Writing Indefinitely

Truman Capote, 1959

Truman Capote, 1959

Ever come across it? A passage in a story that makes some vague remark? It could be a description of a character or a scene. It could be the take on a given situation. It ain’t necessarily the bunk, but it’s the kind of thing that can sometimes drive me nuts.

You’ve read it before: “She was a good looker. Not too pretty, not too plain. Maybe 25. No more than 30. ”

That roundabout description’s okay with me. Sometimes. That’s the subjective eye coming into play. That’s expressed by a character or a narrator from their limited point of view. Fair enough. But when something indefinite is laid down by a character who otherwise knows their beans, or especially when it’s put across by an objective narrator in the third person, hazy text won’t fly.

Have you come across it? You’ve got a neutral narrator who knows every last thing about the story he or she is relating. Every plot point is ticked off thoroughly. Time, relationships, locations—all as set and obvious as a three-way intersection. And then the author gets all murky on a room or a character. Why the sudden ignorance?

The best authors fall into this trap. Even the ones I humbly aspire to. I won’t name names, I’ll just let them roll about in their graves. But a sudden lapse on the part of the author weakens the whole shebang. The telltale words leap out and muddy the proceedings: almost, kind of, sort of, nearly, close, maybe. And there’s plenty of etcetera from there.

The writer’s telling us maybe? Hell, if they don’t know, who does? And that leaves us with a namby-pamby sense of the action and people. The point’s not about getting cutthroat over minutiae. You want your prose to ring, to sing, to maintain its power and strength.

So watch your sense of things. It’s like maintaing present tense versus past tense. If you’re telling your readers everything for sure, keep it up. If you’re sure about one thing, be sure about another. Get me? Sure.

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