If You Can Name It, You Can Fix It: A Craft Glossary
We’re delighted to launch our new classroom section this month, featuring a curated list of some of our craft favorites to share in workshop or lecture. Today, we bring you Jody Hobbs Hesler’s practical and fun craft glossary, equally useful for self-revision and workshop alike. —CRAFT
By Jody Hobbs Hesler •
“It seems like you don’t really care about your main character,” someone once told me in a workshop. Maybe they sensed an underlying issue with the character’s authenticity? A nebulous not-rightness about the prose? With only a vague notion to go on, it’s easy for writers to leave a workshop discouraged rather than empowered to get back to work. It’s our job as critiquers and workshop facilitators to articulate feedback precisely and constructively. You can’t find a problem you can’t name.
Naming problems is powerful in every context. By the time I graduated high school, MS had rendered my father paraplegic. Though he couldn’t reliably use his arms and legs anymore, muscle spasms thrashed them around for him, often and without warning, knocking his hands into his wheelchair, jostling anything in his lap to the floor. From my end of our phone conversations, I could hear his frustration whenever the spasms struck. “What if you named them?” I asked him once, on a lark. “At least then you’d have something to yell at.” After that, his shouts of “Goddammit, Blanche!” became a phone call litany. Now his voice held the power of his anger and the weird satisfaction of blaming a thing for being itself. Naming his problem didn’t make it go away, but it sapped some of its power over him.
When we can name a problem with our writing, most of the time we can fix it, too. Easiest to name are things that are working. “Great dialogue!” or “I can really picture this!” or “Satisfying ending!” pretty much speak for themselves. Similarly, some writing missteps lend themselves to straightforward description, such as problems with plot continuity or inconsistencies in voice or point of view.
Murkier ways that writing misses its mark, such as that fuzzy sense that a writer might dislike their character, are harder to articulate. These missteps often require careful analysis plus a profusion of words to explain. Think of Tolstoy’s happy families being all alike while unhappy families differ “after their own fashion.” Logic dictates that specifying issues “after their own fashion” will rack up a higher word count. (Exhibit A: Anna Karenina’s heft.) The resulting marginalia in a workshopped piece can overwhelm writers.
After thirty-plus years of being on every side of a workshop—from critiqued, to critiquer, to facilitator/teacher—I’ve observed some recurring craft issues that trigger those murky responses to a piece, and below I’ve named and defined several of them. Naming them cuts down the word count of our critiques and fine tunes their precision. Writers can stomach the extent of the marginalia, and, much more importantly, they can use the feedback to get back to work.
Here, then, is a short glossary to share with students, or to use in self-guided revision. A rose by any other name may smell as sweet, but we need a name, whichever we choose, to lead us to the right flower.
Accidental Screenwriter: This happens when we move our characters around perfunctorily rather than meaningfully, as if they’re following stage directions: She put her hands behind her head and twisted to the right. Beware awkward bodily machinations that sound like Twister instructions. Ask, does this motion embody something important? Is it necessary for the reader’s understanding? Similarly, beware pauses and hesitations. A script might contain a stage direction for an actor to pause, but on stage we would never “see” a pause. We would see the actor stopping in their place continuing to hold a thing they’re holding, scanning the room for something, picking a thread off a shirt, petting a dog, washing a dish. Characters in our fiction need to demonstrate pauses in a scene the way actors would. Have them look around the room, try to gauge another character’s response to what’s been said, or check the time on the clock. Or make them stand still while the bustle of things happening around them shows their inaction in relief. In fiction we can demonstrate hesitation with more than physical action, too. Cleverly placed exposition—any meaningful details about the characters’ surroundings, mood, or thoughts—adds to the reader’s understanding of tone, place, and tension, at the same time that it creates the feeling of a pause in the story’s action.
Clichés of the Body: Beware laughs, smiles, and tears. Our characters’ movements and gestures work best when they pull us closer to their reality and into their quite particular personalities. Smiles can mean a thousand things—nervousness, happiness, greed, anger. In our stories, they mean nothing if the proper context has not been created. In the same vein, beware rolling eyes, rolling stomachs, racing hearts. Again, these have too many meanings on their own to speak specifically to our characters by themselves. Many times we write these “clichés of the body” into our early drafts as we’re still getting to know our characters and their stories. They hold a place for more deeply imagined descriptors. How might our specific character experience sorrow or anxiety? Can we think of something more character-related than weeping or stomach rolling? Maybe our character taps her watch face repetitively or pets her cat too much when she’s nervous. Maybe another character shows sorrow by refusing to make eye contact. Occasionally, often-clichéd gestures do the work they’re meant to do. In order to use them effectively, though, the scene must earn the reader’s full understanding of whatever emotion the character’s bodily signal intends to send. Often there are richer and better ways to do this than with the gestures we think of first.
Opportunities to Look Out the Eyeholes of Our Characters: Beware the unexamined secondary character. In one story I was revising, a police officer was searching for a teenage girl on a case of suspected arson. He was waiting at the kitchen table in the character’s father’s house when she finally walked in. Every time I reworked that scene, the officer popped up out of his chair, insisting on a spotlight. The problem was that the tension at that moment belonged to the main character. When I finally reimagined the scene through the police officer’s “eyeholes,” by metaphorically placing myself in his body and looking out and around, I realized there was no way he could exist in that space and time without behaving in a way that would overshadow the more important nuances of the scene. In order to keep the focus on my main character, I had to remove the police officer altogether.
Beware the conflict that only allows for one character’s reaction. Let’s say we have a scene where a letter bomb has just exploded in the hands of its intended victim, perhaps a scientist. The blast is loud and causes minor injury. The scientist immediately shouts about the injustice of the incident and throws an adult-sized tantrum. A story might substantiate this heightened reaction perfectly, but only if we render the context appropriately. To do so, we must ask questions that evaluate all the members of the scene. Such as, where is the scientist? Who else might be nearby? Let’s say he’s at home. Is his toddler daughter in the room, building with blocks nearby? Is his especially noise-sensitive hound hanging about? Instead of launching straight into a temper fit, might he be more likely to drop the letter and check to be sure his daughter is okay? Or call out frantically for his dog? Or has the story fully established the character’s narcissism by this point so that we already expect him to ignore the potential effects of the explosion on other people or pets, making his tantrum ring true? Putting ourselves inside each character present, looking through their eyeholes, and asking what it would really feel like to be in each of their specific bodies in this specific moment helps us create more genuine interactions while deepening our understanding of what’s at stake for everyone in the scene. We also might discover important reactions of minor characters that we haven’t believably explored yet. Showing those reactions often adds to character development, heightens plot tension, and increases authenticity and urgency.
Speak the Unspoken, but Don’t Speak the Banal: Beware leaving something internal/unspoken that could be spoken out loud. We crave access to our character’s motives and ideas—dialogue interspersed with exposition of a character’s judgment can be helpful. Relying solely on a character’s thoughts within a scene prevents the reader from observing how that character exists in their world. Instead of seeing a character interact with the world around them, then, or how other characters might challenge their thoughts and worldviews, we only see what the character sees of himself. Large dumps of introspection also often interrupt the pacing and flow of action. For all these reasons, whenever possible: Speak a heart’s desire. Express dangerous disagreement. Voice insults. Spill secrets. We learn a lot about characters from how others respond to them, not just from what they think privately.
On the occasions when our characters do speak, beware of including dialogue that merely accounts for time or that acts as a convenient “info dump” of details characters themselves already know.
“Hello, my name is Adam.”
“Nice to meet you. I’m Eve.”
“I’m Snake, your server this evening. Our specials are…”
Let’s focus on the dialogue that drives us to the heart of matters and leave out the most obvious, rote parts of exchanges. (That said, the names from this example are especially freighted, so perhaps in this one case those introductions might merit inclusion.)
Invisible Coffee Table: Beware the under-developed scene. Picture an episode of Friends with all the characters gathered at the coffee shop sofa. Let’s say they all have their feet up on the coffee table. But then, let’s also say the coffee table is invisible. As viewers, we will ignore the conversation and action while we try to figure out why and how all those legs are hovering in midair. As long as it remains unexplained, this phenomenon will draw all of our attention. So, if there’s a proverbial coffee table in our scene, make sure the proverbial viewer can see it. Similarly, beware the scene in which the characters know more about their setting and its expectations of them than the reader does. If the character knows where he is, then make sure the reader does, too. If the character knows what her boss expects of her, then we should, at the very least, understand that the character knows what the boss expects of her, possibly even what the boss expects. Information gets revealed in a story as it becomes necessary. In this way, readers slowly come to take in a whole plot, a whole conflict, a whole family dynamic, etc., one patient batch of details at a time. There’s an important difference between distributing details when and where they’re needed, though, and withholding information from our readers. Beware making your reader feel like she’s wearing a blindfold.
Too Much Reality vs. Realism: When she was in kindergarten, my daughter wrote a lovely little book about a million stray children living in a cave. Exciting, right? Well, it surely could have been. We zeroed in on a girl or two and observed how each morning they got up, brushed their teeth, ate breakfast, played. Each evening, they ate dinner, brushed their teeth, went to bed. Then came the time they spent the night with the monsters! Exciting, right? Well, it surely could have been. Guess what they did together? That’s right, they ate their dinner, brushed their teeth, went to bed. Too much reality = including details like the stray children’s daily habits in the cave: accurate and specific, but irrelevant. Realism = including details and daily habits when they matter most, for example showing Mr. Steak and Potatoes eating only a salad at the steak house as a way to reveal he’s having bypass surgery next week: accurate and specific and important. Dullness results if we account for every sequence of actions our characters face. We want to curate which actions matter and which ones push us forward.
Hot Potatoes: Hot potatoes are pieces of information that may be accurate and specific, but that also carry weight and intrinsic power that could overwhelm the writer’s intentions, such as references to sexist or racist language or behavior that might have been in usage during the time period of a particular story. Beware using these outdated, controversial attitudes simply to establish time period. When readers of today encounter unseemly relics of the past in their reading, they are likely to expect those things to shape the arc of the story or character. They’ll probably also crave proof that the sentiments in the work belong to the character and not the writer. It’s part of our job as writers to recognize when we’re holding a hot potato and to handle it accordingly. Is the slur or compromising attitude or behavior in our story more than a prop? Is there any other evidence to guide the reader toward interpreting the hot potato? If the writer fails to recognize the demands of the hot potato, then that it is likely to distract the reader and might disengage them from the work altogether.
Beware of assuming that racist or sexist language had no consequences in times when it was more prevalent, too. Hateful terms and attitudes were always challenging and complicated, even when/if they were “popular.” Nowadays we might reckon with these issues more squarely, but the issues themselves were toxic long before the language and behavior behind them became more universally unsavory. Resurrecting these old terms and attitudes to serve our stories requires care, delicacy, deliberation, and research. The hot potato acts like the opposite of an invisible coffee table. It’s more of a neon coffee table, an element so sensational that it can hijack the reader’s attention away from what the writer intends.
The Question of Real Estate: The amount of attention we give to subjects, characters, objects, scenery in our work carries meaning of its own. The greater amount of space, aka real estate, these things occupy in our work, the greater their apparent value to the reader. In other words, the reader will hang expectations and curiosity on things the writer spends the most time and space describing. If a passing character gets detailed down to every thread of clothing and style of walking, the reader will expect to see that character again and may, in fact, become confused while waiting for the reappearance. Real estate in our work is one of many ways we set our readers’ expectations, so we want to mete out attention with consideration and intention.
A glossary of craft missteps gives us the language to speak accurately about others’ work and to better understand our own mistakes. Naming problems gets us halfway to fixing them.
JODY HOBBS HESLER’s fiction, articles, essays, and book reviews appear or are forthcoming in Pithead Chapel, The Rumpus, Gargoyle, Raleigh Review, The Georgia Review, [PANK], Valparaiso Fiction Review, Prime Number, and elsewhere. She lives and writes in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains and teaches at Writer House in Charlottesville, Virginia. You can find her on Instagram, Facebook, and @jhhesler on Twitter.