The Empty Chair: A Eulogy for Leonard Nimoy and Spock
March 5, 2015
Sometimes We Just Walk
Sometimes We Just Walk
So there’s this argument going on in one of the writers’ groups I belong in, and I’ve seen evidence of it in another writers’ group as well. Along with removing all adverbs and adjectives from our writing, in an effort to make it “better,” we should also choose “stronger, more descriptive verbs” in our narrative line.
What’s wrong with that, you ask? Isn’t that what our English teachers used to tell us? Replace weak, generic words with strong ones? Good with kind; funny with comedic; nice with generous, and so on? Don’t we want to paint the best word picture we can for our readers?
Who’s telling your story, anyway?
You are? So you’re using omniscient objective point-of-view then, the 19th century unseen narrator that we find in Hawthorne and Eliot?
Doesn’t diction depend on point-of-view? Isn’t that what Mark Twain did, in Huckleberry Finn? Faulkner, in The Sound and the Fury? Dennis Lehane, in Mystic River? Eudora Welty, and Elizabeth Bowen, and Alice Munroe in their short stories? Whose voice are you really hearing? The author’s, or the viewpoint character’s?
The argument includes removing all “filter” words. No more “I felt” or “She thought;” no more very, or just, or any construct such as and then. Just pure lines of prose, stripped down to the sentence’s skeletal structure. Charles Ives in book form.
But – would you viewpoint character see the world in this way? In my first Star Trek novel, I wrote most of the sections in the first person point-of-view of William Riker. I studied Riker’s speech patterns by watching Star Trek: The Next Generation. I must have watched all seven seasons four or five times; I’ve got many, many episodes memorized, thanks to my acting training. And here’s the rub – Riker uses adverbs. He sometimes uses adjectives. He uses words like “very” and “okay” and “good.” He uses non-specific language. Should I have violated his voice for some editor’s flavour-of-the-month writing rules?
No. You write in the voice of your character. Each character has a distinct voice, which occurs by the word choice – diction – you use. I’ve had readers tell me that they can hear Jonathan Frakes and Patrick Stewart reading their lines in my novel, which, for a media tie-in novel, is high praise indeed. In my work-in-progress, The Mortal Part, my viewpoint character is a 72-year-old actor from Scotland named Sir Hugh Ross. Again, his voice is not going to meet the minimalists’ rules and regulations for writing. And since the novel is told in his first person point-of-view, you’re getting every sentence in his distinctive voice. Hughie Ross is by no means a vocal minimalist. Yes, he uses language precisely, as anyone who is a Shakespearean would, but he also manipulates language, embellishes it, cherishes it, and uses it as a weapon against himself.
The truth is, your viewpoint character is unlikely to perambulate across the street. He’s not loping, or striding, or hopping on one foot, unless he’s six. He’s walking – that’s right, one of those plain, non-specific, generic words that everyone tells you will kill your manuscript and bring the wrath of literary agents down upon you from Heaven on high. Yep, he just did it too – he walked across the street. And it did with a hundred other people, in the crosswalk, with the Walk! Light, because he’s on the corner of 8th Avenue and 52nd Street, and he’s just about to meet someone at that small Thai restaurant for a quick bite before going to the theatre. So he’s walking. Because he’s confident, and he’s happy, and he’s going to have a good night out.