Ham-Fisted Writing Techniques Ran Up Cynthia’s Spine


Conventional wisdom says that readers enjoy crime novels because they like picking up the clues that let them try their hand at solving the mystery. Readers of fiction in all its forms also like picking up the clues to the emotional implications of a character’s actions, body language, and dialogue. When you revise your manuscript, look for the specific ways you offer those deeper dimensions.

Don’t Murder Your Mystery

One of the things I was constantly hearing at Clarion West was that you can sometimes get a bigger effect out of a reaction description if you omit the abstract agent of “shock” “pity” “horror”, or whatever it is that causes the reaction.

Horror ran up Cynthia’s spine as she whirled to face him.


A cold tingle ran up Cynthia’s spine as she whirled to face him.

The claim is that in this case, the second sentence is superior to the first because it permits the reader to reconstruct from context what the first states flatly.

If it’s not already evident from context that Cynthia feels horror, something’s wrong with the scene.

In fiction (as well as maybe in reality) abstraction rarely wins out over concrete detail, especially gestural detail.

Apropos of gesture, I recently read in The Secret Language of Success that children who learn to speak early tend to be less aware of body language than kids who speak later. Presumably this is because linguistically apt kiddos are forced to rely on body-language less.

And those early talkers are probably more likely to grow up and become writers than the other kids…

As a result, writers may have a double challenge when it comes to writing Cynthia’s reaction. Not only do we need to sublimate our “core content” (horror) into gestural language that people can understand, but we may be at a disadvantage when it comes to noticing gestures at all. 

Because I’m the kind of person who never pays much attention to body language unless it’s Saturday night and I’m trying to find out if a cute boy wants to kiss me, I was frustrated by this realization.

So much so that it could only come out in a 4chan-style greentext story…

>spend 15 years in school paying attention to language’s propositional content and ignoring body posture, speech tics, etc

>think I’m ignoring the inessential in favor of what Really Matters

>become fiction writer

>realize that you can’t write good scenes without being a good observer of gesture & posture

Nevertheless, we’ve got to learn how to use body language, so we might as well get started now. The comfort of course is that we body language illiterates can at least choose other details… some of the time. The rest of the time, we’ve just got to learn how to watch people.

It was always such little details rather than the lofty ideas which went straight to her heart.

-W.G. Sebald, The Rings of Saturn

On the topic of detail winning over abstraction, I also have a nice music theory quote to share. In his edition of Berlioz’ Treatise on Instrumentation, Richard Strauss remarks that a single bow marking is…

often more effective than the most eloquent expression marks such as “gay”, “grazioso”, “spirited”, “smiling”, “defiant”, “furious”, etc. Our worthy instrumentalists and their dear conductors pay very little attention to them.

As a writer, I’ve finally accepted the fact that a very good proportion of Hemingway’s iceberg beeds to stay the hell below the water-line. The question now becomes one of finding oblique ways of using concrete details to state what might (less effectively) be put flat on the page.

I wish I could say more about how to do this, but it’s probably the number one challenge I’m facing right now as a writer. Maybe I’ll never get over it.

What are your thoughts on this topic?

2 Responses to “Ham-Fisted Writing Techniques Ran Up Cynthia’s Spine”

  1. Rightly or wrongly, I believe a lot of the ‘ham-fistedness’ stems from the writer’s lack of belief in his own character. If the image in the writer’s mind is two-dimensional, the first time he or she is placed in a three-dimensional situation the only way out is to lay on the heavy descriptive stuff with a trowel, because you can’t drag emotion from the depth of a character if there is no depth. Thus we tend to bring out the key-words: ‘horror’ is perhaps the worst. They are a sort of apology.

    The real test of this, for me, is a sex scene. These are difficult if not impossible to write if they do not stem from deep within the characters. Sex between two members of the cast has to build from the first time they walk on stage: chemistry, conflict, apprehension, temptation need time to develop and consummation shouldn’t happen until at least the end of the second act. Just throw two cartoon characters into bed together without the emotional foreplay and the result is a cringe-making list of abrading body parts which is often, worst of worst, unintentionally funny.

    Personally, this need to make a character or characters believable has led me to the end of too many projects. If I am not looking out at the world from within somebody’s head after the first twenty pages, I tend to archive the whole idea. It makes you wonder why so many writers seem to press on regardless. Sorry if I’ve wandered off topic, but every time I read that sort of descriptive writing that is how it hits me.

  2. 2 ageiser

    You have to trust the reader to look between the lines, where the best of the story is told, but you first have to put down lines to read between. It is a quandary.

    I wonder if the Kuleshov Effect is helpful here. In film, the Kuleshov Effect is an editing technique wherein the meaning of an image is determined by the an element that is juxtaposed to it.

    In the classic example a man’s face is shown with an expressionless, blank stare. The next image is a bowl of soup. The audience will tell you that the man is hungry. In another theater the same image of the man’s face is intercut with the image of a beautiful woman. That audience will tell you that the man’s face depicts his lust for her.

    In fiction it might look like this:

    His shadow merged into hers, consumed it. Cynthia whirled to face him.


    He laughed and wiped the peanut butter from his face with his mother’s skirt. Cynthia whirled to face him.

    More context would illuminate how Cynthia feels about these encounters. Whether she is scared or angry or bemused.

    A better writer could provide more useful examples. Does this help?

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