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from Two Brothers Press

Here are links to other
writing tips:

Narrative Voice in Storytelling: a discussion of point of view and verb tense and how these elements affect the story

Dialog: The elements and art of dialog

Novel Openings: Creating compelling openings for novels

Description: The red meat of storytelling.

Flashbacks: Hey, who's in here with me? This is my flashback

Freelance Pitfalls: Editors beware of disturbed writers; Writers beware of editors with an attitude

Fastest Gun in the West


Writers often assume actions are evident to readers—or they provide too much detail

Here's a visual joke. I like to play it on people I'm talking to in normal conversation. Suddenly, I take the stance of an old west gunfighter, hands positioned on either side of my hips, twitching as if they're about to draw a six shooter, and I say, "You wanna see the fastest gun in the west?" My friend will probably nod or say, "yes." At that point, I do nothing. Then I ask, "You wanna see it again?"
The point is, this is a visual joke, and the surprise is that the "fastest gun in the west" is so fast that the other person doesn't even see it. But, how does this relate to writing? Many novice writers don't take the time to show certain actions and assume that the reader will fill in the action for themselves. This is a mistake and is an annoying lack of detail that will tug at the reader's credulity.

Here is a recent example from a book I was editing, which involves the fastest cell phone in the west...

In a rare gesture, he wrapped arms around me and held me. He smelled so good, like the forest after it rained, and I suddenly felt safe again. “I miss her, too, man,” he said.

A muffled song snippet from his pants’ pocket shattered the moment. “Hey, babe,” he responded. It had to be Christie. After a brief conversation, his eyes grew large and bright. “That’s awesome!” When he looked over at me, some of that light faded. “I’ll tell him, honey. See ya soon.”

As is evident, and quite annoying, while the cell phone ringing in his pants' pocket is nicely detailed, instead of showing the reader that the character retrieves the phone from his pocket, we simply get, "Hey, babe," he responded. I teased the writer and said that readers would have a difficult time imagining the character bending over and pasting his ear against his pants' pocket. Of course, the character could have been wearing a voice-activated earpiece, but we'd need to know that, too.

Of course, writers should decide which actions are necessary to show and which are so easily ingrained in readers that adding detail is unnecessary. The exact opposite of the "fastest gun in the west" problem is giving too much detail to ordinary, everyday actions.

She nodded her head. Hmmm...what else is she going to nod? We can simply write: she nodded.

She nodded yes. We only nod when we mean "yes." We shake our heads when we mean "no." Unfortunately, it is true...some writers don't know these simple gestures. I get, "She shook her head yes."

He reached out his hand to grab the gun. Yes, that would be the appropriate appendage for that action. We could simply write, he grabbed the gun. If necessary, we might have to say with which hand. The character might be holding a sword in the other.

"You wanna see the second fasterst gun in the west?" You'll have to contact me for the answer.