Monday, July 20, 2009

Stating the Obvious

To me, the best time to clean out the car is at the gas station.

So on Saturday, I busily pulled handfuls of camp newsletters, empty sandwich baggies, empty sunscreen bottles, a cardboard box, etc., out of my car while it was filling up with gas. (Yes, this was clutter that had collected in the few days since I’d last fueled up.)

There was a man at the pump behind me who apparently watched me as I cleaned. I didn’t pay attention to him at first, but then—after making several trips from the inside of the car to the trash can—I noticed that he was smirking at me.

I realized that I'd pulled a prodigious amount of paper trash from my car. In fact, I’d filled up half the can. I smiled weakly at him. “I…uh…have kids,” I said.

“Noooooo. Really?” he asked.

His sarcasm earned him a glare, but I had to admit he had a point. Who else but a parent would be driving a minivan that seats seven people? That has a bumper sticker on the back emblazoned with the name of an elementary school? That has a booster seat in the middle row, easily visible through the open, sliding door?

I had stated the obvious and he’d called me on it.

When I first started writing fiction, I found it really easy to use unnecessary adverbs—frequently in dialogue. You know: '’he said, knowingly’ and ‘she retorted angrily.’ Then I realized I could just show that the man was a know-it-all by what he was saying: “Actually, the circumference of an ellipse is determined by finding the complete elliptic integral of the second kind.” And I could show that the woman was angry by what she was saying. “Good for you. But do you know where the laundry hamper is, Mr. Smarty Pants? Because the gym socks lying on the floor are the reason we’re arguing.”

If you'd rather show tension via body language, you could have him smirk. Or he could heave a long suffering sigh. She could have tightly pressed lips or bunched shoulders.

When we state the obvious, we’re selling our readers short. They can tell how our characters are feeling by their body language and dialogue. The last thing I want is to have a reader put down my book with a “Nooooooo. Really?”