Monday, November 23, 2009

Prose and Activation Energy

I didn't originally plan to revisit my post on Cuts and Continuity, but as I was revising some prose this weekend, I had a few more thoughts about it.

When we all start to read a story, we initially have to overcome an activation energy barrier. Activation energy is that energy required for a chemical reaction to occur, such as when you start a fire; you need some spark to get the fire to burn, but once it's going, you can leave it alone until the fire burns out. With a story, you need to overcome an initial disorientation before you are comfortable enough with the time, place, and characters to just read through it enjoyably.

I think we're all aware of this initial activation energy barrier, but I was finding in my own prose that I had unintentionally set up other barriers throughout my story. And far too many of them.

Every time there is a jump in a story, the reader has to overcome the activation energy barrier again. They have to read for awhile in a disoriented state before they can figure out exactly where they are. And, if they aren't up to the task, they are likely to give up. A jump from one chapter to another is probably an acceptable place for such a new barrier to be put up. But, I was finding in my own prose that I was making readers work, even from sentence to sentence in a single paragraph:

The man’s name is Mr. Paiboon. They had met him on their second night in Bangkok, when they went to a local trade school looking for work among the postings tacked to the bulletin boards. The man was filling out an ad. He overheard them talking and told Rana that he might be interested in having her work for him as a waitress.

Going from the first sentence to the second sentence, readers have to transition from learning about one character in the present tense to being in the point of view of other characters in the past tense. Then, from the second to third sentence, we are back with the original character, Mr. Paiboon, even slipping into his mind in the fourth sentence.

The same thoughts within this paragraph can be presented with fewer activation energy barriers:

The man's name is Mr. Paiboon. He had introduced himself to Bao and Rana on their second night in Bangkok, when the two had gone to a local trade school looking for work among the postings tacked to the bulletin boards. Though his ad was not yet up, Mr. Paiboon told them that he might be able to help. "I hope you don't mind that I was eavesdropping," he said. "But this young lady here might be perfect for a waitress position that has opened up."

The meaning in this paragraph is basically the same as the original, but the transitions from one sentence to another connect more easily. The character we learn about in sentence one is the subject of sentence two instead of the object. He is also the subject of sentence three, which is connected to the end of the previous sentence by the prepositional phrase. Then, the last part of the paragraph is dialog that expands on the sentence before it, still staying with the single main character of this scene.

Changing my prose this way, I think a reader will be led more easily from one sentence to the next. By eliminating or reducing the activation energy barriers, I have a smaller chance of losing the reader along the way.

We sometimes talk about hooks in writing. The idea of a hook in the beginning of a story is to "hook" the reader--like a fish--so that you can reel him or her in more easily throughout the rest of the story. Breaks in the continuity caused by changes in time, place, or point of view, then, are like when the fish manages to free itself from the hook. If this happens, you have to somehow snag them again. But, if your prose feels continuous, I think readers are less likely to fall off that hook. They will want to keep reading, in part because they can't find a good stopping place, a break where they must rest before overcoming the next activation energy barrier.


  1. Hmm, I've noticed this in my own writing, Davin. And you're right. The second paragraph reads more easily.

    I will go through and try to find my own barriers that I have put between my readers and my story.

    One question. You mention hooks. I read somewhere a couple of weeks ago that EVERY paragraph must have some kind of a hook. What are your thoughts on that, Davin?

    Great post. :)

  2. I do like the second paragraph the best. I never thought of writing this way, but it's brilliant to see things from this angle. This may be why I get frustrated with my writing at times, wondering what's not feeling right about it.

    When I start writing again I'll have to see about that.

    *bookmarks this post*

  3. This is reason my husband claims why he doesn't like to read fiction: authors don't make things clear because they'd rather indulge in literary flourish or "artsiness". I personally don't mind working a little bit, but if I sense that the filling-in-the-blanks is due to the author trying to be stylish/deep/clever/super-literary, in other words, trying to fake, I give up. So it goes back to the earlier posts here about honesty as well.

  4. Robyn,
    Hopefully others will chime in on your question about hooks as well. Here's my opinion: I think you need a new hook every time you've made a jump that lets readers off of the last hook. Sections of books have moments of introduction and then moments of tension. Whenever you get past a moment of tension, I think you need a new hook, whether that be from paragraph to paragraph, sentence to sentence, or chapter to chapter. For me, some books are so exciting throughout, that I'd say the writer only needed the one initial hook in the beginning.

    Michelle, This thought really didn't occur to me until lately. I just noticed that my prose felt broken somehow, but I couldn't figure out how. Then, after taking a break from my own writing for awhile, I could come back to it and see what was making me react so strangely to it. This is one of the things I came up with.

    Yat-Yee, yes, I agree with you. On Wednesday I'm actually planning to post about exactly what you are describing here. There's a certain compromise involved, a middle ground. Thanks for stopping by!

  5. Other than the tense issue (see below), I don't see anything necessarily wrong with the first paragraph. It can work if the story is being told from the point-of-view of "they" right before this paragraph, and then shifts to being told from Mr. Paiboon's point-of-view after this paragraph. In other words, you've written a transitional paragraph then. If this wasn't in a transitional spot in your story, then maybe the paragraph would be problematic.

    I don't understand the first sentence being in present tense and then jumping to past perfect in the second sentence's beginning; that's too far a jump. If the overall story's told in the present tense, the second sentence should be past tense. Or is it that the first sentence shouldn't be present tense? Is the overall story past tense?

    Actually, I think if a story's told using omnipotent narration, the kind using a separate narrator from the characters (or an ambiguous narrator...), a writer can get away with screwing around with tenses. That readers understand what's going on is more important than whether the tenses follow the usual grammatical "rules." Sometimes, when to use present tense is really up to the talker. I just feel like writers should try to keep as much continuity as possible for clarity's sake so should err on the side of keeping the tenses the same.

    Here's a tiny tweak to the first paragraph:

    "The man’s name is Mr. Paiboon. They met him on their second night in Bangkok while at a local trade school looking for work among the postings tacked to the bulletin boards. The man was filling out an ad. He overheard them talking and told Rana that he might be interested in having her work for him as a waitress."

    I think you're so right about the "activation-energy" at story beginnings--good scientific metaphor for that! And it seems I personally must overcome lots of that, even while writing....

  6. F.P., This paragraph is in the middle of a longer section. It's not a transitional section though. The story is told from the point of view from three main characters, one of them being Bao, who is included in the "they." So, the slip into Mr. Paiboon's head is probably a bad idea. As for the tense, most of the story is told in present tense, and only a few places go into some version of past tense to cover some material that I had to pass initially.

    I think you're right that writing requires an activation energy too. I think that's why I sometimes start a bunch of stories at the same time, so I feel like I don't have to start from scratch when I'm in the mood to work on something.

  7. It's only as I've gained in writing prowess through practice that I started to notice this same thing you're talking about, Davin.

    Perhaps the easiest way (for me at least) to notice gaffes like this is to read the text aloud. Tied into that, however, is also a need to make it clear who's committing the action in each section. This is hard to do consistently -- especially when talking about a first draft.

    Great thoughts as always.

  8. Davin, that doesn't necessarily read like a slip into Mr. Paiboon's head. I can say "Sally overheard me talking" without my actually being in Sally's head. Maybe I saw that she stood listening to me talking. When I first read that paragraph, I assumed "they" realized Paiboon overheard them talking, not that the paragraph was suddenly in Paiboon's head. Maybe you INTENDED that part to be in his head, but it doesn't necessarily read that way. I did feel a jump toward Paiboon's perspective, but not necessarily an internal-to-him jump.

    Omnipotence (or even first-person narration toward someone other than the I-narrator!) could simply mean a statement THAT a character is seeing and hearing, but not necessarily WHAT the character is seeing and hearing. You didn't show the WHAT he overheard there, so I think how much that sentence belongs to Paiboon isn't clear.

    Not every section of a story can and should be developed by showing. Sometimes "telling," condensing a bunch of character actions--or even thoughts--down into one paragraph--sometimes this is better than nonstop detailed "showing character." A work might never end then and will be a snail's-pace read. Your rewrite reads slower. Not every character's every thought and word and action is equally important; knowing which to focus on and which to ignore--I think that's more important.

    If your previous paragraph is told from the other two characters, I think you should consider leaving the first version's overall structure alone. If you then want to give Paiboon more character by giving him the dialogue in your second version, you could put that right at the beginning of the next paragraph. And as I said, I think the tensing should be made consistent. But the first really sounds okay to me.

    Basically, I think the first is more telling than showing and the second shows more--that may be what's thrown you off.

    ...And I'm deconstructing this too much; it's only a single paragraph. Inside a novel, inside a long narrative, IMO, how that paragraph connects with the previous and the next may be more important, assuming the specifics of the characters' first meeting doesn't have some later plot importance.

    But I guess I both agree and disagree with your post: I think the activation-energy thing is very correct for the beginning of a story, but not very important beyond the beginning because readers have already experienced a history inside the narratives; by then they hold more of the story's potential energy (lol). If readers are getting stuck in spots beyond a beginning, I'd simply be inclined to call that writing "not good enough," and probably for a number of reasons.

    Well, I've got cleaning to do and I hate cleaning :o/....

  9. This is interesting in a couple of different directions. First, I know about the activation energy when reading. I usually encounter this phenomenon when starting a new book as I get used to the writer's voice. It's like the author has the first chapter during which they have to reach escape velocity or I stop reading. There are, as you say, other points at which more energy is required; the beginning of the second act is a big problem often, because at that point the story more or less sort of starts all over again. I also think that in episodic stories (the most recent one that comes to mind is Jhumpa Lahiri's "The Namesake"), at the start of each big section the reader might have to overcome internal resistance at reading a big chunk of exposition. So I agree with the general case you make regarding activation energy.

    I don't so much think that's what's going on with the sample paragraph you give. I remember the scene in Rooster and I had no problems with it at all. Certainly the rewritten version is dramatized and is more show, but I don't know if I like it as much as I like the first version (though I would get rid of the "had" in the second sentence).

    But I agree that setting up and transitioning between scenes is a place to watch out for weak writing that can knock the reader off the page. And as you say in your paragraphs about hooks, we don't want to give the reader any excuse to stop reading.

  10. Great post, Davin. I can feel the similarities of your first paragraph with my own writing, which means I have some improving to do. This is a really great example, so thanks for walking through it for us.

  11. Wow, what a difference between the first and second paragraphs! I love your explaination here, Davin. It is something I have 'felt' when I read, but never quite understood.

    I mean, I will feel lost or unattached but now I see that it is the switching of times and views that is causing that reaction. Very interesting stuff. You smart, smart cookie.

  12. Matthew, this is something I didn't really notice until recently as well. I think the changes are often smaller, so they probably shouldn't be a concern until later on in the revision process, after bigger issues have been taken care of. I just noticed the issue because I was wondering why I didn't like my prose, so I had to try and figure it out.

    F.P., I really appreciate you looking so closely at this passage. I agree with you that the sentence re: Mr Paiboon doesn't necessarily state that we're in his head, but I think it makes the reader jump a bit to clarify the narrator's perspective, and the small effect can make it just a bit more difficult to read.

    I agree with you about the telling. I'm a big supporter of telling, and my favorite post on this blog is probably my discussion of that topic.

    Scott, interesting thoughts. Thanks! The revised version is perhaps not as graceful as I'd like it to be in the end, but I do think the transition from sentence to sentence flows a bit more. Maybe I'll take a look at it again later--I wrote it rather quickly last night. I've just been finding this is a general thing I do in a lot of my prose, jumping around too much. I think there is a better way to do it to create the immersed effect I like in other writing.

    Eric, It's nice to see I'm not alone. Sometimes when I notice something new about my writing I feel like I'm the only one making a particular mistake. :)

    Tess, I was the same way. Something wasn't quite "feeling" right for me, and I kept reading my work, and then the work of people I like to try and figure out what wasn't working for me. This is the something that I came up with. Or, at least part of the something.

  13. You had me at "activation energy." Seriously. This is an indication of how much of a geek I am, but perhaps I shouldn't confess that in public.

    As far as the paragraphs go, I agree that the second flows far more smoothly, when examined in isolation. Whether it's a good idea to rewrite it as you have, for me, would depend on its context within the larger work, whether the style is markedly different from that you've used elsewhere.

    Ultimately, you're the arbiter of your own prose, of course. But I do find it illuminating to see how someone else takes a fine-toothed comb to their work. Thanks for letting us in on the process.

  14. Simon, thanks for stopping by. I was a bit afraid to use the term activation energy, so I'm glad people are comfortable with it, or that people can easily pick it up. Thanks for your comments on the writing too!

  15. Thanks Davin. I haven't had time to read through this whole post to make an informed comment, but I wanted to let the three of you know you have a Humane Award at my blog. I hope three can accept it.

    I find your (all three) posts inspiring.



  16. Donna, Thank you very much for the award! We really appreciate it!

  17. Davin, thanks for answering my question. I know there must be tension on every page. But I was confused about hooks. Aren't hooks and tension the same--sort of?

    YIKES! :)

  18. Brilliant post. I’d never thought about this before.

    In my critique group, there are two submitters I dread. They have excellent ideas, but I have to force myself to read through their work and it usually takes me three of four passes to get the plot and characters straight. Now I know why.

  19. This is a great post. I've thought about this a lot, but never been able to wrap my brain around it in the right way.

    I think you have really helped me with something I've been struggling with.


  20. Robyn, again this is just my opinion, so take from it what you want. I see hooks as the beginning of the tension. They start of a tense scene by snagging you with some little detail or question that you want answered. So, a hook creates tension, but not all tension will work as a hook.

    Brenda, that's really interesting. I was just thinking about a similar thing last night while I was reading. There are some writers whom I love, but it always takes me several pages before I can get into their stories. I think they require more activation energy than other writers, but maybe that results in a bigger pay-off sometimes.

    Shelley, I'm glad this is helpful to you! Like I mentioned before, the idea is sort of new to me, or at least I've never been able to put it into words before. You are always so wise in your comments, I'm glad I can say something that might actually be new to you!

  21. It never occured to me that I had to overcome disorientation barries as I read a novel/story/etc. but you're absolutley correct. If there are too many obstacles in prose I am more likely to put a peice of fiction to the side but I don't think I would have been able to articulate why.

    I like some obstacles and ambiguity in the work I read (within reason).

    To me, the first version of the paragraph reads stronger mood wise than the second.

    The revised paragraph, while I suppose is a bit easier to follow, is a tad information heavy and wouldn't strike me as part of a story I'd want to continue reading.

    I'm not getting this passage in context, but as a stand alone that's how I see it.


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