Writer, Get Out of the Way!
Aspiring writers, you MUST critique others at some point in your quest to learn the craft. It’s eye-opening in ways you could never imagine. Intimidating? Yes. Uncomfortable? Absolutely. Worthwhile? Priceless.
One of the most important things I’ve learned from critiquing is a simple piece of advice, but hard to follow–stop making myself a barricade to the story. Or, in other words, stop acting as narrator, get out of my own way, and just let actions flow through the characters.
Take, for example, this excerpt from a teen fiction story abandoned long ago that I’ve picked up and started rewriting.
She also saw thirty-five texts from Caroline. “This is getting ridiculous,” she said out loud. Ignoring Caroline’s random messages about frivolous things, Wren began typing in earnest, describing the events of the day.
Pitiful. Embarrassing. Pointless. Why?
- She saw–if I’m writing from this character’s POV, of course she saw. We’re looking through her eyes, and should be looking through them the whole time. No need to tell readers that our main character is the one seeing.
- “Dialogue,” she said out loud–the dialogue quotes imply she’s speaking out loud. No need to tell readers that, either.
- Telling what characters are going to do before they do it–If I’d have self-pubbed this book as-is, readers would have wanted to bang their heads against the wall from the constant warnings about what will happen next. Better to let them discover actions as they happen.
- Telling what characters don’t do–Ignoring the random messages would be implied by her not answering them and instead talking about the events of the day
- Giving implication of things with no details–what are these frivolous things Caroline texts about? What I could have done is had the character read through a few of them. Maybe threw in a deep POV thought here and there so readers would have known what she thinks and showed her physical reactions as well.
The overall problem here is that I jumped into the story and took the place of the character. Instead of her actions, you’re seeing my explanation. It’s really just another classic show vs. tell example. Resist the urge to explain.
So how do we step aside and let our characters do the talking?
I remember this lesson from art class. We were asked to draw a styrofoam cup from a restaurant. The teacher asked us to start at the bottom of the cup and visualize its shape as one continuous line, moving in and out of grooves, and not picking up our pencils until we’ve drawn the entire outline. We were not to take our eyes off the cup until we finished. The strategy supposedly prevents artists from inserting their own preconceptions into the drawing.
We need to do the same thing with our stories. Walk the character’s steps, see through their eyes instead of our own, and write through their senses.
Here’s the revision:
Thirty five texts. All Caroline. Good grief.
My left pinky toe is curled in under the next one, but my right pinky toe is straight.
I have a nose hair that’s about an inch long.
Furrowing her brow, Wren scrolled to the bottom of the list and typed. Chris kissed me. She pressed send.
Twice. In front of school.
Wren sighed. Mom drove up and caught us. I’m grounded forever.
Better, right? Did I get the same info across and meet the same purpose? Did you get the idea that Caroline is texting random, frivolous stuff? And that Wren is ignoring her messages to tell what happened? But all through Wren’s eyes instead of my own.
So, best advice ever: Revise yourself out of this story! It’s not about you.