Thursday, December 27, 2007

"Seems"

Alicia says--
Just a short note here, when we're fussing about fussy things. I'm heading out of town, so might not have too much to say.

Want to pontificate on the word "seem". That means, as Archibald MacLeish said of a poem:

A poem should be equal to
Not true


"Seem" means not true, or at least, "not is". When we write, "The postman seemed late," the astute reader is going to think, Aha! The postman isn't really late! He's... dead! Or he's in the house ready to murder the narrator!

That is, the word "seem" is a clue that "all is not how it seems"-- a clue that there is more to the story, that whatever "seems" to be true is not entirely or comprehensively true.

So just be aware that if you use "seem" in your narrative, you're suggesting that the reader perk up and take notice, because whatever "seems" is going to be undercut or proven false or something rather soon.

Now if you don't mean that, if the postman really IS late, use "IS". "The postman was late." The reader will just register the information as factual and not start anticipating something you don't mean.

So that's just another example of how to deal with the sophisticated reader, I guess. You can't get anything past that reader-- she's spending every page looking for little clues you've dropped into your narrative. Don't raise expectations if you don't mean to -- readers like this will be quick to express their disappointment!

"Seems," by the way, is one of those slack terms we -- oh, lord, I almost put in my own favorite slack term, tend to. ... one of those slack terms we tend to drop in to water down our point so that we don't have to actually COMMIT. These are good terms to delete or replace in revision.

(What's wrong with "tend to?" Well, it implies that we don't actually do whatever verb follows that, we just "tend to" do it. "It" isn't something we did, or are going to do, rather it's something that, presumably if the wind is blowing in the right direction, we might do sometimes. Not all the time. Not THIS time necessarily. We're just more likely to do it than not to do it. And that says nothing about this particular time. In fact, this particular time we either do it or we don't do it... so I have to avoid copping out with "tends to.")

Another "wriggle word" is "decided"-- He decided to take the plunge. The question is, well, did he? Did he take the plunge, or just decide to? If you use "decided to" and then don't go on to tell us that he did in fact take the plunge, we're going to assume that somewhere between his decision and the doing something happened to intervene. He decided to take the plunge, but then his old girlfriend came back to town and he got distracted. There's many a slip twixt cup and lip, as they used to say, and "decided to" is like an invitation to the gods to come "twixt" and spill the wine.

The focus in most popular fiction is on the action, not the decision-- the decision is most important when it leads to the action, or when something intervenes. It's definitely not enough to have the character "decide" to do something, because we all know how impermanent and inconclusive decisions are. (I almost typed "tend to be"-- I tell you, it's a narrative tic!)

So... I'm contemplating more about how we inadvertently misdirect readers and set up expectations we don't mean. Later I'll do a post on how opening chapters so often do that.

(BTW, I think it's fine to ADVERTENTLY-- is that a word?-- misdirect readers. As Robert Frost supposedly said, "I want readers to understand me. I just want them to understand me wrong." We just need to know what we're doing, and fix what we don't want to do.)
Alicia

3 comments:

Shauna Roberts said...

In third-person POV, the author can't say what a non-POV character is feeling or thinking. Often the writer can show those feelings or thoughts with descriptions, actions, or dialog. But doing so can take up more space than the emotion or thought is worth and lend undue importance to them. Sometimes I find the best way is to say something like, "He seemed in an even worse mood than usual. She darted into the cloak room to avoid his temper."

Opinions? Suggestions for better ways to quickly describe a non-POV character's apparent emotional state?

Edie said...

I agree with Shauna. That's how I use it.

Edittorrent said...

That's a good way to use it, because "is" isn't factual then. The POV character can only suppose, and so it works. But if it's obvious that the non-POV character isn't just SEEMING, but IS, I'd go with, "Paul was furious," and then go immediately into what the POV character thinks of that, or what leads her to think that--

Paul was furious. Addie didn't need to notice the broken door or the flung-over table to know that. All she needed was the tight set of his mouth.

alicia