What I Wish I'd Known

Showing Off

Most of us like it when people are impressed by us. Whether it’s from a feat of strength, dexterity, or mental acuity, it feels good when people respond with cheers, ooo’s, and aaah’s. For writers, we impress people with polysyllabic words, obscure knowledge, and robust scenes. But sometimes, our drive to be impressive can pull a reader from the story to think, “You wrote this scene just so you could use ‘pulchritude’, didn’t you?” But people generally aren’t impressed by forced attempts at seeming impressive. People are mostly impressed when things that seem difficult to them are done effortlessly by another. But what does that mean for writers? In a sense, it means knowing when to write ‘pulchritude’ and when to simply write ‘beauty’.

As writers, we are expected to be subject matter experts in all the different aspects of our work, or at least seem like it. If we have a scene with ships, we’re expected to know the difference between a bow and a stern, a schooner and a galleon, and which ropes get pulled or loosened for different sailing situations. Fantasy writers should know that terms like ‘long sword’ and ‘short sword’ are from Dungeons & Dragons but were not used historically, other than to call a particular sword long or short, as in, “Hey, that sword is long; it’s quite a long sword.” When we get details like those wrong, it can cause your reader to flinch as if struck and say, “That’s the stern…the steeeerrrn!”; however, when we get those details right, readers in-the-know might be impressed by your accuracy and seek out more of your works.

When I was a newborn to the craft and I was stumbling through my overzealous outline, careening straight into a first draft, I would find neat tidbits of knowledge and wonderful new words. I would often find myself wanting to inject those tidbits and wonders in the book somewhere, and then I’d scramble to see how I could create a scene centered around the proper use of a blacksmith’s hammer, or the like. Those scenes would often get cut because my focus wasn’t on progressing the story, it was on seeming impressive. When it did work, it was when the characters naturally found themselves in a situation where such words/information might be used. Imagine if Lenny from Of Mice and Men had used words like ‘pulchritude’ or ‘polysyllabic’, or if a Lenny scene in third-person limited had involved planning a complex bunny farm.

I don’t mean to implicate that you shouldn’t inject neat bits of information into your story, or even that you can’t center a scene around the complexities of proper blacksmithing; you just have to make sure it flows naturally in your story.

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