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Writing tips: Fiction Writers, Stop Obscuring the Reader’s View

Fiction writers are often anxious that their readers will not see what they want them to see. This anxiety can be creative, but it can also be destructive: It can cause them to actually block readers from seeing what they’re describing.

One way writers do this is by avoiding the perfectly good and simple dialogue tags of he said, she replied, he answered for the seemingly more descriptive tags of she offered, he barked, she effused.

Why is this a problem? Because these more exotic dialogue tags TELL readers what they should be seeing, instead of letting the writing SHOW them. Just when a poor reader is imagining the action, he or she is interrupted by the author’s attempt to make sure they are imagining the action.

Which would be more enjoyable: basking in the radiance of a Rembrandt painting or trying to see it through a thicket of yellow stickies telling you what to see?

A sentence I recently edited had “his teacher interjected” as a dialogue tag. That interrupted my view of what was happening, which was clear because the student was mid-sentence when the teacher responded. The interjection was actually obscured because the author interjected the word interjection to make sure I saw that the teacher was interjecting. You get the idea.

Some writers go one step further and add an adverb to the dialogue tag. They not only have the teacher interject, they also have the teacher interject rudely or suddenly or peevishly. In good writing, the description of the teacher is implicit in what is actually happening: It exists between the lines.

Speaking of which, isn’t it true that the best reading experiences are the ones in which you’re not aware that you’re reading? When this happens, you’re reading between the lines.

I remember having this experience when I was in high school. It was late afternoon and I was lying on the couch in our living room deep into John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. I had just read a scene describing a rare and sumptuous meal that the nomadic Joad family had been able to scare up when my mother called me for dinner. I was disoriented, because, in effect, I had already eaten.

Some further thoughts on adverbs (and adjectives, too, it turns out):

The French novelist Georges Simenon was asked in a Paris Reviewinterview to describe how he revised his manuscripts. Here’s how he responded:

GEORGES SIMENON Just one piece of general advice from a writer has been very useful to me. It was from Colette. I was writing short stories for Le Matin, and Colette was literary editor at that time. I remember I gave her two short stories and she returned them and I tried again and again. Finally she said, “Look, it is too literary, always too literary.” So I followed her advice. It’s what I do when I write, the main job when I rewrite.

INTERVIEWER What do you mean by “too literary”? What do you cut out, certain kinds of words?

SIMENON Adjectives, adverbs, and every word which is there just to make an effect. Every sentence which is there just for the sentence. You know, you have a beautiful sentence – cut it. Every time I find such a thing in one of my novels it is to be cut.

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