Writing and Other Afflictions

"If it was easy, everyone would do it." –Jimmy Dugan, "A League of Their Own"

It seemed like a good idea…

An example of the type of writing mentioned in the previous post:

“Jason seemed to understand the significance of what he’d said, because his ears were down too, and his eyes lowered as he handed over the bag.

“Seemed” just muddies the waters there. Better is:

Jason understood the significance of what he’d said; his ears were down too, and his eyes lowered as he handed over the bag.”

One reason “seem” is a good word to search for is that it is often used to tell the reader what someone is feeling rather than showing it. Even better:

“Silence followed Jason’s words. His ears were down and his eyes lowered as he handed over the bag.”

It’s pretty clear from that narrative that Jason understands the significance of his words, unless the words were cryptic. It works a lot better if you just let the narrative show the reader that rather than explaining everything out.

Another word I forgot to mention looking for is “sudden.” I use it too much myself (I found one sentence where I’d written “The air seemed suddenly to be…”). Again, let things happen suddenly in the narrative. Don’t tell the reader they happened suddenly.

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7 responses to “It seemed like a good idea…

  1. NedSanyour August 21, 2006 at 2:55 pm

    ‘Seemed’ is definitely a good one to use cautiously. I oft expect it to be a sign of “it looked this way, but he was faking it.”One thing which would bite me in this type of story — and also has nailed me in stories with people in them — is that authors feel the body language of their characters is enough to tell what they are feeling. Which it is, if it is described well enough. And if I know how animal body language is conventionally used to convey human emotion. I mean, if I know what it means when a dogs ears are “down” and then know what code people use to map “down ears” to a human emotion, that is fine. However, often body language that is described in similar ways can mean many things and I find a lack of specificity frustrating. If a person walks slowly across the room to answer a knock at the door they could be sad, tired, reluctant, enjoying the anticipation, wearing awkward shoes, etc. I (for one) don’t usually mind when the author wants to interpret actions while I get shown what is happening. Does that make sense? I don’t disagree with your comments, but I get frustrated when (as you mentioned before) mindless adherence to a platitude (don’t tell, show) makes the motivations unfathomable.Many times I have been confused over why a person in a novel had their nostrils flaring. Similarly, since I have never actually *seen* someone’s eyes flash, why not just tell me “For a moment the anger showed on his face, but he mastered it quickly.” That is what the author means 9 times out of 10 (the 10th time there is some sort of laser vision involved.)

  2. Tim August 21, 2006 at 6:05 pm

    I think in the above example, because the words did end up being rather cryptic, I left in the bit about understanding the significance, or otherwise explained it. The distinction is more between the first two: he seemed to understand. What does that mean? He acted in a way that led the main character to believe he understood. Well, unless you’re setting up some conflict where it turns out he didn’t, let’s just assume he is acting consistently and say he did.”His eyes flashed” is a great example of a literary device we would take literally in our fabulist fiction class. Maybe he’s a traffic worker. “He turned to the stopped traffic. His eyes flashed, to let them know they could pass.”

  3. NedSanyour August 21, 2006 at 6:27 pm

    Hmmm… I see your point, as I did before, but will address it more directly, rather than taking a shot at my most-hated Modern Literary Device, the Non Existent Narrative Voice.If you waste my time and say, “Seemed” then, Mr. Author, there better be a reason. It better at least communicate that the POV character doesn’t necessarily trust or understand the character who “seems.” To my way of thinking, it isn’t “showing” vs “telling”– it is fewer words instead of more. But if the narrator is set up to be omniscient, and the person is lying, you better have used seemed or some other phrase to indicate the gesture or body language had a specific meaning.But I am splitting hairs here. I just wanted to say I don’t mind being told what the posture is intended to mean, as long as that is done well. I just recall once reading the line, “He raised his hand, acknowledging the greeting,” and being so happy it was there instead of “He raised his hand and let it fall.” Just let me in on what is going on in the story, that is all I ask.

  4. Tim August 21, 2006 at 8:31 pm

    No, that was exactly my point, actually. Using “seemed” implies a disconnect between what we’re being shown and what is. Using it just to indicate uncertainty on the main character’s part makes things confused because now we’re not sure if the author is setting us up for whatever “seemed” to be shown as false, or if it’s just the main character saying, “Can anybody really KNOW what someone else truly intends?”So I think we agree.

  5. Rikoshi August 21, 2006 at 9:52 pm

    I worry a lot about how much I need to filter through the eyes of my third-person protagonists. As you’re well-aware, I’m sure, I tend to write pretty close up in the third-person voice, and I definitely think that colors the way I write, oftentimes unintentionally.I think that using ‘seemed’ is still fine if you can’t just assume that the focal character is going to be sure of whatever is being, er, presumably indicated. For instance, if there’s something of a cultural barrier in place, it’s not necessarily a foregone conclusion that body language means what a person might think it means based on what’s familiar.The point still stands, though, I agree, that if something isn’t important enough to leave vague, then it shouldn’t be left vague and the assumption can be made. In my own case, though, I think I need to bite my lip and force myself to write it through that way, because I know where my subconscious phrasing tendencies run.

  6. NedSanyour August 22, 2006 at 3:48 pm

    You know what it is kind of like, somehow, in my mind, now, as full of commas as this sentence is, or was?It is like playing Dungeons and Dragons and you are wandering a town interacting with people and you run into some guard who asks, “What is your business here? Are you trustworthy?” Sometimes the role playing part is awkward and I don’t have any idea if the guard is doing his job, being a bully, or trying to get a bribe out of me. And that isn’t even writing– it is a DM trying to act like something. I end up saying, “What is my impression, is this guy a bully or wants a bribe or just doing his job?”I only bring this up because I do think intent is hard to communicate sometimes. I think I agree with what you guys are saying, but also I have to remember that I don’t really write much anymore, I only read. It makes me less attuned to the details of writing because I don’t have to be part of them. I do know that I trim ‘useless qualifiers’ like ‘seemed’ and ‘is intended’ out of marketing copy when I notice them.

  7. Tim August 22, 2006 at 10:06 pm

    The D&D example is an amusing one. I can see a particular DM saying “He seems to be friendly,” and you thinking, well, he just basically said “you have to act as if he’s friendly but I reserve the right to have him attack you later.”And to Rikoshi, yes, there are places where “seemed” is okay, but I can just about guarantee that you can take it out of some of the places it appears. It’s one of the words that you should look at to make sure of. The one place it comes up where I left it a lot is in character speech. Because people will SAY “seemed to be” and it is a speech pattern, even if it’s not precisely correct. Speech is a weird balancing act between communicating to the reader and writing something that the character might be realistically saying to communicate to someone else.

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