some almost-insoluble problem in fiction. Really sympathetic villians are hard, but that's why MacBeth, The Godfather, and Paradise Lost have such staying power. "an overly perceptive privileged kid sees something awful and is helpless to fix or stop it" sounds like a snoozefest but it's the basis of The Catcher in the Rye, The Great Gatsby, To Kill a Mockingbird, and (a personal favorite many of you will disagree with) Less than Zero. So if you suddenly realize you have tried to write something that is difficult or impossible, and it was not just pure folly, then dig in and bust a few shovels and your back. You are on the ground where fictional gold is found, if you are ever going to find it.
****For commercial purposes, sooner is better.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

When next we meet

As I've said in the sister blogs, shortly after my last post last week, chaos of an almost entirely good kind (CAEGK, which sounds like a noise a cat makes bringing up a hairball) erupted into my life.  This is rather like what some other writers refer to as a Sekrit Project, which is probably a reference to something or other that I missed along the way.  Anyway, can't talk about it yet, will be great if it happens, and won't know for a couple few weeks I think, but I should be crawling back toward my regular schedule within a few days. 

Next Little Black Bag blog will be about why Mary Sue-ism isn't such an awful thing (but still has to be fixed) and is treatable with a little effort (and can provide a doorway into a much better story).  Till  then, write.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Using Demand/Response/Reaction to Diagnose and Treat Lifeless, Wandering, and Other Problem Dialogue


There are twenty good reasons for this scene to be mostly dialogue, but it needs to be a 1200 word scene, it's already 3500, and it hasn't yet done half of what it should.

The agent/editor/holder of checks says, "I love your dialogue.  You have a great ear.  There's just so much of it."

Your writing group does the experiment of taking roles and reading through the dialogue, and while their reading of your lines becomes more and more intense, the scene seems to go on forever; somehow people shouting at each other is becoming dull.

Some editor or agent says, "I just didn't see where this dialogue was going."

You can hear every phrase of the dialogue in your head, and imagine the voices saying it, but readers tell you they "don't know what that scene is about." 

Your editor has just circled a vital plot point and labeled it "Unnecesssary exposition."

The reviewer is grumbling that "this major plot point was just dropped."  You don't remember there being any such plot point.  When you check you find it came up in the dialogue twice, and  now you wish you had cut it.

Diagnosis: Charting demand, response, and reaction

On web sites dedicated to film and TV,  you can find a long list of things you never see in movies anymore: people starting a car (unless it's going to stall and the stall is plot-important), people saying goodbye on the phone, someone hurrying to answer a door (unless, again, it's plot important), explanations of anything we've already seen, tech people trying to understand what is going on (unless it's a setup for a more important character instantly knowing), whole plays in sports, complete trips of any kind from running across a footbridge to driving through rush hour.  Initial awkwardness, tedious middles, and unnecessary-because-obvious endings, extranea of almost all kinds.  And of course they're right; if you're paying the star a quarter million per minute of finished screen time, let's not have him spend any big part of it standing in lines, riding on city buses, or flossing unless there's a story point behind it.

Fiction time (or space on the page)  is even more that way.  The movie viewer might forgive you for that too-long shot of a hot person in underwear climbing the stairs (instead of just cutting to them coming up the last three steps).  Chances are they won't storm out to the lobby to shriek to the manager about it and demand a refund, depending of course on the star and the underwear. Readers who encounter "his boxers bunched around his hips as he put his foot on the first step," "there was barely a rustle from his unironed undies on the second step,"  "the third step passed like the others, and the fourth gave her yet another glimpse of his worn but not stained Fruit of the Looms,"  can close the book forever. (And should).  If they do, you're fired.*

So first of all, dialogue in fiction must be much, much briefer than in real life, and get to the point more quickly and clearly.  But that shouldn't be hard to achieve at all: just write things down the way people talk, and then shrink to fit.

It's a truism in beginning writer classes that we don't write dialogue the way people actually talk because, in the words of one student, "Well, if you wrote it, um, wrote – like every word they say? That's not – I mean it is – the way they talk, but not – you know.  For a story it's – different? I mean for any story, not just for a story. A story is kind of narrative and whatnot and it – the dialogue – when real people talk, they say um a lot. But they also … does that make sense?"

You could take that vague meandering 70 words and shrink it to 13 words:

Writing every word that would really be said is bad for a story.

The succinctness is an improvement but now we can clearly see that it's not an answer. "Don't write like people talk" is a negative commandment. "Not writing like people talk" can cover a wide span of territory, pretty much everything from Edgar Rice Burroughs to William Burroughs, or from James Joyce's Ulysses to Alastair McLean's HMS Ulysses.  Practically no published dialogue is "like people talk," and when readers complain that it is not, they almost always mean it has a specific feature not to their taste, rather than that it doesn't contain enough ums, you knows, thingies, nonsequiturs, and trail-offs. 

Right there is the clue: what's the specific feature?  What makes it fictional dialogue, as opposed to transcription, or exposition in quote marks?**

In fiction every sentence does something to the narrative flow, and by narrative flow I mean that moment-to-moment, word-to-word reader experience of getting from "Chapter 1" to "END". Sometimes it impedes or obscures or shreds the narrative flow into turbulence.  Sometimes it accelerates it, or deepens it so that it carries more stuff, and often it throws it around a bend.  But one way or another, if it's in a story,  a pararaph, sentence, clause, phrase, or word does something to that flow.***

In real life there's no narrative flow, a fact which large numbers of novelists have gotten all poetic about, and besides a majority (80% is thrown around all the time) of human verbal communication is "flocking signals," i.e. agreeing that we belong together and are on the same team, or as most sheep would put it,  "baaa."**** 

So fictional dialogue is different from real life speech because dialog is made up of sentences which change the narrative flow.

There are three ways narrative flow can change:
1. Someone can try to do something (and succeed or fail).
2. Something can happen in response to one of those attempts to do something. (The success or failure).
3. Some person, based on the attempt and its success/failure, can change his/her mind (or confirm it more strongly).
In all but the simplest-minded stories, usually all three happen around every incident.

This is easy to see in actions.   (1) Hamlet tries to stab Claudius,  (2) fails because it was actually Polonius behind the curtain, and (3) has to deal with his much worse position.  (1) Holmes waits up because he suspects the false bell pull is being used to transport a poisonous snake toward the intended victim, (2) He proves right and drives off the snake with his stick, causing the death of the would-be murderer, (3) Everyone except the villain and the snake agree it's a good thing that the villain is dead, and invite Holmes to explain how he knows.  (1) Holden Caulfield takes Phoebe to the Central Park carousel in an attempt to cheer her, and himself, up.  (2) Her evident joy makes him break down emotionally in public. (3) This apparently leads to his getting psychiatric help.

It's less easy to see in dialogue, but it's there, very strongly.  Specifically, in good dialogue,  as often as possible, (1) A character makes a demand on another, (2) the other character's response shows that the demand either fails or succeeds, and (3) both characters have a reaction to the way that the demand and response changed the relationship.

"Beth-Louise, I was thinking prom is coming up and I wondered – " (demand)
"Not if you were the last living male mammal on the continent, Jim." (response)
"I wondered if you might be interested in ordering flowers from my mom's shop." (reaction; also a demand – pretend I didn't ask)

"Send out all the hostages by ten. Otherwise we'll hold their funerals at eleven and begin bombardment at noon." (demand, obviously – but note that the real demand is not for the hostages, who are not even present in this scene, but for the second speaker's fear)
"Really? You would kill them yourselves  rather than talk with us?" (response, refusing to fear – also a demand that the first speaker acknowledge his own brutality)
"Those are my orders. There is a man waiting to strangle me if I don't carry them out. Our customs are harsh and I am sad, but no one ever takes hostages against us.  Not twice anyway." (reaction to the negative response and to the judgment it implies;also a response to the demand for acknowledgment – a yes; also a demand – see me as a moral person.)

In general, your best lines of dialogue will contain/imply/embody a demand, a response, and a reaction; notice how much more dramatically interesting the third speech is in those mini-dialogues above, because it is multiple-duty

So where you have dialogue people are groaning about, or skimming, or any of the other symptoms, your first job is to look at it and see if you can find demands, responses, and reactions.  For particularly troublesome dialogue while book-doctoring, I used to actually break it into a four-column table, with the actual dialogue in the left column, and then demands, responses, and reactions shown parallel to the lines where they occurred.

For example, here's a scene I happen to love in Conrad's Typhoon; MacWhirr, the captain who is noted for his lack of imagination, is talking to Jukes, his first mate, who is probably the smartest and most thoughtful (and definitely the most articulate) officer on board. 

In reading the chart it helps a great deal to remember that the response to each demand will be found diagonally down and right of the demand, and that the reaction is the emotional flavoring/subtext that will underlie the original text, the demand, and the response – all three of them together – in the same line.  So if we number the lines, your eyes should track, approximately: Demand 1, Response 2, Reaction 2, Demand 2, Response 3, Reaction 3, Demand 3, Response 4, etc.

He did not look at his chief officer, but said at once, "That's a very violent man, that second engineer."
Agree with me that we ought to fire Harry

Reaction to witnessing Jukes's having sent the complaining Harry back to his duty

"Jolly good second, anyhow," grunted Jukes. "They can't keep up steam," he added, rapidly, and made a grab at the rail against the coming lurch.
Please understand that Harry is in an impossible situation
No, I won't.
Let's keep our minds on keeping the ship functioning (illustrated by that lurch)
Captain MacWhirr, unprepared, took a run and brought himself up with a jerk by an awning stanchion.
"A profane man," he said, obstinately. "If this goes on, I'll have to get rid of him the first chance."
Understand that if I have/want to,  I will fire Harry whether you agree or not
No, I won't
Getting rid of Harry is part of our job as officers

"It's the heat," said Jukes. "The weather's awful. It would make a saint swear. Even up here I feel exactly as if I had my head tied up in a woollen blanket."
Recognize what Harry is up against
I'm going to ignore you
Display of empathy for other officers and crew, trying to model it for the captain, not believing MacWhirr is so insensitive

Captain MacWhirr looked up. "D'ye mean to say, Mr. Jukes, you ever had your head tied up in a blanket? What was that for?"
Speak plainly and don't exaggerate
I'll drop the issue for the moment
A tacit admission that conditions really are terrible, but anger at Jukes excusing bad conduct by bad conditions
"It's a manner of speaking, sir," said Jukes, stolidly.
Don't attack me (demand is probably pro forma)
Tacitly, we'll close the important part of the deal: Harry stays
Having gotten the captain to be reasonable, Jukes puts himself in the path of a rant

"Some of you fellows do go on! What's that about saints swearing? I wish you wouldn't talk so wild. What sort of saint would that be that would swear? No more saint than yourself, I expect. And what's a blanket got to do with it -- or the weather either. . . . The heat does not make me swear -- does it? It's filthy bad temper. That's what it is. And what's the good of your talking like this?"
Accept my judgment and authority
I'll attack you if I want to, it's my prerogative
Accepting Juke's offer of a chance to blow off steam by ranting at Jukes

In good dialogue:
• the demand, response, and reaction columns should be easy to fill in,
• you'll only rarely have blanks,
• there will be a consistency and pattern to the demands/responses/reactions of each character; for example, some characters react to a negative response by making a bigger demand; some demand responses that disavow prior negative reactions; some prefer ignoring (like these two) to bringing matters to a head (they're old comrades, they respect each other, and a major storm is about to blow in).   Finally,
• you'll be able to clearly see why and how some lines emphasize the demand (e.g. MacWhirr's first), some emphasize the response(e.g. Jukes's last, the next to last overall), and some the reaction.  (e.g. MacWhirr's last, the last overall).

In okay but improvable dialogue:
•there will be some obvious blanks; to fill them in you'll have to alter dialogue, sharpening the appearance of the demand, response or reaction
•there may be little pattern to the demand response reaction rhythm, either for characters or overall, or fragmentary patterns may appear and then collapse.
•emphasis will appear to be accidental, and will need tweaking and allocating, between expressing the demand, the response, or the reaction.

In weak, scattered, unfocused, or generally inept dialogue, which you might want to just scrape and pitch:
•There will be few apparent demands, responses, and reactions; mostly people will just talk.  (This is the acid test for really bad expository dialogue).
•Blanks will abound
•Patterns will usually be absent, for characters and overall, or
•the pattern may be ping-pong (same demand, same response, over and over and over, without much reaction).
•the dialog will be just words, with nothing to show whether the demand, the response, or the reaction is the main thing happening.

Prescription: make the chart look better and rewrite the dialogue to fit it

The chart is my extreme systematized version; if you play with this for even a little while, you'll rapidly discover that you can start fixing these problems without going to the bother of the chart.  Nevertheless, I still do the chart sometimes; it forces serious problems into stark relief with great big FIX MEs pinned to them, and pushes you to really fix rather than just retype.

First and most obvious, fill in blanks, and change things to form patterns, in the three columns to the right.  Once you've done that, modify the dialogue so that it expresses those demands, responses, and reactions with the proper emphasis.

A nice trick that works well for me is to repeat a keyword between the most important component of each line.  For example if the thing you are emphasizing is the demand in line 29 and it's "confess you love Lydia" (expressed perhaps in the words "I see now that with Lydia around there was no hope for me,") and in line 30 you're emphasizing the reaction "Lydia? WTF? Doesn't she know I'm gay?", you might say, "Actually, there was no hope for Lydia, either, with Hector around."  Thus "no hope" and "Lydia" express the demand in  line 29, and the reaction in line 30, tying them together and keeping it very clear what this is about.  The next line (31) might be, "So it's Hector I should congratulate; good. Lydia would have required more sportsmanship than I can muster."

Tactics, at this level, means the particular technique or approach to phrasing the demand into words.  Many characters (and real people) have characteristic tactics; implying that their demands are divinely ordained, or the proper custom of the tribe, or too much trouble but must be met anyway; phrasing a response of "no" with deep regret or a response of "yes" with a subtext of "you see the sacrifices I make for you?"; playing up or suppressing the reaction; doubling down on the next demand after a "no" response, or demanding something for which the answer will be "yes" to placate anyone who has given an angry reaction.

Look for ways to get all three components, demand, response, and reaction (or two or one if that's all that's appropriate to the line) into the right number of words of actual dialogue.

If you are using a lot of the same words in your demands, responses, and reactions and in the finished dialogue, something isn't right.  Possibilities: your dialogue is  too on, your D/R/R columns are too indirect, or your characters are seriously stupid.  Then again, maybe there's about to be a fight or an out of control sex scene (the two times people tend to phrase demands, responses, and reactions very literally in the actual dialogue). 

As a tactic it is especially important to phrase whichever component is getting the emphasis directly but not literally, i.e. very clearly but without saying the words outright.  Usually the more important a thing is, the less direct people are willing to be, but the less they're willing to risk misunderstanding, too.

Where you have ping-pong (as described above), the fastest and often best fix is to cut directly from the line where it starts to the line where it ends.  If you need a longer sequence of dialogue, you might find other things for them to talk about; if they absolutely have to stay on this topic, see how much you can vary the tactics to avoid repetition.

Where you have a row of blanks, can you just cross out the whole paragraph?  If not, does it have to be dialogue – could it be narrative summary instead?

Sometimes you can really pound a point home – the equivalent of a great roaring crescendo – by deliberately writing a line that expresses only one component.

There's sort of a "dolly" effect in that lines that emphasize the demand tend to drive the reader forward, making them read faster (to see how the demand will be responded to); lines that emphasize the response to a prior demand, probably because they cause a momentary look-back, tend to slow the reader down.  Both tend to bring the reader more closely into the action.  Reactions tend to be zoom-outs or pans in effect; they move the reader back out to contemplate the action.

Make sure your viewpoint character is perceiving reactions, as these are the cues that readers pick up most strongly.  Many times toward the end of a beat, and around its core, you'll find emphasis naturally shifts to reactions (or wants to).

Remember that a lack of overt reaction is a reaction.  (If your father calls your sister a filthy whore and your mother stands there impassively, not reacting, that is a telltale reaction; if Norton says, "Grant, next time I see you, I'll have a gun, and you might not see me before you're dead," and Grant says, "Nice chatting with you, but look at the time, and I have important things to take care of," that reaction says volumes about Grant.

Important questions about every character in a situation: how much are they surprised by their own reactions?   How aware are they of their own demands?  How obligated or bound do they feel by their responses?

If you find yourself dead stuck in working out dialogue – they need to keep talking but you cannot for the life of you imagine what they would say next – three useful tricks:
  1. Make the next response the least likely, and then find your way back from there. I.e. if everything should lead up to the character giving a resounding no, try having them say yes.  If the response should be "how can you accuse me of that, I'm leaving," consider having them sit down and say "oh my god, you're so right, what am I going to do?"  Large sudden unexpected motion always grabs attention.  Just ask that huge stranger who suddenly sits up in your backseat while you're driving.
  2. Give the character who speaks next the demand that would most enhance or most alleviate their last reaction.  If they reacted with terror, make their next demand for guaranteed safety; if they reacted with joy, their next demand should be for perfection.
  3. Maybe it's time for the scene or beat to be over.   Would a very brief reaction line take care of it?

A really good reaction is a reaction to the other person's demand, response, and reaction all at once.  The ratio of importance in the reaction is a powerful tool for characterization:
•empathetic characters react more to the other person's reaction and less to the response. 
•aggressive power seekers react more to the response and the less to the demand.
•pleasers, yes-men, submissives, and the badly abused react entirely to the demand, trying to get off the hook as a first priority.
•spectrum disorder/aspy characters may not react to reactions at all; psychopaths may not react to responses; resentful and passive-aggressive people may not react to demands.


*Sometimes unfairly.  Not every reader will understand the point of every scene; there's always that guy reading On the Road who doesn't get why those guys drive and talk so much, or has just picked up a classic puzzle mystery and is wondering why there are all these extra characters and the host is nattering on about the furniture, the layout of the house,  and the peculiarities of the staff.

** A quick note on that latter: many workshops and some editors have fetishized the many problems with expository dialogue into a general prohibition.  In fact there are at least a dozen good uses and reasons for characters explaining things to each other in dialogue, and it's sometimes the best choice.  But if you use it, no matter how valid or transparent your reason, some editors and reviewers will leap up and down and point at it, much in the manner of a two year old who has just learned to recognize a duckie.

***If it doesn't, it's because there's no flow, and you have a dead story, which is a different problem.

****That does not mean that flocking communication is of no value or interest.  We spend so much time on flocking signals because they are vital to our survival and deceptive, ignored, or rebuffed flocking signals are one of the best ways to foster an aura of menace in fiction or drama (Shirley Jackson and Harold Pinter are masters of this in very different ways).

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Understanding and dealing with sentimentality

Symptoms and diagnosis:

The editor complains that  "the story ought to be gripping but it's so sentimental  I want to puke."

The agent says, "I've been trying to sell it, every editor says it's way too sentimental, and I kind of wonder about my own taste because I like it so much."

Readers of all sorts, professional ones and supportive friends, say, "I was really into it till it turned all sentimental."

One way or another, every outsider reader slings that dreadful word sentimental at the work. And the writer says, "But how can it be sentimental when it's exactly what I feel?  Am I supposed to write stories without feeling it at all? Or just be so cool that I bore myself?  Why am I not reaching people with what I think is the most important thing in the story?"

When anyone tells you your work is sentimental, they are likely (but not certain) to be right.  Many readers have excellent radar for sentimentality, in my experience.  The trick is to understand what it is, nail its exact cause in this case,  and see why it's presenting the way it is.  Once you do that the fixes are obvious to the eye (but may be miserable to the glandular system).


In ordinary-plain-old-regular-reader talk, sentimentality often is used to mean too much emotion in general,  or the kind of failed, overwrought stuff more usually called bathos.  This creates a great deal of confusion in many writers in the almost-there stage, because after all, isn't a work supposed to arouse some feelings? Who reads to be bored? Or apathetic? Or feel nothing? The whole tradition of Western narrative arts is about evoking feelings, so if you're trying to work in any of the forms of narration that originate with, or were first created to appeal to, those underpigmented descendants of the inhabitants of the upper left corner of Eurasia, you are trying to evoke feeling, arouse emotions, and in general work over the adrenal glands of the audience.  

There are people who have trouble with deep or strong emotions in their reading, and some of them hang out on the web or internet and may say displeasing things about your work, but little can be done for or with such people.  Some have much too thoroughly internalized the currently fashionable snarkishness, and prefer a position of permanent ineffective superiority to any other social connection; these are the people who want to talk about the concert but won't buy a ticket, the classic eunuch criticizing technique at the orgy.  Some have one of the varieties of neurological condition that make it difficult for them to discern their own emotions, or those of others.  And some have some version of the "triggering" problem where particular emotional content simply becomes too personal too strongly, not unlike people who can't bear to hear a particular song on the radio because it wakes up the wrong memories, and therefore don't listen to stations where it might be played.  In general you should ignore them, or give up on the idea of fiction.

But for most of the rest of us, sentimentality lies close to the reasons for reading or writing fiction in the first place, and the trick is not to avoid the pit of sentimentality but to dance on the edge of the pit, gaining energy and concentration from the danger.

Sentimentality was once a term of praise; originally it meant the capacity to feel the appropriate feeling at the appropriate time.  Back about the time that the modern version of the  English novel was getting invented (Tom Jones and all that),  the English-speaking world was just beginning to look for ways to be at least marginally less brutal.*  The idea that a man might be a better man because he expressed an appropriate tenderness at the trust of a child or affection from a woman was called sentiment; a man who would say that he felt the right things was "a man of sentiment."  

Within a generation, in The School for Scandal, Sheridan was satirizing the people who could always say exactly the right thing because they didn't actually feel it, and pointing out that always expressing the right feeling verbally is in fact the chief skill of a good liar.  (He also created one of the very best comedy villains ever, Joseph Surface, to expound the idea).

It went downhill from there for sentiment.   Goldsmith kicked sentiment in comedy in the most brutal way a comedy writer can kick: in his essay on comedy, he divided comedy into "laughing" (i.e. funny) and "sentimental" (by implication, not funny).  Among the early Romantic poets and critics, Schiller split poetry of feeling into "naïve" (Romantic and good) and "sentimental" (stodgy old Enlightenment suckfest, though he didn't phrase it that way).  

The Victorians retained a fondness for sentiment in mass entertainment (which included brilliant writers like Dickens and Thackeray, and better-than-we-give-them-credit-for  names in the literary history textbooks as well), but they were already groaning about when it was overdone, and by the time Henry James came along, the idea of sentiment as a positive thing was thoroughly over. 

But Western people, anyway, and maybe everyone,  still like stories centered on feelings and emotions.  And in general we like to judge our characters (some fairly simple-minded readers do little else), and the sentiments of a character are part of what we judge.  (Consider Camus's The Stranger in which a man commits a pointless murder without apparent remorse, but is effectively tried and convicted for not acting sad enough at his mother's funeral; though few people would call that a "sentimental" work, it's fundamentally about sentiment). 

There are many different definitions of sentimentality.  I don't see much use in the ones that boil down to "feeling a lot."   Of the definitions that try to sort sentimentality out from other kinds of excess feeling, and thus stay true to its roots, I think the most useful is the one that my old teacher William Kittredge used to quote**:

Sentimentality is the demand by the implied author for the implied reader to experience an emotion that the story to that point is inadequate to justify.

Breaking down the terms a bit, 

the implied author*** is the "who does this sound like," the implied person who has the "voice" that editors and critics are always on about.  It may be so much like the real life author (as with Harlan Ellison, Hal Clement,  or James Crumley) that they're virtually indistinguishable, or it may be in effect a continuing character that appears in all the author's books (various people have suggested this about Robert E. Howard, Robert Heinlein, Hunter Thompson,  Tom Wolfe, and Mark Twain).  The implied author might be you or might not, but you need to decide who it is and take control of it.  It's a useful idea here because you need to remember that your story is one encounter, and might be the only encounter, between the implied author that has your name, and 

the implied reader, that person you're talking to, or imagining you're talking to.**** One of these days I'll do a whole piece about that, because many otherwise good writers make their implied reader far too narrow ("must have my taste in everything, and know exactly the same works of art and literature that I do exactly as well.")   The important thing here is that you are always showing, by your choices of what you think the implied reader will respond to, what the implied author thinks of and believes about him/her.  Most real readers will not take it as a compliment if you demonstrate that you think the implied reader is a blithering ninny who is just waiting to sob over dead children, cackle with glee at wise old poops, and get all warm and runny about fluffy bunnies; think of  implied reader as the role/character you have written for the real reader, and ask if they are going to want to play it. (When you were a child, did you ever play make believe games with a bossy child who cast him/herself as the hero or princess and everyone else as servants and villains? Did you like that child? And do you like being cast as the sentimental admirer of the sensitive young man, the plain ol' but slightly dim country gal who loves her some of that romance, or the possibly inadequate older man dreaming of being a studly young fighter?  Often the reason sentimentality grates on us is that it casts us, via the implied reader, as drooling cretins, unconscious twitches,  or simple-minded motif-gluttons.)

the story to that point just means that if there's something awesome later, the reader probably doesn't know it, and if they sense it coming, they just want to go there now, so you only get the points for the rounds you've already played.

demanding that the implied reader experience an emotion.  Aha.  There's the crux.  One, two, three, everybody be sad.  Come on, do it.  No, I mean be really sad.  Really sad.  Hurry up.  Now be relieved.  Now be scared.  

Not working, is it?  I've given you no reason to be any of those things.  The story thus far (actually I've given you no story) is inadequate to justify feeling those emotions – or in short, what you have been told, perhaps due to intrinsic content, or clumsy performance, or peculiarity of viewpoint, or many other things, simply isn't going to make you feel that way.

But suppose I bring you to love a character …. and then something awful happens to that character.

Maybe that's legit.  Unless you suspect that I'm a rotten bastard who made you love a character just so you would be sad.  Or just so you'd root for his partner to solve the crime and catch the guy who shot him down.  Or just so you'd want her child and her boyfriend to find a way to each other's hearts.  

The sentimentality is in the just sos, because "in order to make the implied reader feel that way" is always inadequate by itself.  

For example: If you read Toby Tyler, or Ten Weeks with the Circus as a kid (spoiler for those who only know the Disney movie) – skip to next para – when Mr. Stubbs the chimpanzee is killed, a lot of kids cry their hearts out.  Now, there are utilitarian purposes in it: the book was supposed to make running away from home fantasies unattractive and  teach lessons about moral restraint*****, and showing the kid a bad time at that point is therefore useful according to the social purpose of the book.  There are also esthetic purposes: it's late in the book, it's time for Toby to realize that bad as life with his uncle is, it's nothing compared to the cruelty at the circus, and something needs to motivate his decision to return like the prodigal son; besides, many people, including children, like a book that offers them a good heartfelt cry.  If those just sos, those purely functional reasons, were the entire reason Mr. Stubbs died, the book would be forgotten, and the prominence of those reasons is certainly why many critics will call it sentimental.  But there are also a whole complex of reasons why Mr. Stubbs is doomed – what he represents symbolically in the book, his connection to Toby's immature and delusional thinking, his long-established bad behavior that is tolerable within the circus but not in the larger world.  It feels like that chimp was doomed because of who/what/where he was, by his world and the story he was part of, and therefore although by modern standards we feel like the dead ape is being milked for all he's worth, we don't feel that he's there just so he can be milked.

Similarly, the "my name is Inigo Montoya" subplot in The Princess Bride is certainly presented sentimentally, but I, at least, don't have the feeling that it exists just so the audience's emotional chain can be yanked.

Sentimental material is both what many readers are going to remember, and what will cause some readers to accuse you of being manipulative, playing to the yahoos, or general cynical low-browism.  

There are some lessons from all this:

  1. You want to be accused of sentimentality; no matter how subtle you are with the wheels, gears, and wires of your fiction, someone will see them and accuse you of using them just so people will feel overblown feelings.  No matter how complex and interesting your actual purposes, some clown will be sure that you just put that in to get all those sentimental fools excited and sell more books.  There is no avoiding the accusation except by producing extraordinarily dull and lifeless fiction.
  2. Nonetheless, while you can't make the accusation impossible, you can make it unjust, and that is the goal you should set yourself.
  3. Referring to Kittredge's definition again, to make the accusation unjust, you need to make sure that the story – and only the story -- to that point justifies the emotion your work asks your intended reader to feel.  By only the story I mean only the things that are intrinsic elements of it; if you pull it out and it's the same story, it's not intrinsic.  That means – important caveat here – intrinsic is a matter of judgment and taste.  


This one is more art than science; the steps could really be done in any order, any old way you can, and all of them probably should carry the additional phrases "but not too much" and "just till you're done."

•Identify where the sentimentality happens.  Sometimes it's the whole book, sometimes two lousy paragraphs that ring false.  If there are large areas of not-broke, don't put effort into fixing them.

•What did you want to happen in those sentimental zones?  What was the feeling or effect that would have happened if you'd done exactly what you wanted?

This can be, but luckily rarely is, the hardest of all these cures for sentimentality.  Sometimes you have to face up to the terrible truth that your purpose was  illegitimate to you,  i.e. you find yourself looking at the purpose of a sentence, paragraph, scene, or work and saying that it is unworthy of you, or the writer you want to be.  You may find that you detest the implied author you're implying.  You may find that you don't respect the implied reader and you're trying to "give the poor dumb bitches what they want" or thinking "this ought to hold the little bastards for a while" or deciding to "stroke their squatty little egos" with the whole story. As a result, you're demanding an emotional response from them but you're not interested in what they need to have it—rather like some creepy Don Juan types who like seduction more than consummation.

That's the point where you just shitcan the thing and move on.  If it's the whole story, some of the other ideas can find their way into other stories; if it's a smaller unit, discard and replace.  (Or discard with intent to replace if you don't have an idea just this moment).  Highlight it, hit that delete key, send it to bit heaven; crumple it and give it to the cat to play with; pound a stake of holly through its heart.  But if your purpose was sentimental, i.e. to extort the feeling from the implied reader specifically without communicating or sharing anything that hangs your emotional ass into the game, that kind of sentimental is story cancer,  and all you can do is cut every bit out that you can see and spray the rest with everything you can think of to keep it from growing back.

Such scrape-and-pitch situations are blessedly rare, unless you're really a Jekyll and Hyde type in which Mr. Hyde does all the rough drafts.  More usually you had, in fact, some reasonably legitimate (again, to you) reason for trying to achieve an effect, and something went wrong, but what you were aiming for was not wrong.  Those lesser, fixable problems can be split into sentimental strategy and sentimental  tactics, for analytic purposes, but in fact almost every chunk of prose that pursues an emotionally legitimate purpose with a sentimental strategy will also have made use of sentimental tactics, and vice versa.  The reason for treating them separately is only to make sure that you treat both of them.

•A sentimental strategy is one where you have written up to a place where an effect needs to happen,  and shied away from getting it by legitimate fictional means.  Sometimes this is a problem of emotional difficulty or shyness: you need the main character to be altered by the death of his grandmother, and you're not really over your own grandmother's death, or you find the feelings you had about it embarrassing, or you have no experience with it and you're afraid of getting it wrong.  

•One solution for sentimental strategy is simple and painful: write moment to moment, and let the difficult thing happen in the interstices.  Say, for example, that Sergeant Emma Empathy, of the Bucolic County Sheriff's Department, has to find the corpse of a small child (to pick an really loaded sentimental situation, but one that could well come up in fiction).   You grit your teeth if necessary, and write straightforward moment by moment narration to the point where she sees something that makes her go look.  You avoid the temptation to have her speculate or react; now she goes and looks.  Now she sees.  ("It was Aura Jesperson.") Emma does what she would do, as a cop who deals with children – rushes to the body, confirms that Aura is dead or summons the ambulance if she has any doubt.  You put in a detail or two that may be obvious – the weight of Aura's body in Emma's arms,  the mud caked around the mouth and nostrils, the chilly slackness of the arm muscles – and you let it go at that.  The story will take it all the way it needs to go.  (Some of you right now are tearing up, and it is my judgment that you are people of good sentiment).  

•But let us suppose Emma needs to feel something non-conventional.  Maybe poor little Aura was the third one this month, Chief Irwin Insensitive is insisting that they are all accidents and his plan is that "You talk to their folks, Emma, you're good at that, and then this spring we'll have you give a talk at the school about safety and being careful."  So Emma is sorry for Aura and for the Jespersens but she's also furious and determined.  This brings up another anti-sentimental strategy: let your character be aware of or ashamed of inappropriate feelings.  "She made herself look Tom and Bobbie Jespersen in the eyes when she told them, and when she took Tom in to identify the body, she rested a hand on his shoulder and let him sit and compose himself before he had to tell Bobbie it was true.  She made herself do every small gesture of sympathy, and watched herself do it.  But she felt like a hypocrite, because inside she was  cold and furious: she would make the Chief see that these were murders.  She would find the monster who put her in this situation where she couldn't even give her full attention to a weeping father."

•A third solution for sentimental strategy is to pull back a little bit out of viewpoint,  perhaps because the shock has numbed the character, or perhaps just because you have been varying closeness of viewpoint in the book (I'll talk at some future time about why that can be desirable).  Then after the scene is over, let the affected person react  in a way that makes the reader guess (correctly) how deep the feelings must run.  The vomiting policeman in Fritz Lang's M is one example; for our hypothetical case here,  maybe we describe Emma being gentle with the Jespersens and correct with the paperwork, and then when Chief Insensitive leans in her door and says, "They're gonna be okay, right, after they get over the shock?" she throws heavy objects, or grabs him by the lapels and slaps him, or leans back and howls and weeps inconsolably, or doesn't answer, waits till he leaves, and says very quietly, "Asking that question means you are an idiot, and I am going to make sure that everyone knows you are."

Recap: sentimental strategy is presenting the emotionally loaded piece as if you were trying to cash in emotion chips, i.e. making it serve your emotion-button-hitting needs rather than your story-telling needs.  The solutions are, 1) just present it if the emotions are obvious and appropriate; 2) present the awkwardness if there is an awkward gap between the sentiment (appropriate emotion) and the real emotion; or 3) present the loaded part blandly and then report the objective reaction to it.  

•Sentimental tactics are almost always a result of self-consciousness: you know it's not working emotionally, so you try to add some emotion booster.  In general if you fix the sentimental intent or the sentimental strategy, you won't feel the need for these, and you'll just drop them, so I'm not making much in the way of notes about how to get rid of them; it's too much like
"Doctor, it hurts when I do this."
"Well, don't do that."
 These include:

Exaggeration – overstating the feeling because you're afraid the reader will miss it.  "Aura was dead, and Emma stared into an aching nihilistic void of meaninglessness that extended through the whole universe."

Metaphor (conventional ) – if you are using a  metaphor, (or simile or other trope – metaphor is the overarching name for all of the tropes of similarity), the scene is at risk of or suspected of sentimentality, and you have ever seen that metaphor in print before, cross it out.  "Aura was dead. Emma felt socked in the gut."

Metaphor  (distressingly original) – some writers think it's the clichéd nature of the metaphor that makes the sentimentalism obvious, and unfortunately compose their own.   "Aura was dead.  Emma swallowed hard, a sensation like forcing down a frozen-solid garden slug."

Melodrama – melodrama was called that originally from "melo-" meaning "music."  Cuing up background music doesn't even work well in the movies.  Let's give poor old Aura a rest and let Emma have a romantic scene with Hansom McNewphella (who is of course the guy Chief Insensitive suspects of the child murders).  Sitting out by the lake listening to the radio, well, all right (though it borders on glurge).  But if there's a playlist and it includes "Can't Help Falling In Love With You,"  "Wonderful World," and "The Way You Look Tonight," then you're trying to borrow significance from the music (and unless your audience is senior citizens, the wrong music at that).

Glurge --  Most of you have heard this internet slang, I'm sure, for "things to which everyone is supposed to enjoy having a reaction."  These are the pictures of kittehs and bun-buns going nom nom nom, the heartwarming stories of wise old grandpas saying just the right thing, the brave officer (or doggeh) saving the toddler, and so on.  If such an element naturally occurs in your story at the point where you suspect sentimentality and you can't remove it, at least downplay it.  If you have added it to help people get the point, take it out and help people keep their lunch.

Name-that-feeling (sometimes combined with Fanthorpism) – you can't make a reader feel an emotion by naming it*******, or credibly characterize anyone with a list of abstract adjectives.  But some writers try, and the results are usually somewhere between flat and unintentionally comic.  "Another dead child.  Emma couldn't seem to get away from them, they were inescapable, unavoidable, ubiquitous, everywhere.  It made her sad, depressed, mournful, despairing, somber, lachrymose …"

Sentimental tactics are usually best solved by just omitting; you won't fix an appalling metaphor with a better one, or glurge by substituting a kindly old uncle for a bunny.  (Even if he goes nom nom nom).  More often than not, you can just dispense with them at the same time you clean up the sentimental strategies, or if the strategy wasn't sentimental, just leave the sentimental tactics out entirely.

In a sense, sentimentality is a "heart disease" of fiction: you can't ignore it, and you can't just cut that out and throw it away and figure the patient will get along without it.  You have to truly fix sentimentality or completely replace it,  and then you have to work on getting the repaired piece into the best shape it can be, because it keeps everything else going.  The good news is, if you really fix sentimentality, and the story is otherwise strong, you can very suddenly find you have one of your best stories.  


* Given what followed in the centuries since, we had a very long way to go, and a good ways to go yet, but one place the change started was in prose fiction.

** he may have been quoting himself, since I haven't been able to find a source that says it quite this way.

*** much more about implied authors and implied readers can be found in Wayne Booth's Rhetoric of Fiction.  Again, as I often warn , please don't pretend you know all about it (let alone decide you can urge other people to dismiss it) based on a couple of sentences here.  Human up and learn it if you want to talk about it at any depth.

**** So we now have this imaginary relationship between who you're pretending to be and who you're pretending to talk to.  You can see where something could go wrong here, ne?

***** and, I guess, not to be a chimp

****** except maybe impatience.  I might be able to make you feel impatience – if impatience is a feeling, and impatience is something you feel – by mentioning, though not necessarily in an impatient way, but in a way that refers to impatience – impatience, if the impatience you felt had anything to do with the impatience the story intended.  Otherwise not.