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Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Can You Explain Why Authors Write This Way So Often? by James L. Rubart

Remember the old Paul Simon son, “(What a) Wonderful World”?

Don’t know much about history,
Don’t know much about biology,

Here’s what I don’t know much about: Writing. (I hear some of you out there saying, “Yes! It’s true, I've read your books.”)

I’m not being falsely self-deprecating or flippant. I really have little knowledge about the rules and structure of writing as well as grammar. (I have Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, but I haven’t gotten around to reading it quite yet.)

I do know what a noun is. I know what a verb is. I know that an adverb is an l-y word. That’s the extent of my knowledge. Truly.

I have no clue what “conjugate a verb” means.  (It was hugely freeing when I read Stephen King's stellar book, On Writing, where he says not to worry about all the rules; that if you read a lot you've probably picked up on most of the “rules” by osmosis.)

So what I’m going to state in the next few paragraphs is definitely more of a question for you—and my uneducated opinion—than a suggestion on how you should write.

I continue to read traditionally published books where I think the novelist is wasting words and keeping the reader from going deeper into the POV of the protagonist. Here’s what I mean:

I frequently see sentences such as this: “He could hear the elephants stomp through the forest”

Wouldn't it be tighter writing to say, “He heard the elephants stomp through the forest.”?

Wouldn't it be even tighter and more intimate to say, “The elephants stomped through the forest.”?

If we’re in this character’s head, why do we need to explain that they could hear? Unless the character is deaf, isn't that obvious?

Don’t we want to draw the reader as deep as possible into the head of our characters so they become the character? It seems to me in the first two examples, an unnecessary distance is created between the reader and the protagonist.

So help me out. What are the pros of writing “could hear” or “heard” as opposed to simply describing the action as I've done above?

Help me, Obi Wan Writer-Nobi, inquiring Jim's would like to know.

James L. Rubart is the best-selling, award winning author of four novels, including Soul’s Gate which just won a Christy Award and an INSPY Award. During the day he runs Barefoot Marketing which helps authors make more coin of the realm. He lives with his amazing wife and two sons in the Pacific Northwest and loves to dirt bike, hike, golf, take photos, and still thinks he’s young enough to water ski like a madman. More at


Lyn Perry said...

You mean the Sam Cooke song?

Nicole said...

You know, Jim, sometimes it's hard to say what is "right" writing. The rules are more like "guidelines" (thank you, Captain Barbossa), and not religiously sticking to them can be freeing, stylish, and entertaining. If the character is frozen at a distance from the elephants, "could hear" implies there are many things he's hearing. I'm of the opinion that some people love Hemingway who is the champion of eliminating every possible word from a story, and others love Daphne duMaurier types whose stories brood with all kinds of description. Isn't it really a matter of taste once you're reading the finished product? (JMO)

Ane Mulligan said...

You're absolutely right about writing tighter. Not only that, but the first way you wrote it is telling, not showing. In a novella (which I'm writing and discovering) you have to tell sometimes ... but not with that type of a sentence.

Those pull the reader out of the story and remind the reader that this is after all, the product of a writer's imagination. The writer has broken the reader's suspension of disbelief.

And that my friend, is the worst "rule" to break. :)

Gina Holmes said...

Sometimes it's about intimacy, sometimes about cadence. In your example both are better served with the latter. Tight writing is good. Beautiful writing is good. Tight, beautiful writing is best :)

~sharyn said...

Actually, this is what the book Rivet Your Readers with Deep Point of View is all about. I read it in one afternoon and it completely changed how I write!

Martha W. Rogers said...

Sharyn, I read it too, and oh what a difference it made in my writing. Have to watch out for those weasel words. Deep POV really takes you into the character's mind.

Sandy Salsbury said...

The last five words of your post say it all.

Ronie Kendig said...

I have to be the oddball here. This is one of the elements my editor and I sometimes disagree on. Most of the time, this "distance" thing with regard to the "he heard" is spot on. But there are times when eliminating those does not convey accurately the picture I'm trying to paint. Sometimes, using the 'he heard' ( at least to me) INCREASES the suspense of the situation or the tangibility of the creeping danger. My editor and I have agreed to disagree a few times on this very thing.

Ane Mulligan said...

What you say is completely true, Ronie. Sometimes that's exactly what's called for. As with all writing "rules," when we mature as writers, we learn when and how to break those rules to enhance the prose.

BUT, new writers need to learn this principle before they throw it out. Because if all the story was written that way, there would be no song. said...

I think it has everything to do with style. I read a lot of what might be considered "classic"... Dickens, Steinbeck, M. O'brien, Brett Lott, currently reading John Irving, and I've noticed they seem to be more "distant" writers. When deep POV is overused or used poorly it comes across as if the writer is trying too hard, trying to force me into their character's head, and I just might not be ready for that yet! It's like when a movie is over-scored and uses way too much sentimental music to try to get you to feel something, instead of letting the story evoke emotion. I may be an oddball as well. I LOVE subtlety. I love figuring out how a character is feeling without being in their head (and therefore told). To me, this constitutes beautiful writing. Not to say I don't appreciate deep POV when done well and somewhat sparingly, but so often "distant" writing appeals to me more. Great topic to discuss, Jim. This question has been rattling in my head as well.

Jim Rubart said...

Lyn, you're so right! But the version I always think of is the Simon Garfunkel one.

Jim Rubart said...

Great thoughts, Nicole. Agree, thanks to the Captain.

Jim Rubart said...

So true, A.M.!

Jim Rubart said...

Yes, Gina! The standard most of us are trying to attain!

Jim Rubart said...

Thanks for the resource, Sharyn. Appreciate it.

Nicole said...

Good for you, Ronie. I'm onboard your ship - keeping with my pirate theme. ;)

Nicole said...

Rachel, I totally agree with the style preferences. They're not and should never be uniform. We all like different kinds of writing and really must write from that platform that we enjoy in order to give our story and its characters life. Anything that bends those staid rules works for me. Not to say they're useless or that we don't need to heed the value, but think our boring literature would be if everyone wrote according to the rules. (Speaking of classics, just reread Tender Is the Night. Bold breaking of every rule. Unique. I love F. Scott Fitgerald.) said...

Nicole, have not read that one. Thanks for the recommendation!

Bruce Judisch said...

I was at a writing seminar a couple of years ago in which Cecil Murphy was the featured lecturer (wonderful man; did a great job). He called it "filtering," when you include "he heard/saw/felt" when you could just say what happened, that being in the character's POV implied that he sensed it in some way. He discouraged it, and, as a general rule, I agree. However, I also take Ronie's point that there are times to break just about every 'standard' writing rule there is when it's meaningful to do so. It depends on what you're trying to convey and what best conveys it.

I do a short seminar with writers' groups called "Never Say Never: Subjectivity in Style," where we talk about rule breaking; when to, when not to, and when you've earned the right to. Talk about stimulating lively conversation among writers! So much fun.

Or, maybe as humans we're just drawn toward rule breaking. You think? :-)

Great topic. Thanks, Jim.

Cheers! Bruce

Jim Rubart said...


I agree. And maybe that's why it's so critical to remember any technique is a technique, not a rule. Whatever is best for the story, no?


Jim Rubart said...

Agree, agree, agree.

Jim Rubart said...


The movie example is excellent as are your thoughts on the subject. Thanks for commenting.


Jim Rubart said...


I think it's a subject that could go on for hours, and all of us would likely learn something in that time,


Sybil Bates McCormack said...

Hi, Jim. Thanks for the insightful contribution. As someone who devotes hours at a time each day writing demand letters and legal memoranda, I find it especially challenging to write tight in the fiction context. I've grasped the notion of maintaining one character's POV per scene, but deep POV is another animal altogether. I'm determined to master it, though. Blessings!

Janice C Johnson said...

I'm with Ronie here. In this particular illustration, "The elephants stomped through the forest” sounds more like an omniscient narrator than being in the character's head. The sentence doesn't indicate whether/how the character was aware of the critter. My POV-expert critique group friends would suggest employing the character's thoughts and perceptions. Like, maybe...

"He stopped in his tracks. What on earth was that racket? It sounded like an elephant stomping through the forest. The noise drew closer. Oh, great. Were any of these trees climbable?"

Jim Rubart said...

Yes, Sybil! Master on!

Bonnie Lacy said...

Jim, thanks for this post. I am not the only one!

I had a 7th grade teacher that would be horrified at what I'm about to write, but grammar ain't my cup of tea. I don't know all those parts of speech or sentences. I can't remember the rules. I cringe at critique group when I don't understand the critique!

I just write as it flows. I am learning.

Thanks for helping me see that I'm not the only one!

Jim Rubart said...

There might even be more than you and I, Bonnie!

Michelle McLean said...

The third version is definitely better and is something I try very hard to do in my own writing. Though my poor editor is always marking up my manuscripts to get rid of what she calls stage directions :) I do try to edit them out myself but they are one of my bad habits that I sometimes don't even see.

I'll write something like "he turned his head and looked out the window" when I really just need to say that he looked out the window....or better yet, describe what he saw outside the window. I am getting better at catching these myself, but some always slip through :D