Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Gawking Characters

Jessica Murphy

A "gawking character" is a narrator who tells the reader what happens in a scene instead of letting the reader experience it 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 rolling black smoke in 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. He ducked under the branch of a tree and 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 that drove him back.

The bold words 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 the reader to experience the action directly in order to grab him. 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. If the scene is told from the character's perspective, we already know that he experiences what we read. We don't need to say the same thing twice. 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 the burning wood. As Adam 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 right hand, he squinted against the blinding light. Flames engulfed every inch of the house and licked at the cloudless sky. Pops and crackles from inside the house echoed down the empty street. Adam rushed toward the front porch, but the heat seared his face and drove him 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, the one who sees the flames, feels their heat, hears their roar. This kind of direct experience captivates the reader and keeps him 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 character's perspective, we can assume that any thoughts belong to that character (unless he or she can read thoughts or sense emotions).

Gawking: Blood soaked through the fabric, and Preston realized he had plunged the blade into Jack’s side.
This scene is told from Preston’s point of view, so he must be the one realizing 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, the reader can experience every scene directly. Any less cheats him out of the story and, in the end, loses him.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Writing with Newborn Eyes

Sandy Tritt

I was recently blessed with a new grandson. On his first day home, I took him around my daughter’s townhouse, showing him the sunbathing cats, dinner simmering on the stove, and the view from the patio doors. In doing so, I saw a few things I hadn’t noticed before. Like the way the geese rotated positions while paddling around the lake or the way Sam the Cat tilted his head to take in the spectacle of a tiny, squeaky person.

Cradling a newborn brought memories of my own babies. I remembered how surprised my daughter was when a light rain fell and tickled her nose. We lifted our faces to the sky and allowed the warm drops to trickle over our skin. On another day, she noticed spring buds bursting from the barren branches. We stopped and touched them, smelled them, explored them. I experienced my tired old world through new eyes.

Years ago, before the advent of GPS or cell phones, I was driving back to college. One of my classmates lived along the way, and I had offered her a ride. I followed her directions, yet when I got to where I thought she lived, I didn’t see her house. During my fourth pass, my friend ran out from between trees. I stopped, and it was then I noticed the red door of a house cut into the hillside, hidden by trees. When she was in the car, I asked why she hadn’t mentioned the house was cut into the hillside and hidden by trees. She looked surprised. “Well,” she said, “I guess I’ve lived there all my life and just never paid any attention.”

But that’s exactly what writers must do. We must pay attention to details. We’ve been told to “write what we know,” but sometimes “what we know” is too familiar. We don’t experience the buds and the rain—nor do we see the trees and hills. We take common smells, sights, sounds, tastes, and touches for granted—and we often do the same for the world we’ve created for our characters. To avoid doing this, we must learn to experience our surroundings with all our senses. Touch grass and notice the texture. Smell it. Taste it. Explore food. What type of smell does it have? Does it make any sounds?  How does it taste on first bite? After chewing? How does it feel to our tongues? Train yourself to notice the details of your everyday world so when you sit down to write, you can pull from those experiences and provide more insight into your characters’ worlds.

If you want to improve your writing, write through newborn eyes.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015


Charlotte Firbank-King

As a new or accomplished writer, what are you guilty of?

Are you guilty of being arrogant? Is your reader the enemy you’re writing at because you really need to put your brilliant prose on paper? Of course, ninety-nine point nine percent of readers are about as bright as an amoeba on a bad cell day, so your genius is totally wasted. But this is about you and your obsession to write. Right? —WRONG.

Are you guilty of being clever? You use words, scientific or otherwise, that have readers paging through a dictionary like a chipmunk on crack to understand what the heck you’re talking about. For example: Cavernulous – just say porous already. Otherwise, you’ve killed the flow and probably the reader’s enthusiasm to read your story.

Are you guilty of gimmick writing? You write everything in the present tense because it suits your literary genius. Or you exclude a word you hate from the entire manuscript, like that, said or had. I’m all for cutting down on these words, but sometimes they’re needed. Do you omit punctuation or new paragraphs, or remove dialogue all together and just narrate? It can work, but you have to be inventive to hold the reader’s interest. There are many versions of artifices that only stroke the author’s ego and cause the reader to tear out his hair. All you do is make the experience of reading your story uncomfortable. You put a barrier between the reader and the story until all they see is the author intruding into their pleasure of the story.

At the end of the day, you need to ask yourself if you value your reader. Do you really want your reader scratching his head, paging back to try to understand what you’re saying, or skipping paragraphs that are annoying? Is your aim to make him think about the deep meaning of your story, or to make your reader feel dense?

A reader may not remember all the details of a story, but he will always remember how you made him feel. Readers want to laugh, cry, hold their breaths, or sigh with relief. Are you guilty of not evoking any of these emotions?

Are you guilty of telling the reader a character is being funny or sarcastic? Like, writing, “she teased lightly,” or “his words dripped with sarcasm.” Make your writing speak with actions, emotions, and dialogue.

Are you guilty of swamping the reader with details that don’t add to the story or of repeating information in case he “didn’t get it” the first time round? Giving readers every detail of what characters are doing is tiresome. Readers are smart. They will fill in details like characters needing to put on shoes and a jacket and fetching an umbrella before going into a howling rain storm. It’s okay for them to just shrug into a jacket and go—have them flick open the umbrella as they walk out. In short, don’t make shopping lists of actions and don’t give readers every detail from the socks to the hat to the brushing of his teeth.

Are you guilty of not editing, editing, and editing multiple times before sending the manuscript to an editor or launching it on Amazon? Can you be sure there are no plot flaws, typos, or grammatical errors? Show respect for your reader—and editor, for that matter, and EDIT, over and over before releasing the manuscript.

Are you guilty of creating too many coincidences to make your plot work? Every action and scene that leads to the climax must be believable. If a character says, “I can’t believe that happened!” the reader will probably be thinking me neither. If it’s improbable, set it up ahead of time. She fell off the mountain and a piton caught her jacket, saving her. Show us the piton long before it catches on her jacket—set it up, make it feel probable.

Are you guilty of throwing readers constant curveballs, then leaving then hanging while you move on to another scene? You can get away with this once, but not in every chapter. They want to know if the gun fired at the character killed them or not—and they want to know in this chapter. They don’t want to wait three chapters to find out, while the second character is hanging from a cliff by their jacket in the next chapter. It’s all about seamless flow—making it a great reading experience.

Are you guilty of misleading the reader with a “hook” in the first paragraph of the first chapter that doesn’t fit the plot? Your story is a thriller and the lead characters are making out in a park while their children play on the swings. Sonny Jim disappears and a frantic hunt ensues. If your book is about kidnapping or some other dark plot about kids being snatched, then you have the right hook. But if these characters never again show up in the book and your story is actually about an affair at an office, you’ve got the wrong hook.

Readers are not reading the story to admire your literary genius—they want to be entertained. It’s all about them and what they want and need. After all, they PAID for the book.

Above all, clothe yourself in humility. Realize that as a writer you are nothing more than a servant applying your skill to please your master—the reader.

Picture a world where you’re surrounded by people who can’t read. Would you still write?

Some pearls of wisdom:

There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written or badly written.

--Oscar Wilde

It's the rare writer who excels at all aspects of the craft. There are masterful stylists who, at bottom, have remarkably little to say. And there are vigorous thinkers whose sentences plod along like the lumbering steps of a draft horse.

 --Ralph Waldo Emerson

"He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary."

--William Faulkner (about Ernest Hemingway)