clues at the scene

clues at the scene

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Pooh Poohing it.

A sample from one page of dialogue.

 ...said Pooh in distress.
 ...said Roo, much impressed.

...said Eeyore coldly.

...said Roo proudly.

...said Piglet anxiously.

...said Eeyore in surprise.

...said Pooh anxiously.

Now, I'm not intending to critique the success of A. A. Milne and the adoration of millions of children from many successive generations. We should all be so lucky to have a character endure as long as Pooh. ( Loren Estleman might have a chance with Amos Walker. I've bought the complete series on Barnes and Noble downloaded to my nook application I am reading at night on my iPad. Bloody marvelous ). I love Pooh. I think he is a great character.

What I illustrate here is the formulaic conveyance of character perspective in the scene from this nasty adverb attached to  nearly every character's speech attribution.

Are you doing it ? Are you telling the reader through this adverb rather than showing the character's emotion through the actual dialogue or action ? Easy to say, isn't it. Show don't tell. So bloody easy to say and so hard to find precisely the device that accomplishes the mission in the same way as the jarring "surprisingly" tacked on to a speech response.

"I'm preggers," she said. 

"Really," Bob answered in surprise. 


"I bought a couple tests this morning," she said. 

I flipped our grilled cheese on the cast iron. "Yea ? What sort of tests ?" I asked.

Suzie shifted her weight to her left hip and pouted a little. I found it adorable every time. I met her eyes. She stood completely still.

"Pregnant ?" I asked. She didn't move. The cabinet opposite the stove stopped me. The griddle was a mile away. I grabbed the edge of the sink. It was cool and clammy. We matched.

Both scenes convey the same thing. I took a little more care in the second case because you were going to read it and I don't want to be the fool. The object lesson here is one shows the mental state of the character Bob far better than the other. Bob wasn't just surprised. He was afraid, in awe, in shock, possibly alarmed, and quite possibly overjoyed all at the same time. Those of you who have had this conversation with a significant other (planned or unplanned) know that this little bit deserves far better treatment than "surprised."

I picked an easy example. Sue me.

The point ? Adverbs attached to dialogue attributions are a poor substitute for crafting a meaning from character action and interaction. Is it expedient ? Yes. Does it suffice sometimes ? Sure.

If you're pulling it out as the default, you are Poohing up your work. Your characters haven't the success of millions of adoring fans to let you get away with an expedient approach. You don't have Harry Potter in your pocket, yet.

I'm working on eliminating all Pooh Poohing from even my rough drafts. It is about like quitting drinking. Doesn't mean it isn't worth it. The writing will live longer - on a publisher's desk - without it.

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