Saturday, June 26, 2010

Gawking Characters

By Jessica Murphy

A "gawking character" is a narrator who tells the reader what happens in a scene instead of letting the reader experience the action directly. This is called narrator intrusion, and it robs the reader of the full experience, thus distancing him from the story. A gawking character looks like this:

Gawking: "Adam saw the orange glow and the black smoke rolling into the sky from where he stood on the corner of the block. As he jogged down the sidewalk toward it, he felt a cool breeze and smelled burning wood. As he ducked under the branch of a tree, he saw the burning house. From where he stood, he felt the intense heat and heard the flames roar and pop. Adam stepped forward toward the open front door but felt the searing heat from the sidewalk drive him back."

The words in red show you where the narrator steps between the reader and the action and tells the reader what happens. This detracts from the reader’s experience. A scene must allow readers to experience the action directly in order to grab them. Would you prefer to watch a friend eat a hot fudge sundae and tell you how sweet it tastes, or would you want to eat it yourself?

A gawking character is also redundant. The scene is told from the viewpoint character's perspective, so we already know that we are reading his or her experience. Telling the reader that the character is experiencing the scene is redundant.

Here is the same sentence without the gawking character:

Direct: "Adam glanced up from the corner of Kingwood and Beechurst. The starlit sky glowed orange, and thick smoke rolled across it. He spun on one heel, crunching grit on the sidewalk beneath his shoes, and ran down the street. The cool autumn breeze carried sparks and the smell of burning wood past him. As he brushed the branches of a tree out of his face, the burning house appeared.

A rushing roar filled Adam’s ears, and a wave of heat lifted the hairs on his tan arms. Shading his blue eyes with his hand, he squinted against the blinding light. Flames engulfed every inch of the house and licked at the cloudless sky. They popped and crackled from inside the house, the sounds echoing down the empty street. Adam rushed toward the front porch, but the heat seared his face. He fell back."

This time, the narrator does not water down the scene. We see no "Adam felt," "Adam saw," "Adam heard." Instead, the reader is the one standing on the sidewalk, seeing the flames, feeling their heat, hearing their roar. This direct experience captivates readers and keeps them interested.

Nonphysical Gawking

A gawking character can also filter internal experiences, such as thoughts or emotions. Again, if the scene is being told from the viewpoint character's perspective, we can assume that any thoughts belong to that character (unless he or she can read others' thoughts or sense emotions).

Gawking: "Blood soaked through the fabric, and Preston realized he had plunged the blade into Jack’s side."

Since this scene is told from Preston’s point of view, he can be the only one who realizes something. We don’t need to state the obvious.

Direct: "A red stain spread across Jack's gut, matting the shirt to his skin. The silver blade glinted from where Preston had plunged it in Jack’s side."

The same holds true for emotions:

Gawking: "I felt worried, but a breeze made me feel a little better."

This is told in first person point of view, so the narrator must be the one who felt worried. After all, he cannot feel another character’s emotions. So, stating what the narrator felt is redundant.

Direct: "My stomach churned, but the crisp air cooled my feverish skin and the nausea settled for the moment."

If you take out the gawking character, your readers can experience every scene directly. Any less cheats them out of the story and, in the end, loses them.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Ellipsis vs. Dash Usage in Fiction

by Sherry Wilson

The question I get asked most often by writers is whether they should use a dash or an ellipsis. This is also something that I often see misused in fiction—sometimes even in published fiction. Once it is explained, you’ll find it a relatively simple concept.

The Dash

The dash is a very useful tool when writing fiction. It can replace commas, parentheses or colon and is more informal in its usage. The dash can be written as two hyphens in a row--like this or as an em dash—like this. Your word processor might convert the two hyphens to the em dash automatically as you type. There are no spaces before or after the dash.

A dash can show a shift in thought or to set off an important element in a sentence.

She laughed—a knowing sound—and leaned back in her chair.
For the most part I’m happy with it—or at least I was.

You can also use a dash in place of a colon to make the text less formal.

Example: He liked to play instruments—guitar, violin, piano, and trumpet.

A dash can be used in place of parentheses.

Example: The whole class—about thirty students—received brand new instruments.

The dash is a very useful tool in your writing, but should be used sparingly. It draws the eye and thus emphasizes a phrase in a statement. But if there’s a dash in every sentence, then it loses its effect.


I often see ellipses misused in fiction—sometimes even in published fiction. The ellipsis does not show a break in thought. It is used to show a thought that trails off and is left unfinished.

Example: I remember that day back in May… Well, it isn’t really important.

There are no spaces before the ellipsis. You leave a space after the ellipsis when it begins a new sentence.

The other use for the ellipsis is in quoting from something and you only want to use part of the source. If you leave out something in the middle, you use the ellipsis to show that something has been left out.

Example: “To be, or not to be: that is the question … Be all my sins remember’d.”

Ellipses are rarely used in fiction. If your character’s words trail off as he notices the tornado heading straight for him, then you’ll need to use an ellipsis. It is a useful tool when used sparingly.

Okay, grammar lesson is over. Back to work . . .