Today’s blog post will focus on a component of weak writing I am ALWAYS, ALWAYS editing out of my drafts as much as I can. For some reason, I love to write about what “seems” to be rather than what is.
There are reasons for this tendency to rely upon verbs like “seem” and “appear,” “guess” and “suppose.” A large part of the problem, in my case, has to do with point of view.
I write in third person, with a narrator who follows one character at any given time, with occasional, deliberate head-hopping that I carefully structure. So, when I have to describe the reactions or emotions of a character who isn’t that POV character, that “focus of narration,” I don’t want to appear to be head-hopping unintentionally.
The easiest fix is to say the character “seemed distraught” or “looked as though his hope had shattered.” Otherwise, I might look to be jumping into that character’s head.
The thing is, I wouldn’t be head-hopping, not necessarily. It depends largely on the circumstance, but generally, I recognize that I have to trust my readers more. I have to trust my readers to understand that my narrator is in Character A’s head, and that when I describe Character B, what the reader is getting is Character A’s assessment of Character B: correct or incorrect, biased or unbiased.
As long as I, as the author, take the time to establish clearly which character my narrator is associated with, I can directly state that a different character is distracted, or annoyed, or angry. As those are emotions with clear visual cues, I can even describe the visual cues and let my readers infer the obvious, corresponding emotion from them. That’s best of all.
You see, readers are good at that. They aren’t stupid. When you give them the clues to follow, they’ll go where you want them to go and understand what you mean to tell them.
But what if you don’t lay down the clues well? What if your clues and your setup are too vague?
This is why you have beta readers and editors. Your beta readers will tell you when something feels wrong. When your story doesn’t make sense and one and one aren’t adding up to two, because you didn’t clearly describe one of those “ones.”
WHY “SEEM” AND ITS SYNONYMS CAN BE SLOPPY
In many ways, for me, my POV-related excuse for using “seem” and its synonyms so much in early drafts is just that: an excuse. The real truth runs much deeper:
“Seem” is imprecise. It gives you wiggle-room. It’s weak, and indirect, and doubtful. It allows me to avoid calling a spade a spade. And calling a spade is spade is never something I’m comfortable doing, especially in real life.
That aspect of my personality, that preference for indirectness, spills over into my writing. That wouldn’t be such a problem, if it didn’t weaken my writing so much. Compare the following examples. Which is stronger? More powerful?
- She seemed about to cry, and he didn’t know what to do.
- She was about to cry, and he didn’t know what to do.
- The corners of her eyes were holding tears, and he didn’t know what to do.
- Tom appeared angry, and Kara could understand why.
- Tom was angry, and Kara could understand why.
- Tom’s teeth were bared. He’d clenched his fist. Well, Kara could understand his anger.
- His cat looked ready to run out the door as soon as he opened it.
- His cat was ready to run out the door as soon as he opened it.
- His cat sat on its haunches, poised to run out the door as soon as he opened it.
While using “to be” makes for a stronger sentence than using “seem” or its synonyms, because at least “to be” states what IS, overusing “to be” is an issue for a different post. Clearly, in all these examples, choice three is the best option. It’s most direct and most descriptive. It also avoids any semblance of “seeming.”
DIALOGUE VERSUS NARRATION
I want to be clear here: using “seem” verbs in dialogue is different from using “seem” verbs in narration. People speak using “seem” verbs. They employ them to avoid being too confrontational. They use them when they aren’t quite convinced of what they’re saying. They use them when they have personalities like mine.
Using such verbs in dialogue is natural and real. If they aren’t raw, at least they allow your characters to maintain a defensive shell that, ostensibly, they would want to maintain. “Seem” verbs in dialogue make sense.
- “Did you see him in class? He looked so angry!”
- “She seemed upset by something. Do you know what’s wrong?”
It’s really in narration–and in things like blogs– that you want to be forceful.
So, CLAIM YOUR WRITING. State what you mean, and mean what you say. Be direct. Bring a strong presence. Don’t settle for seeming, appearing, or looking like you know what you’re doing. KNOW what you’re doing, instead, and prove it. Leave your readers in no doubt.
After all, if YOU aren’t convinced enough of your points to state them directly, why should your readers be convinced?