Practical Writing: The Three-Way Slice

I wrote a novel for National Novel Writing Month this year, the first novel I have ever written. I am in the process of revising it to make it suitable for public consumption. As I’ve been revising, I’ve noticed an unevenness in my writing style, and I have developed an experimental method for ironing out these wrinkles.

As I was re-reading the story, I noticed that some scenes were almost completely descriptive, while others had a lot of dialog and not much else. I didn’t have much internal narrative either, although I haven’t decided if I want any or not. These kinds of style differences left the overall story feeling unbalanced in places.

I discovered that once I had written a particular scene in a particular way, there was considerable inertia in my creative process that pulled me toward re-writing in the same style.  A descriptive paragraph was a descriptive paragraph; reading the scene that way kept me thinking of the scene in that way.  My revisions seemed stale and lifeless, so I came up with this method that I call the three-way slice to force myself to explore the scene in different ways. This is how it works. I take the scene or paragraph I’m working on and I write it in each of the three different styles.

For example, I took a passage that was primarily descriptive:

Laurel lay on her side, propped on an elbow and looking over her bare shoulder toward the window. The room was quiet, the silence disturbed only by the scratching of charcoal on canvas. After long moments, a muted beep broke Jim’s reverie and he disappeared momentarily, returning with a cup of black coffee. Laurel sat up and pulled the brocade blanket around her, accepting the proffered beverage with a smile.

And re-wrote it into a narrative:

Laurel lay frozen, letting only her mind fidget while she gazed out the window. Posing was difficult and required meditative discipline to dissociate the unconscious mind, which wanted constantly to move, from the body, which must be kept perfectly still. She placed her conscious self on the window sill, and busied herself with imagining the room’s perspective from that vantage point. The trick was staying alert. If she became drowsy, she would not be able to hold her pose.  Pain began to seep into her arm, slowly drawing her back into her head. She wasn’t sure how much longer she could wait.

Then finally wrote it a third time as a dialogue:

“Wait. Just like that. Can you hold that pose while I sketch it?”

“Um, no. But…this is close, and I could do this for maybe… fifteen minutes. Is it OK?”

“Yes. Let me…yes. That will do. That will do nicely.”

“You really must heat this place. I could do longer poses if it weren’t so cold.”

“Eh. Sorry. I have the coffee on.”

By exploring the scene in this fashion, I looked at my characters and their actions more closely, thought about what was happening more carefully, and gave myself new, more detailed material to work with when I revised the scene again.  The end result looked like this:

“Wait. Just like that. Can you hold that pose while I sketch it?” Jim arranged the brocade covering that draped carelessly across Laurel’s hips and thighs.

“Um, no. But…” Laurel shifted onto her elbow, “…this is close, and I could do this for maybe… fifteen minutes. Is it OK?” She looked over her shoulder at him.

“Yes. Let me…” He dashed over to his canvas and eyed the angles. “Yes. That will do. That will do nicely.” He began sketching without taking his eyes from her.

Laurel froze in place, and felt the gooseflesh crawl across her body. “You really must heat this place. I could do longer poses if it weren’t so cold.” She settled slightly, letting her gaze rest on the window. Posing was difficult and required meditative discipline to dissociate the unconscious mind, which wanted constantly to move, from the body, which must be kept perfectly still.

Jim’s answer came distractedly. “Eh. Sorry. I have the coffee on.”

He squinted and then briefly rubbed the canvas with the side of his hand. The room fell quiet, the silence disturbed only by the scratching of charcoal on canvas. Laurel placed her conscious self on the window sill, and busied herself with imagining the room’s perspective from that vantage point.

After long moments, a muted beep broke Jim’s reverie and he disappeared momentarily, returning with a cup of black coffee. Laurel sat up and pulled the brocade blanket around her, accepting the proffered beverage with a smile.

The final passage is longer, more rich in detail, and pleasantly varied.  The characters have a little more depth as well, we understand their relationship somewhat, and the aspect of the model’s experience is brought forward. The scene feels more real and less like a throw-away bridge between two other scenes.

Of course, that might not always be desirable behavior. There’s not much point in fleshing out a paragraph like this if it is intended to be a bridge between two other scenes, but even then the exercise can serve to solidify plot and character points that might otherwise be floating in the draft.


Kit Fox writes when she’s not raising children, working, renovating her house, or knitting. She also hosts the Writer’s Chat on Tuesdays at 1700 UTC in the writers.stackexchange.com chat room.

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