Thursday, May 27, 2010

To See The Invisible Man

Either my latest rants have been pure gold no one can argue with or a lot of you really hated me using LOST as an extended example. Haven’t seen any comments in weeks.

Speaking of things you don’t see, this rant’s title is another one of those clever pop culture references. Anyone remember it?

Okay, fine, I’ll explain.

“To See The Invisible Man” is the title of a Twilight Zone episode adapted by Stephen Barnes from an old Robert Silverberg short story. It’s not one of the classic Zones, but one of the newer ones when the show was revived in the mid-‘80s. It’s the tale of a man in a somewhat-utopian society who is sentenced to a year of “public invisibility” because of his selfish, antisocial behavior. He isn’t actually turned invisible, however. He just gets a small brand on his forehead which tells everyone to ignore him. That’s the curse of it. They really can see and hear and feel him--and he knows they can-- but no one will react to him. Even when he desperately wants and needs to be acknowledged (there’s an eerie scene in a hospital emergency room), people pretend he’s not there. As we find out later in the story, seeing an invisible person is a major crime.

In a way, this serves as a clever little metaphor for being a writer. The reader knows the writer is there, that you’ve crafted and shaped these words on the page, but they don’t want to admit you’re leaning over their shoulder. They just want to go on their merry way and pretend they’re alone with the book. As such, the worst thing the writer can do is draw attention to themselves.

For many would be writers, the temptation is to embellish the pixilated page with an exuberant flourish of verbiage which exhibits not only the vocabulary we’re capable of as proficient anecdotists (far above any paltry amanuensis), but also how we can bend grammar to our will; the elaborate and subtle metaphors we can craft; and the clever intricacies we can interweave betwixt the threads of character, plot, and theme.

For the record, it took me almost fifteen minutes to craft that impenetrable sentence. Yes, it looks like a paragraph but it’s just one sentence. A long, sprawling sentence that really tempted you to skim, didn’t it? Heck, let’s be honest. I bet after tripping over your second or third obscure word, at least half of you started skimming, didn’t you?

Y’see, Timmy, every time we make the reader hesitate or pause just for a second, we’re breaking the flow of the story. We’re encouraging them to skim at best, put the manuscript down at worst. The reader should forget they’re paging through the latest Wakko Warner novel or screenplay, perhaps even forget they’re reading a written work altogether. This happens, odd as it sounds, when they forget they’re reading. And the easiest way to make that happen is for them not to see the writing. It’s tempting to wave our arms and shout and try to get the reader to admit they can see us, but all this does is ruin things for everyone. It’s like Sherlock Holmes showing how he came to his amazing deductions or a magician explaining their greatest illusion. That moment is when the whole thing falls apart.

As writers, we need to be invisible. Oh, we want our characters to be seen. We want our dialogue to be heard. We want our action and passion and suspense to leave people breathless. But we are just distractions. If you think about it, who’s the more impressive tough guy-- the one who commits unimaginable acts of violence, or the one who doesn’t have to commit those acts? Being able to restrain yourself is just as impressive as how excessive you can be. Less of us is more of the story.

Here’s a few simple ways to keep your literary head down.

Vocabulary-- We all know what bright means, but effulgent can make us pause for a moment. That guy can be bald or he can be glabrous. Some sneakers are black with a bit of red and some are atrementous tinged with titian.

A huge problem I see is writers with ego problems. They think they’re cleverer than anyone else, and they’re determined to prove it. More often than not, the writer latches onto (or looks up) obscure and flowery words because they didn’t want to use something “common” in their literary masterpiece. These folks write sprawling, impenetrable prose that makes it sound like they spend their free time wanking off to a thesaurus. All too often they’ll try to defend this wheelbarrow of wordplay by saying it’s the reader’s fault for having such a limited vocabulary. After all, everyone knows what it means if I say I’m going to cast a bantam gallet towards an embrasure, right?

Any word a writer chooses just to draw attention, to prove they don’t need to use a common word, is the wrong word. Any word that makes the reader stop reading and start analyzing is the wrong word. Period. You can try to justify your word choice any way you like, but absolutely no one is picking up your book or looking at your screenplay hoping for a vocabulary lesson. When the reader can’t figure out what’s being said for the fourth or fifth time and decides to toss that manuscript in the big pile on the left... there’s only one person to blame.

(It’s not them, in case you had any lingering thoughts on the matter)

(By the way, it just means I’m going to throw a small stone at a window)

Structure-- Like obscure vocabulary, convoluted sentence structure is often the sign of a writer’s ego. One of the most common ways this manifests is to insist on grammatical and structural perfection. This often mean a rigid, formal text and very stiff dialogue. These writers are so insistent on proving they know the correct way to write that their words come across as forced and artificial.

The second most common is needless complication. If something can be described in five words, these writers will manage to do it in thirty, and I guarantee at least half a dozen of those words you’ll have to stop and look up (see above). This is where you find folks that use phrases like “seemed to be” or “appeared to be.” Some of these storytellers also go the non-linear route, even though nothing in their story gets improved by this pointless scrambling.

All of this can be an instant killer in screenplays, because most professional readers won’t put up with it. Your writing needs to be clean, simple, and natural. If there isn’t an in-story reason for it to be overcomplicated, it shouldn’t be.

Said-- People will never notice if you use said. Said is invisible. What they notice is when your characters respond, retort, exclaim, pontificate, depose, demand, muse, mutter, sneer, shout, snarl, growl, whimper, whisper, hiss, yelp, exclaim, or ejaculate. Yes, stop giggling, it was a common dialogue descriptor for many years. Once you’ve got three or four characters doing all this (instead of just saying things) you shouldn’t be surprised if your audience stops reading to shrug or snicker. Usually while they’re pointing at you.

Granted, there are times where characters are shouting or whispering or hissing. Overall, though, they’re just going to be saying things. So don’t overcomplicate things and draw attention to yourself.

Names. If used in moderation, names are invisible. They’re just shorthand for the mental image of a character. It’s also worth mentioning that simpler, more common names blend into your writing easier than rare or unnatural ones. A reader can glide past Tony but might stumble a bit on Antonio. Edward is easier on the frontal lobe than Ezekiel, and they’re all nothing compared to Bannakaffalatta.

It’s worth mentioning a little note there for the genre folks. When writing sci-fi or fantasy, many fledgling writers feel the need to rename everything. The characters have all-new, created-for-this-world names. So do their pets. And their gods. And their elements. And their system of weights and measures. Off the top of my head, I would say 90% or this is a waste of time and a distraction. Your elaborate fantasy world will not collapse if the giant, fire-breathing lizards are called dragons, but it might if you insist on calling them pyroreptillicans.

A good rule of thumb--when you’ve made up a name like Grothnixyettiq for one of your characters (or their mode of transport, or their homeland, or the way they measure distance), take a moment and try to say it out loud. Note how long it takes you to figure out how to say it. Now email or text it to a friend, give them a call, and ask them to say it out loud. No hints or clues. Just ask them to say that word you wrote. If their pronunciation doesn’t match yours, you should really use a simpler word.

Always remember that moderation is key. If any name repeats too often, it begins to get cumbersome. Even a simple name like Dot can stack up. When I see a paragraph about Dot reading Dot’s book out by Dot’s pool shortly before Dot decided it was too hot outside and Dot went in where it was air conditioned... well, personally at that point I start counting them. Which means I’m not reading the story, I’m auditing it.

This is why we have...

Pronouns. When proper names start to stack up, we switch to the pronoun. Just like names are shorthand for story elements, pronouns are shorthand for those names. When nouns start to clutter up your writing, they’re there to leap in and shoulder the weight. It’s how Yakko becomes he, that mysterious island becomes there, and the Cerberus Battle Armor System becomes it.

The catch here is to make sure your pronouns are clear, because the moment someone gets confused about which it you’re referring to, they’ve just stopped reading your story and started studying the page. A good rule of thumb—after you’ve referred to Dot as she half a dozen or so times, drop her name back in once. It’s been long enough it won’t look repetitive, and it’s a gentle reminder of who she is.

And there they are. A few simple ways to stay invisible.

Next week, just for whatever budding screenwriters happen to stumble across this site on a regular basis, a few notes on drafting. In the construction sense.

Until then, don’t let me see you writing.

7 comments:

SebastiƔn Lalaurette said...

Was it necessary to paint a writer's work as a nightmare from "The Twilight Zone"? (sigh)

Just kidding: very insightful post, as usual. And, about "Lost", I, for one, was taking notes, and will link to your rants when I post about the finale (in Spanish). Anyway, I almost never leave comments, but I certainly read you, and I'm sure there's dozens of us lurkers around.

The other day I was thinking that the unbelievably small number of comments this superb blog gets is due to our selfish nature as writers. We don't link to you, we don't leave comments, we don't talk about WoW because we don't want other people to discover the first-class material we access regularly. It's like our secret. No, I'm not joking, I really believe that, to an extent.

That being said, keep up the good work, and don't feel too angry about our selfishness! ;)

Z.T. Burian said...

The Lost related posts are near and dear to my heart because the show is, and because of the excellent suggestions on writing mystery and twists. I too am a lurker here, though not quite as selfish - I don't actively advertise for WoW but I have recommended it to people. I come here every week expecting to learn something useful about the craft and I am never disappointed.

Rakie said...

i have an excuse for not commenting, i can't access this page at work at the moment... possibly something to do with your reckless use of the word "wank". ;) So i've been catching up on the BBM site, which doesn't have comment buttons. See, valid excuse. :D

also, you lost me at amanuensis. :) Very good point tho, i have a habit of giving up on books that insist on using unnecessarily big words where diminutive ones will do. There was book i read that ages ago that kept using "ameliorate" (incorrectly) and ended up thrown across the room twice. Pleh.

Doug Murano said...

Great post--I just went through this issue with a writer whose work I'm reviewing.

When a writer allows him/herself to become too visible, I've always thought of it as "tap dancing in front of the burning house" for some reason.

Virtual Stranger said...

Oh, sure. Now that I'm busy everyone leaves a comment...

Sebastian, remember it's only like a Twilight Zone nightmare if you're doing it wrong. Or if a doll is trying to kill you.

Z.T., all I have to say is I love Hank Scorpio, so thank you for that.

Rakie, now I'm trying to remember if I used "ameliorate" in Ex-Heroes...

Doug, I think "tap dancing in front of the burning house" is an excellent way to put it, and I may steal that next time this topic comes around.

And thank you all for the kind words and continuing patronage.

Bridget Jay said...

This thinking contributes to the dumbing down of writing, look at The Coen Brothers work or The Great Gatsby, floweriness CAN make writing more interesting, although obviously it should come naturally to the writer first, that doesn't mean replace any big word you think of with a smaller one for fear of readers having ADHD. Maybe professional readers are that impatient of course and that's why we have a load of remakes every year and formulaic popcorn fodder, but the more advice like this given the stronger the poverty of ambition in a writer will become

Virtual Stranger said...

Not to sound contrary, Bridget Jay, but your own post kind of takes the wind out of your stance.

"...floweriness CAN make writing more interesting..."

Please note that nowhere above did I say it can't, nor did I say you must replace all big words with small words. My point is that many people think being overblown and flowery does make their writing more interesting, without exception, and that's just wrong.

As I said up above (in the original post) if a writer is using big words and complex structure just to show off and prove they're smarter than their audience, they're making a mistake and they should simplify things. This isn't assuming the audience has ADHD. It's just assuming they don't want to be talked down to for no reason.