IT'S A TRAP: I Realized I Realize Things

| Wednesday, August 3, 2011
Today's Tune: Back to California

Time for IT'S A TRAP! These posts are intended as somewhat humorous (but true) tributes to traps that we writers occasionally find ourselves falling into. Disclaimer: there are always exceptions to every rule. Sometimes even the worst writer "traps" can be pulled off with style in the right hands.

But they're usually a bad idea. MOVING ON.

IT'S A TRAP!: Your Character "Realizes" Too Much

As spots began to appear before my eyes, I realized I was holding my breath. I gasped for air. I noticed George no longer stood in front of me. I realized it was because he'd gone to the kitchen. The carpet felt wet beneath my face and I realized I'd been drooling. George brought me a sandwich and a glass of Kool-Aid. I noticed it was cherry-flavored. I hate cherries. I realized George should have known that. That's when I realized George wasn't really George at all.

Okay, so the previous paragraph is an extremely over-the-top example, but it's pretty amazing how often we come across similar "Captain Obvious" sentences in manuscripts and even published books.

Here's the thing: we are already inside the POV character's head. Always. Especially in first-person POV. If they make an observation, it's already assumed that they made said observation because they sensed, realized, or noticed something. The reader does not have to be told that they came to a "realization."

When characters "realize" or "notice" something, two things tend to happen. First: the extra words bog down the prose, complicate the sentence, and involve more "I" statements than necessary. Second: it can make the POV character seem really, really dumb. Most people know when they're not breathing, or when the ground is wet, or when a person moves out of their field of vision. It's an understanding that happens in the brain in a fraction of a second. If it takes your character longer than that (long enough to think "I realized..."), the reader might wonder if they're a little (or a lot) slow on the uptake.

This "I realized" or "I noticed" method of conveying information tends to make prose sound like storytelling. "Duh," you say, "It is storytelling." Yes, but a reader isn't supposed to FEEL like they're being told a story. They aren't supposed to feel like someone is sitting across from them and telling them about this thing that happened. They're supposed to feel involved. Saying "I realized it had started to snow" sounds much more like a person trying to tell you how their perceptions work than someone creating ambiance. "It started to snow" is the exact same sentiment, but you cut out the "I" statement, the "realized" statement, and the passive "had" statement.

How To Avoid This Trap

Just let your characters make observations. When you're editing and you catch an "I noticed" or "I realized" statement, ask yourself if it's really necessary. Is it a situation where a reasonably intelligent person might take a moment to connect the dots? Or is it a situation where a reader might go, "Wow, it took her a while to realize she was hot, even though she's been sweating since the last page?"

Focusing too much on "I" statements can make prose seem repetitive, as well. Again, we're inside the POV character's head. If they see/hear/smell/feel/taste something, we know that THEY are the one doing the sensing. "I noticed it was cherry-flavored" can very easily become "It was cherry-flavored." We don't have to specify that our POV character saw this. If she's saying it happened, we know she witnessed it, because we're viewing the world through her eyes.

This can be extended to many other "I" statements, such as "I smelled burning hair" or "I heard a loud whistle" or "I tasted blood," though these are far less questionable. However, if you notice too many of your sentences start with "I" (or "CharacterName" if you're writing in third-person), you can mix it up. For example: "The unmistakeable odor of burning hair filled the room" or "Loud whistles pierced the air" or "Blood, salty and coppery, leaked from my mouth." Or something. Such statements serve the triple-purpose of getting rid of all those pesky "I" statements, creating more mood/ambiance, and varying your sentence structure. Win-win-win!

One last caveat: The topic of this entry is situational. There are many instances where "I realized" is perfectly appropriate. It is up to the author to use their own best judgement in deciding which uses are valid and which are superfluous.


{ Matthew MacNish } at: August 3, 2011 at 6:44 AM said...

Great advice, and very true. The tough part is that even though I know this full well, it still manages to come up.

{ Steph Sinkhorn } at: August 3, 2011 at 8:14 AM said...

No worries, Matthew. We all do goofy stuff in drafts. Catching it is what editing's for :)

{ Shelley Sly } at: August 3, 2011 at 10:20 AM said...

Ah, yes! I've actually made a list of words like "realized" and "noticed" (and "decided" and "thought" and "knew", etc.) that should not be in first person POV. I still make those kind of mistakes, but I usually catch them in the editing process.

{ Jen } at: August 3, 2011 at 11:25 PM said...

Awesome post, Steph! My characters don't "realise" too much, but god they "Feel" a lot. They've really got to stop that. It's annoying.

{ Taylor Napolsky } at: August 4, 2011 at 11:07 AM said...

I never thought about this actually. Looks like I better start watching out for the word realize.

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