12.11.2018

Removing the Screen

A novice writer, trying so hard to inhabit a character, will often describe a piece of action taking place as seen by the character. The problem is, if you are truly inside your character’s head, everything is seen by her. Describing the act of seeing is a screen. Here’s an example: “When she looked up, she saw that he was easily making his way down, but when he landed, his foot slipped on a wet rock and he lurched forward.” On one level the narrative makes sense. If a character is contemplating her navel, and her attention is diverted by a more distant sight, she needs to look up. In addition, “she” controls the scene’s point-of-view, so she would be witnessing his clumsiness.

During the course of an edit, however, I usually take out all references to sight. It is possible that a character is so engrossed in something that she needs to physically turn her head to look up. Yet most of the time it is just lazy writing. More descriptive would be a phrase describing where the man is before he starts climbing down: a rocky bluff, a grassy dune, etc.

In particular, the phrase “she saw that” is hardly ever needed. If you’re inside the character, the point of view is assumed. A better strategy is to let the other character signal their presence first. Here is that sentence again, without the screens: “He called to her from the top of the rocky bluff. He easily made his way down, but when he landed, his foot slipped on a wet rock and he lurched forward.” She still is watching, but the actions of the other character are more immediate. The screen has been removed.

You can make the same implicit assumption for what a character thinks. The phrase “it seemed to her” is another one that I almost always delete. The entire book is filled with her thoughts, her opinions, etc. Everything that is narrated is the way it seems to her. Here’s an example, adding onto the beach example above: “It seemed to her that he had to stop trying to please her so much.” If she is the point-of-view character, you don’t need the screen. “He had to stop trying to please her so much” is more direct, allowing the reader to fully participate in her amusement and/or annoyance.

Exercise: Conducting a global search, key in any word related to sight, such as “look” or “see.” Judge whether the point-of-view character really needs to witness the event, or if it could just happen. Do the same with “seem.” This word rarely needs to be used in fiction. Everything is made up, so something is either real to the character or it isn’t.

“Vision is the art of seeing what is invisible to others.”
—Jonathan Swift

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine

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