…more advice for fiction writers by Jodie Renner, freelance editor, @JodieRennerEd
Fiction writing is all about sucking your readers in and keeping them eagerly turning the pages to find out what happens next. Don’t put any roadblocks or speed bumps in their way. Here are some tips for keeping the story flowing, rather than bumping readers out of it by frustrating them, even subliminally.
Don’t get too technical about which hand or foot or….
Whether you’re writing an action scene or a love scene, it’s best not to get too technical or clinical about which hand or leg or finger or foot is doing what, unless it’s relevant or necessary for understanding.
Getting bogged down in details is distracting to the reader and can even be laughable or annoying. Of course we want to know what’s going on and how the characters are feeling, but we don’t need a highly detailed, anatomical description of every little gesture and movement.
Without getting too far into the bedroom, here’s kind of an extreme example of way too much detail, off the top of my head:
“He stroked her left forearm and wrist with his right index finger, while his left thumb brushed aside a strand of hair from her right eye and tucked it behind her right ear.” Barf! Gives a new meaning to TMI, doesn’t it? And if we were to move into the bedroom, there’s nothing that kills a love scene faster than detailed, clinical descriptions of exactly which of various appendages and other body parts are doing what, in what order, and how. Keep the instruction manuals out of the bedroom!
Similarly, in an action scene or a fight, unless we really need to know, for logistic reasons, which hand, arm, or leg is doing what, don’t bother specifying, as it slows down the action and can be distracting, even annoying.
And you don’t need to say that someone’s hand or finger pointed in a direction—what else do people normally point with? Instead of “She pointed her finger at the car,” Just say, “She pointed at the car.” And no need to write, “He gave her the paper he held in his hand.” Just make it, “He gave her the paper,” or “He handed her the paper.”
Here are some examples, altered and disguised, from various stories I’ve edited:
Before: “Look, Matt, take that left and we can come at them from the other side.” His partner's hands indicated a street off to the left. Officer McLeod turned the vehicle left and took off down the street.
After: “Look, Matt, take that left and we can come at them from the other side.” His partner pointed to a street off to the left. Officer McLeod turned left and took off down the street.
Before: His father yanked the earbuds out of Jeff’s ears with his left hand and grabbed his iPod with his right hand. “Listen to me when I’m talking to you!”
We don’t really need to know which hand is doing each action. Take out the unnecessary details and what is left is stronger:
After: His father yanked the earbuds out Jeff’s ears and grabbed his iPod. “Listen to me when I’m talking to you!”
Here’s another example:
Before: Andrew used his hands to frantically push the boxes away from the opening, then clambered through it.
There’s no need to specify that he used his hands – what else would he push the boxes away with?
After: Andrew frantically pushed the boxes away from the opening, then clambered through it.
Or this one:
Before: He looked quickly at Jack, who dropped his arm holding the gun and gave a purposeful glance first to his left and then his right. He looked back in their direction, stared fiercely for a moment, and began walking calmly, slowly, towards them.
After: He looked at Jack, who lowered the gun and glanced both ways. He glared back at them for a moment, then began walking slowly towards them.
And a final example:
Before: He had arrived at the vending machine and was punching the buttons on its front with an outstretched index finger when a voice from behind him broke him away from his thoughts.
Here we have way too much minute detail. What else would he be punching the buttons with besides his finger? And we don’t need to know which finger or that it’s outstretched, as everybody does it pretty much the same. And it’s a given that the buttons are on the front of the vending machine.
After: He was punching the buttons on the vending machine when a voice behind him broke into his thoughts.
It’s best to avoid having unnecessary details that just clutter up your prose.
And lastly, don’t have eyes doing impossible things:
These days, agents, editors and readers frown on oddly phrased sentences to express how someone is looking at someone else, like in these examples:
“His eyes bounced back and forth between them.” (boing, boing, boing)
“Her eyes shot daggers at him.” (Ow! Ow!)
“She dropped her eyes to the floor.” (splat!)
“Her eyes clung to his.” (like Velcro)
“He devoured her with his eyes.” (munch, munch)
“Her eyes darted across the room.” (speedy)
“His eyes followed her across the room.” (rolling?)
“Her eyes fell to her lap.” (cushioned fall)
It’s too easy for readers to form a comical mental picture of eyeballs popping out of someone’s head and doing strange things, and start thinking it’s some kind of parody. So it’s best to do a search for the words “eyes” in your story, and if they’re doing weird things, see if you can find a more subtle, natural way of expressing how the characters are looking at each other.
Readers and writers – do you have anything to add? Any awkward or comical phrases or expressions to share?
Copyright Jodie Renner, August 2012
Jodie Renner is a freelance editor specializing in thrillers, mysteries, and other fast-paced fiction. Please check out Jodie’s website and blog, or connect with Jodie on Facebook and Twitter: @JodieRennerEd.
Jodie has published two books to date in her series, An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Writing a Killer Thriller, a short e-book, and Style That Sizzles & Pacing for Power, which is available in paperback, as an e-book on Kindle, and in other e-book formats. And you don’t need to own an e-reader to purchase and enjoy e-books. You can download them to your computer, tablet, or smartphone.