• dianethewriterscoach

The problem with 'positioning'...

I don't know if that's a term I've coined, or something I've read somewhere. All I know is, when I'm editing an author's manuscript, I remove as much of it as I can.

When we were little, our schoolteachers would encourage us to add description to our stories. This increased their word counts, added atmosphere, and showed our teachers that we were using our blossoming vocabularies and imaginations.

Positioning is fine in schoolwork; however, not so much in commercial fiction.

The thing is, when new authors begin their writing careers, a lot of the things they were told in school is apparent in their work. It's not their fault to a point, as no one will have told them otherwise, but if they're readers, too, they would have noticed that successful books don't include much positioning, as it slows the pace of the story and 95% of it is unnecessary.

What do I mean by 'positioning'?

It's the practical stuff a character does in a scene. Passive actions that are typically a given, and extraneous details that add nothing to the story. Examples:

1. He turned and walked out of the door.

2. She sat down in the chair then turned to face him.

3. She got up and walked over to the kettle then put it on.

4. He turned around to see Deborah getting into her car.

5. He walked over to the window and saw Deborah coming back from shopping.

6. She took her phone from her pocket, swiped the screen and sent a text to Deborah that read: xxx

Here's what I would do with each of these:

1. He left.

2. Unless integral to the scene, or it was necessary for the reader to know that the character was sitting down, I wouldn't use this sentence at all. I'd jump straight to the dialogue or the action that came next.

3. She put the kettle on.

4. He noticed Deborah getting into her car.

5. Through the window, he saw Deborah return, laden with shopping bags.

6. In a text to Deborah, she said xxxx

Apart from number two, the outcome of each sentence is the same, but the text is tighter. Of course, as with number two, if it was relevant that 'she walked to the kettle' (she may have been unable to walk until that point, for example, after an accident, or because she'd been ill), then that's a different matter. Most of the time, however, such detail is simply posturing and unnecessary. The reader won't care whether the characters in a scene are standing/sitting, if the chair they're in is to another character's right or left...unless this contributes to the plot. The reader just wants to know what happens. What was said, and to whom? What did they do? What was their mood? In what manner did they address each other...were they angry, tense, relaxed, sorrowful? How would you describe the expression on their face? There's absolutely nothing wrong with narrative, or padding to boost word count - as long as it enriches the story.

It's also annoying for the reader when every character just has to be doing something in a dialogue-heavy scene. They roll their eyes or chew their lips (my absolute pet hates!). In all honesty, I cannot think of a time when I've done either of those things...maybe the latter if I was bored or slightly nervous. In one book I edited, there was so much eye-rolling, it's a wonder the characters could see straight to walk anywhere.

Dialogue can just play out on its own. It's fine. We don't need the characters to continually walk around, pick things up or put things down, sigh over and over, lick their lips or flick their hair. Don't get me wrong, a little of this detail could help to build a picture of someone; however, I'm referring to constant snippets the author adds just for something to say.

These are rookie mistakes, common habits by amateur writers. They tend to disappear as they work on subsequent books, as they hone their writing and realise that the plot and pace is what's important, not whether Joe has got up from his seat to put the kettle on, or whether Jane was facing Deborah as she spoke. Positioning is helpful in screenplays, so that the director knows how to set up and shoot a scene; even then, this information would likely be in the production notes. Such information is relevant because the medium is visual.

If I'm gripped by a scene in a book, I don't want to stop to picture the direction Jane or Joe is facing, or what they have in their hands at every given moment. Instead, show me their interaction, make me feel their tension/passion/indifference, have me imagine their thoughts.