Wednesday, June 1, 2011

He Said She Said

Now that I’ve adequately lectured you on the importance of writing frequently, it’s time for some more practical advice.  This one falls under the “oh my gosh this is so simple and makes my writing sound thirty percent better and why didn’t I ever think of it myself” category.  It’s another one of those things that would go up on the huge “HOW TO WRITE” chart that should be on the wall above my monitor.  But alas, it only just recently came to me.

Yes, it is a book, and yes, you should give in to
my shameless plug and check it out.

I was doing one last edit of The Color of Night.  It was the fourth or fifth time I had read through it for the sole purpose of fixing it up as I go along.  You know, shooting down typos and awkward sentences and the like.  I was having a particularly difficult time with a scene in which Patrick, the main character, was performing a lot of consecutive actions and making a lot of observations, all by himself and therefore without any dialogue.  Now, I’ve always had problems with scenes like this, if only because I end up starting 80% of the sentences with the word “he”, trying to fit in the character’s name wherever it seemed appropriate, just to lighten the load a bit. 

He went over here and picked up the thing.  He looked at it, thinking that it was whatever, then he walked over to the door.  He opened it, and he saw a something.  He stared at it, then he ran over to the such and such.  (Not an exact quote, but it’s basically what it sounded like.)

Do you see how that can be annoying?  But I’ll be darned if sometimes you just can’t seem to get around it!  I was combing through these passages, trying desperately to trim the “he”s wherever I could.  I reshaped sentences and combined others, but in the end I just couldn’t seem to get it to a comfortable level.  Flustered, I turned to the internet.  (Something which I suggest you do often, though that is a subject for another day.)

I don’t remember exactly what I entered into Google, but it was something with the words “writing” and “he”.  A random mess of words, just to see what came up.  And what I found was an article from Fiction Factor, a very neat online writing magazine.  The article is technically about writing in the first person, but its lesson can be applied to third person as well, as in a way, the narrator is still following the thoughts and actions of one person at a time.  The article, titled “Me, Myself and I: Writing First Person Point of View,” gave me some very valuable (and very forehead-slappingly simple) insight regarding my scene:

The scene is from Patrick’s point of view.  If the narrator mentions that something is there, it means that Patrick has seen it.  If it brings up an abstract thought or observation, Patrick is thinking it.

I looked at the scene and realized that a large percentage of my “he”s was coming from “he thought”s and “he saw”s.  And suddenly it was all so clear!  If it’s happening on the page, we don’t always need to know that Patrick is experiencing it, because he very obviously is.  I seized this new knowledge and started blowing away “he”s left and right.  But this came with a very happy side-effect, as well:  Not only did the scene move much more smoothly without the repeated word, but it altogether just felt like a better piece of writing.  I hadn’t even realized just how lame my book had read until I control+f'd my way through all instances of “he thought”, etc.  It added a level of quality and fluidity to my work that I hadn’t even realized was hiding just behind a few words.

My two very best friends.
 Let’s go through some examples, just to drive the point home:

He thought the dog looked very old.


The dog looked very old.

Extraordinarily simple, right?  Yet it’s so very easy to miss, and makes all the difference.  We don’t need to know that he thought this thing; he obviously did, or we wouldn’t be reading it!  Another one:    

He saw that the door was open.


The door was open.

Same thing.  This is so much less cumbersome, and potentially more intense, if that’s what you’re going for.

Now, there are two things to remember when applying this tip.  Firstly, this will probably not be the perfect solution to all of your “he”s and “she”s and “I”s, but it will certainly help.  I will admit to you right now that my book’s still got far too many “he”s for my liking, but it’s much better than it was before.  Eliminating redundancy is something that takes careful planning and crafting of a passage, which itself probably takes years of practice.  The second thing to remember is that not all instances of “he thought” and “he saw” are bad.  Sometimes it’s necessary, depending on what’s going on with the character.  Here are a few examples of appropriate times:

He thought he saw movement, but it was only the shadows playing tricks with his eyes.

This is perfectly fine.  We are trying to convey that the character was under the impression that he saw movement, when in fact he did not. 

He saw something at the end of the hall that sent a chill down his spine.

The first result  when I search Google Images
for "tension", so... there you go.

We could have just as easily said, There was a mega-giant Jerusalem cricket at the end of the hall, and it sent a chill down his spine, but that would have been too straightforward.  By telling the reader that the character saw something shocking before even telling them what it was, we create tension.  For the length of time it takes the reader to get through the sentence, they’re wondering just what it is at the end of the hall.  They’re curious, they’re waiting with bated breath!  The words you write are a linear stream of information, and just as with a movie, we choose what the audience sees and when, creating tension and emotion as it pleases us.

You very easily could have known all of this already, but if you’re like me, this is mind-blowing stuff.  There are so many things to keep in mind that being a new writer is a tough job.  But keep pressing on and learning new things, and slowly it will all come together.

(And please, please, never write a book about a mega-giant Jerusalem cricket, for it would be much, much too horrifying).

Often called the "potato bug", the Jerusalem cricket is the only insect in the genus
Stenopalmatus that can make you pee yourself in utter revulsion and horror.

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