I could not allow another week to end, campers, without filling you in on yet another common professional readers’ pet peeve. Specifically, one that drives your humble servant up the wall, not only because it is ubiquitous in manuscript submissions, but because when it does appear, its context usually makes it pretty obvious that the writer who penned it considers it (a) original, (b) philosophical-sounding, or even profound, and (c) pretty darned good writing, rather than what it actually is: (a) a hackneyed phrase, (b) descriptively vague, and (c) see (a) and (b)
What is this pervasive descriptive shortcut, you cry, famous for causing gentle souls like me — and our old pal, Millicent the agency screener — to rend our garments and wail when good writers foist it upon us? Let’s see if you can spot it in its natural habitat.
Here are five sterling examples of it, ripped from five different manuscripts. Let the garment-rending begin!
“If that’s really the way you feel, I have nothing more to say.”
Something in his eyes made Aileen pause, reconsider, turn back. “What is it you’re not saying, Jeremiah?”
He smiled, slowly, cruelly. “Ah, that would spoil the horrible surprise, wouldn’t it?”
Did anything in that exchange strike you as odd? If you are shaking your head at the computer screen, you’re not alone — most aspiring writers would see nothing wrong with it.
Millicent, to put it mildly, would. To gain a sense of why, let’s examine the phenomenon in another incarnation.
A feeling washed over Emily, strong and powerful. She couldn’t have put it into words, even to her closest friends, but it shook her to the core of her being.
“Yes!” she cried, startling everyone in the courtroom. “I shot the sheriff!” She turned to her incredulous husband. “But I swear to you, Archibald, I did not shoot the deputy.”
See any similarity between those last two examples? Millicent would. She’d also spot a definite familial resemblance between both of them and this:
Oliver walked her forward, keeping his hands over her eyes. Some ten feet of awkward stumbling later, he gently removed them. “Look.”
Perdita gasped. A vista of indescribable beauty spread out before her. “Oh, my! Why hadn’t I noticed this before?”
“Beats me.” Oliver returned to his game of solitaire. “I would have thought the Grand Canyon was kind of hard to miss.”
Starting to feel an inkling of Millicent’s well-justified irritation? One more time, maestro, please.
The audience swayed on its feet, blasted by the power of Mervin’s voice. It was not what he said, precisely, or even the words he chose to express it that moved them so strongly: it was an indefinable manner, a confidence that told them as surely as if he had shouted it that this man was telling the truth.
It’s begun to feel redundant, hasn’t it, even though I assured you at the outset that each of these examples came from a different source? Welcome to the world of the agency screener: if 35 out of the 127 first pages Millicent reads today contain the same descriptive shortcut — certainly within the bounds of possibility, with a trope this popular — Instance No. 34 is going to seem as repetitious as if it had appeared on the same page as Instances Nos. 28-33.
“Not this again!” she mutters, rending her aforementioned garments. “Show me something original, I beg you!”
We could feel smug, of course, that Millicent has just fallen into precisely the same phrasing trap to which she is objecting: the writer would be entirely justified in inquiring what precisely she had in mind. We could also point out that it isn’t particularly fair to the writer of Instance No. 30 that a professional reader might well have been more annoyed by the sight of this descriptive shortcut than she was by Instance No. 2. And who could fail to feel for the aspiring writer who decided that Instance No. 34 is just what his page 1 needed but did not call upon the descriptive device again for another 273 pages being treated as precisely as repetitious as the writer who elected to place Instances Nos. 5-9 all on the same page?
Oh, you don’t think that really happens? Au contraire, mes amis. I can beat that record in two sentences flat.
There it was again, that odd, vague sensation. It told Erminia without words that something, somewhere, somehow, was wrong.
“What sensation?” Millicent demands, ripping her cuffs to shreds. “What is Erminia feeling, precisely? What does she think is wrong, and for what possible narrative reason has the writer chosen to hide the content of her fears from the reader?”
You must admit, these are perfectly reasonable questions. After all, it’s the writer’s job to describe what’s going on in sufficient detail for the reader to be able to picture it, not the reader’s job to fill in the details when the writer prefers to remain vague.
You wouldn’t know it, though, from a hefty minority of the submissions that cross Millicent’s desk on a daily basis. Apparently, there are a whole lot of aspiring writers who believe — wrongly, according to the overwhelming majority of professional readers — that leaving crucial sensations, thoughts, intuitions, and even physical descriptions to the reader’s imagination is not only permissible, but stylish. It’s hard to blame them, really: unless one happened to have had the privilege of reading many manuscripts or contest entries back to back, one wouldn’t have any idea just how common this descriptive shortcut is.
Trust me, it decorates many, many first pages. And contest entries. And dialogue. You’d be astonished at how many novels (and memoirs, actually) open with this well-worn trope — it’s an extremely popular (and thus Millicent-annoying) means of establishing suspense from line 1.
A noise came from behind her, causing Jemima to jump. Silly to be so nervous, when she had been through these woods more times than she could count. Admittedly, she had never been carrying quite this heavy a load of goodies for her grandmother, bread and sausage and pears and three whole roasted chickens.
There it was again. Something was following her; she was sure of it now.
Already, Millicent’s collar is in tatters. “What noise?” she wails, beginning on her right sleeve. “What did it sound like? What does she think is following her, and upon what auditory clues is she basing that conclusion. Also, what do three ands in a row add to this description that would not be adequately conveyed by the grammatically correct bread, sausage, pears, and three whole roasted chickens?”
Does the general pallor that just spread over half my readership’s faces indicate that some of you were under the impression that featuring this kind of and repetition within a single sentence was (a) stylish, (b) technically correct, (c) a narrative choice unlikely to annoy Millicent if done more than once every 50 pages or so, (d) a narrative choice unlikely to annoy Millicent if done more than every 50 lines or so, (e) a narrative choice unlikely to annoy Millicent if done more than once per paragraph, or (f) all of the above? I’m afraid I have some bad news for you, then.
It’s even worse news if you happen to subscribe to the rather pervasive school of thought that holds that regardless of whether the point of view is in the first, second, or third person — heck, even if it is from the omniscient perspective of Somebody Up There who can pry into every character’s mind — it is always an effective writing technique to make the narrative voice sound like someone speaking out loud in casual conversation in the year in which the manuscript was written. While this can work beautifully for novels and memoirs set in the recent past and written in the first person, chatty contemporary spoken word styles will not fit comfortably with every storyline.
It’s especially jarring in stories set in eras of the past when people spoke more formally — which is to say pretty much anytime prior to the last decade. Every era has its own slang, of course, but there’s no denying that the vagueness of modern conversation would have puzzled Jane Austen exceedingly, either in dialogue or narration.
Everybody knows that a single man who happens to be rich must be looking to get married. Or something.
Whatever you do or don’t know about his feelings or beliefs, no sooner does he set foot in a neighborhood than everyone decides he belongs to one of their daughters. Whatever!
“May one inquire,” Miss Austen demands, ripping her delicate handkerchief in long, clean lines, “to what this author is referring? Why has he elected to dispense with subject-object agreement, that well-belovèd and inflexible rule denoting that the subject of a sentence — in this case, everyone — should agree in number with its object. I would lay it down as a general principle, then, that everyone and his daughter would always be preferred by right-thinking readers to everyone and their daughters. And what, if I may be so bold as to ask, is the significance of whatever in this context?”
Search me, Aunt Jane. Millicent and I have been wondering about that, too.
Another popular species of vagueness in openings — also frequently born, I suspect, out of a desire to create suspense by omission, rather than via a detailed depiction of an inherently tense situation — is a little something we pros like to call the unnamed protagonist cliché. Tellingly, it is also known by another moniker: she ran through the forest…
Oh, you may laugh, but you wouldn’t believe how many manuscripts begin rather like this:
She fled through the forest, her long, red hair whipping against the bundle she hid ineffectually under her cloak in an attempt to shield it from the driving sleet. All she knew was that something was pursuing her, something terrible, something violent. Something that had forced her to leave behind everything she had ever known. Something that had changed her life forever.
Suddenly, a noise came from behind her…
By this point in the afternoon’s reading, poor Millicent’s wardrobe is in tatters. “Who is this woman, and why should I care that her life has changed forever when the narrative hasn’t yet told me anything about her previous life? From what is she fleeing? Am I supposed to think that the bundle is a baby, or am I only thinking that because it was a baby in 15 out of the last 37 similar openings? And why oh why not just tell me what’s chasing her?”
Again, perfectly legitimate questions — but not, it’s probably safe to assume, reactions the author would prefer this opening to elicit from a screener. Or indeed, any reader. Presumably, the writer is hoping that lay reader would read the opening above and murmur, “Heavens, will she get away? What is pursing her? Is the baby alive?” — and be spurred by those questions to keep reading.
Millicent, however, is unlikely to scan even one more line; had I mentioned how frequently she is treated to this kind of false suspense? “Is there any particular reason that I’m being kept in the dark about this broad’s name?” she murmurs, the frayed edges of her garments wafting gently in the air conditioned breeze. “Is it a state secret? Is it really my job to read on until the narrative deigns to tell me something that basic? Or maybe this writer has seen too many movies; in a book written in the third person, you don’t need to wait until someone addresses the protagonist to find out her name.”
Trust me, you’re better off identifying your characters right away.
A few valiant specificity-haters have had their hands in the air for paragraphs on end. “But Anne,” they point out, “in that last example, the writer was obviously just trying to start the story with a bang. You must admit that there’s no shortage of action in that opening, nor is there any serious question about what the book is about: the story that follows is obviously going to concern this woman, her bundle, and all of that red hair in their collective attempt to reach safety from the unnamed threat. Millicent can’t deny that it is exciting!”
Actually, she could — you would be astonished how efficacious sheer repetition can be in sapping the thrill from an exciting-but-common opening scene. And let’s face it, the long, red hair cliché and the everything she had ever known exaggeration would not exactly stun Millicent with their originality, either. Fleeing maidens habitually forget to tie back their long red or blonde hair while they are leaving everything behind, burning their bridges and changing their lives forever, whilst fleeing unnamed pursuers.
Those of us born brunette and/or bob our hair should be deeply grateful, evidently. An alien from the Planet Targ dropped into Millicent’s desk chair to form opinions of life on earth from manuscript submissions would undoubtedly conclude that we dark-haired females alone remain safe at home, rather than being chased by noises offstage into some conveniently nearby woods.
One more omnipresent variety of rend-inducing narrative vagueness, then I shall sign off for an evening of peaceful brunette serenity. See if anything in the following little gem strikes you as a potential Millicent-irritant.
As smoke curled up Blair’s nostrils, the irreality of the situation smote his consciousness head-on. It was like a movie: he simply observed his nearest and dearest go up in flames. As much as he longed to change the channel, he couldn’t.
Actually, there were two classic pet peeves cunningly concealed in that compact paragraph; did you catch them? First, the it was just like a movie trope has been so widely used in submissions since the 1920s that even the most recently hired Millicent is likely to regard it as a cliché at this late date. A more experienced Millicent might also regard it as the narrative shorthand it is: rather than showing readers precisely how and why Blair experienced the situation as divorced from his real life, the narrative not only chooses to tell us in just a few words what it was like — the writer is presuming that every reader will know precisely what she means by it was like a movie.
In essence, then, the writer is expecting the reader to guess in what specific ways Blair’s experience was filmic. And we all know how Millicent feels about that species of narrative expectation, right?
“Is it my job to provide the necessary description?” she fumes, taking a stapler to her hitherto undamaged skirt. “Isn’t it the writer’s responsibility to, well, write?”
Come on, admit it: she has a point. She would also be well within her rights to call out the narrative for its other professional reader-piquer, the mixed metaphor.
Oh, you didn’t catch it? Although we are told that Blair’s current situation is like a movie, he longs to change the channel as if he were watching television.
Someone didn’t reread this submission IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD, clearly.
What’s the cumulative moral here? Select your words with care — remember, all Millicent, or any reader, actually knows about the scene you are presenting is what you describe on the page. Yes, it’s undoubtedly quicker and more convenient to allow the reader to fill in the minutiae, but if you resort to vagueness or shorthand, how can you be sure that every reader will come up with the specifics you intend?
Or to put it another way: isn’t your creative vision worth conveying in detail?
And for heaven’s sake, tempestuous redheads and blondes-in-peril, grab a barrette or a baseball cap on your way out the door. Perhaps without all of that hair flying about in your eyes, you can finally get a good look at who or what is pursuing you.
Maybe then you could describe it to us. Keep up the good work!