Friday, December 8, 2017

What's in a Word -- Captain Obvious

It's been a while since I posted a What's in a Word installment, but now, I think, is high time. 

Why, you ask? The reason is "obvious."

One thing that I had to overcome in my own work was telling instead of showing. I learned the hard way, and now try to share tips before authors run up against reviews that wax less than poetic about craft issues in stories. 

One big offender is the word "obvious", with its partners in crime "clearly", "as if", and "as though."  

Whenever I see "obvious " in a story, usually one of two things is happening:

1) It's not obvious at all and the reader has to be told information, or

2) It's obvious without the author having to say so.

Example of 1: Ralph stood outside, obviously cold. 
Example of 2: Ralph wrapped his arms around himself and huddled into his jacket, obviously cold. 

When reading, the reader should become the POV character. We're totally in their head, and can only know what they know. Example 1 can be the author's way of imparting knowledge to the reader that the POV character doesn't have, thus distancing us from the POV character and losing the opportunity of total immersion in the book.

Show us what the POV character sees, feels, hears, etc., and let us draw our own conclusion that Ralph must be cold. 

Is he shivering? Teeth chattering? Turning blue? Are his head and shoulders dusted with snow? If he acts cold, then we can see it for ourselves and don't have to be told. In fact, if the description is particularly vivid enough, readers might shiver themselves or reach for a comforter, pulled so into the story that they themselves now experience Ralph's discomfort. 

In the second case, if you've shown that Ralph is cold, you don't have to say that it's obvious, because it is obvious. 

Substitute "clearly" for "obviously" and you have the same issue. 

In some cases, these two culprits appear to avoid a point of view flip, when the author needs to impart information about the non-POV character.

Imagine you (POV character), are sitting at a table, having dinner with a friend. Your friend smiles, “obviously happy”. Why are they happy? What makes you think they’re happy? It’s possible to force a smile.

What if your friend smiled, “obviously uncomfortable”. Saying “obviously uncomfortable” based on their smile, is feeding us information we can’t possible have.

However, if your friend gave you a strained smile that didn’t quite meet their eyes, darted furtive gazes right and left, and pushed their chair back from the table, arms wrapped around themselves, what does that bring to mind? I don’t think many would read “obviously happy” there.

“As if” and “as though” also feed us information that the POV character can’t have. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read something like this:

He smiled at Justin, as if he was the most beautiful thing in the world.


Sylvia cocked her head to the side, as if to say, “I told you so.”

Wow, that is one talented smile or head cock if a simple gesture can convey all that. The thing is, a smile alone can’t, nor can the mere tilt of a head.

To convey such a complex thought involves many more body cues. What does it look like if someone is gazing at beauty? Would they lean in, subconsciously trying to get closer? Are they staring? Is their body language open? Now, it’s perfectly okay to say “a coy smile”, as that is an easily discernible expression.

Cocking the head to the side is usually associated with confusion. A scowl and an eye roll might convey the sentiment “I told you so,” but the “as if” has no place here.

Try this:

She rolled her eyes and scowled, arms squeezed tightly to her chest.

Now, her gesture might mean many things, but taken in context, the intention is clear:

“Billy, slow down! The speed limit here is forty-five,” Sylvia snapped, clutching the “oh shit” handle.

Billy glanced down at the speedometer. “Nobody ever slows down for this inter—”

Whiiiiiirrrrrr. Blue lights flashed behind them.

She rolled her eyes and scowled, arms squeezed tightly to her chest.

Now, in this passage is it understood that Sylvia is conveying, “I told you so”, without “as if”?

This scene does not, for any reason, under any circumstances, require an “obviously”, “as if”, “as though”, or “clearly.”

And don’t you kind of want to roll your own eyes along with Sylvia? Because, in the end, folks, it’s all about connecting with the reader.

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