1. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    Failure to Commit

    Discussion in 'Word Mechanics' started by Wreybies, Mar 9, 2015.

    I'm watching my favorite film of all time, ALIEN, and Ash and Kane are reviewing an atmosphere analysis of LV-428 and Ash says:

    "It's almost primordial."

    [​IMG]

    Almost? Why does he qualify the description, the observation, with an almost? It is bloody primordial out there. Death in seconds is assured.

    Now, put Ash and Kane and the coming horror that is the xenomorph aside for a moment. We don't actually care about why Ash says what he says. This scene in my favorite film merely sparked the question in my mind, but is not the heart of the matter itself, because what I'm getting at is how we, as writers, employ descriptions in the narrative of a written story.

    alien.png

    It happens a lot in the items we critique here in the forum and elsewhere. The writer describes a scene or setting or part thereof with an image that would have been effective if it had been rather than seemed to have been the thing in comparison. Someone has an emotion, but no... wait... they don't... they only almost as if have the emotion. I find it in my own work and endeavor to expunge it, to commit to my image, my emotion, my observation, not to shrink from it with a flaccid almost or seemed to be.

    A ridiculous example for sake of clarity:

    There was a kind of mountain sort of in the distance with a purplish tone to it. The sky seemed to be made of something like a robin's egg in its nearly turquoise color. A river quasi-babbled in a stream with what seemed to be a bottom of smoothish river stone.

    In this description, nothing is.

    So, why do we do it so often? Why do we describe never-endingly in terms of almost, as if, seeming to be, seemed like? Do we fear our descriptions? Are we afraid they will embarrass or shame us in our writing, so we leave a little room for an exit in case it goes over poorly?

    Thoughts?
     
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  2. Chinspinner
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    Chinspinner Contributing Member Contributor

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    In terms of dialogue I don't think it is an issue if it is how someone would speak. "it's primordial" has too few beats to roll off the tongue easily and with sufficient weight. If I was saying that I would modify it somehow, perhaps with an expletive "It's f***ing primordial".

    I think there is also a misconception that it sounds more literary. But most of all I agree with the OP, in that I think it is a fear of committing wholeheartedly to a description in case it is inaccurate, or perceived to be by the reader.
     
    Last edited: Mar 9, 2015
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  3. Talisien
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    Talisien Member

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    Ha... had to laugh! I used two qualifiers in a post on this site yesterday. Reason? Because I was afraid someone might jump down my throat. Result? Someone did anyway.

    Maybe, like me, we are afraid of being rebuked and have learned to cover our ass!
     
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  4. Chinspinner
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    Chinspinner Contributing Member Contributor

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    Yes, this as well. I do a lot of report writing where there are generally no absolutes, or rather I need to caveat my advice for fear of getting sued. Unfortunately in the modern world we have to qualify a lot of what we say.
     
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  5. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    Good point. I am referring to the narrative of the story, not the dialogue, though I can see the habit leaking in between the quotation marks easily enough. ;) Thanks for pointing it out. I've updated the original post to reflect it. :agreed:
     
  6. Burlbird
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    Burlbird Contributing Member Contributor

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    Hm, in the context of "Alien", wouldn't that "almost" when it comes to LV's atmosphere have something to do with the crashed Space Jockey? Perhaps his ship introduced trace elements into the planetoid's environment which are not something the crew would expect to see...
    Sorry, my geekness is strong tonight ;)

    I must say that I notice this lack of "courage to commit" quite a lot in my early writing, and it appears in rough drafts all the time. Yes, I believe it is an ingrained insecurity - an almost primordial trait :)
    The best solution seems to be to cut it down, chop it off mercilesly, and burn the stumps. Except, of course, if you really need it there. Some of the characters I love writing about are so insecure themselves that I just have to allow the surrounding descriptions etc to reflect that. I mean, if the character is not certain about something, it would be unfair to put the reader in advantage...

    So I'd say it's down to recognizing which "insecurities" are yours as an author - and which belong to the narrative. You may not be able to purge the first ones - but you can learn to control the others...
     
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  7. stevesh
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    stevesh Banned Contributor

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    I can't tell if you're asking about posts here in the forum or in your work, but if the former, I assume that everything posted here is just someone's opinion, so there's no reason to constantly say so. My reply to another thread where the OP mentioned having 'shitty friends' was: "There's no such thing as shitty friends". Obviously my opinion, but I didn't see any reason to say so.
     
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  8. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    I take it to mean that the narrator has an idea/image of something primordial in his mind and that what he's seeing at the moment is almost the idea/image in his mind. In other words, the narrator's definition of the word is different from the reader's.
     
  9. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    Oh I so hesitate. My friend is angry with me and it instills fear in me. But I overcome my fear and answer as an advocate of the devil would.

    What if it is nearly primordial, but not exactly primordial? Why is that option is off the table? From where I stand, it makes perfect sense. To be exactly primordial is highly improbably scientifically.
     
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  10. Shadowfax
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    Shadowfax Contributing Member Contributor

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  11. Chinspinner
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    Chinspinner Contributing Member Contributor

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    But there are some absolutes smart-arse.
     
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  12. Shadowfax
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    Shadowfax Contributing Member Contributor

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    Sorry, I was being facetious.
     
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  13. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    I love this thread! I have a list of what somebody labeled 'weasel words' that I keep posted on my wall, to remind me—and I need constant reminders, because I slot these words in more often than I care to admit. I always have to pull them later, and most of my usages of them do need pulled! I mean, there ARE times when these words are necessary, but only a fraction of the times I use them in a first draft.

    My weasel words:
    somewhat
    a bit
    rather
    actually
    very
    just
    hopefully
    almost
    quite
    really
    kind of
    sort of
    possibly

    I have no idea why I use them. Maybe I'm trying to admit the possibility of mistake? Or I'm just plain mundane and need a brain transplant? Anyway, thank god for the 'search' function in Pages. At least I can find these weasel words during an edit. Embarrassingly often.

    aargh...

    I reckon you could amend my Mark Twain quote (below) to 'almost' instead of 'very.'
     
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  14. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    Nope. Not forum posting. Story writing. ;)


    I'm less concerned with Ash and his comment, really. It was just the spark that set me to thinking. :) It tied into a bit of help I gave another member a few days ago in the story they are banging out. I gave an example quote from an old project of my own to show how to show something this way rather than that way, and, upon rereading it, there it was, the offending word, seemed. Dharma exacted an immediate payment for my mild smugness in having proffered my quote as an example of "good writing". I had seemed the image in that old piece of writing. Granted, it was a much younger me who wrote it, but still, there it was. And it wasn't a character's concept of seem, it was my own, in the narrative, divorced of the character's opinion. Why had I not committed better to the image? Why had I been so milk toast about it? The image was a little fanciful, and perhaps I feared remonstration for purple prose. Perhaps I was not confident enough to think "this is what it was, you either get it or you don't". Not sure myself. o_O
     
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  15. plothog
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    plothog Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    I think in spoken communication and forums communication these qualifiers are often needed.
    How many times have we seen people write something in absolute terms and then had someone else come along and slam them for not thinking of the exception, or for presenting their opinion as fact.

    Peppering forum posts with 'seems' is a strong defense mechanism. It's saying 'I'm just my sharing perception of things, so if you see the world differently please don't get angry'
    'Generally' often means 'I know there are exceptions to what I'm saying, I don't want to you be angry that I forgot them, but I'm not going to quadruple the length of my post by trying to list them all.'

    Words like 'seems' don't work so well in narration, because when we're the ones who created the fictional scenario we can't be wrong about it.
    Readers want to have a clear picture of what's happening in the story. They're not going to debate that something different is happening to what we've chosen.

    It seems to me these words often creep into fiction because we're in the habit of using them in ordinary communication.
     
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  16. peachalulu
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    peachalulu Contributing Member Reviewer Contributor

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    Sometimes I think I use these words trying to delay saying something of too great importance. In this world we're taught to be polite, understanding, tolerant, a fence straddler, a non-troll. How many people say I'm fine when they're not? The emphasis is usually on what not to do instead of what to do. A lot of people carefully construct barriers concerning communication that can get carried over into writing. Even if you're the most outspoken person you know. In some ways that can be even a greater barrier.

    I think some writer's doubt their abilities and back off into generalizations and words that stall a breakthrough. It's a way of keeping distance from the vision and staying in a comfort zone of ultimate control. Your ass is covered with words like maybe, try , seem. Going in too deep ( with exacts ) you're not sure where you're going ( this person just doesn't seem angry he is angry - what am I going to do about it? ) and there's a commitment to the reader that you'll deliver the goods. People want absolutes cause they live their lives in unsurities.
     
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  17. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    In that case, I'm in @jannert's boat:
    I do the same thing, something about the way it comes out of my brain and onto the page contains weasel words. Then I go remove them all. Then I worry about my choice when one of them does belong and I decide to leave it in.
     
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  18. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    "Seems" is a perfectly good word to use in the context of 'not sure' in any form of writing. A POV character, for example, can only observe that another character 'seems' to be sad, because of the expression on their face, or some other verbal or nonverbal clue. In this context, 'seems' is not a wishy-washy term. It means the person relating the tale is only guessing and doesn't know for sure.

    I do worry when certain kinds of words are seen to be taboo—when a writer says they never use adverbs or adjectives, for example. What we need to guard against is the over-use of any kind of word. Sometimes adjectives, adverbs and, yes, even weasel words do have their uses.
     
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  19. T.Trian
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    T.Trian Overly Pompous Bastard Staff Supporter Contributor

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    I've found that I must use "seemed," "almost" etc. very rarely, like every 20k-50k words or so. I used to plant them everywhere, but then (largely thanks to the more skilled @KaTrian) I learned they're mostly unnecessary, and even when they seem :)p) necessary, they can usually be bypassed with little effort. However, when a simple bypass turns into circumlocution, I go ahead and use "seemed," "almost," or whatever because sometimes they are, indeed, the best choice.
     
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  20. Mckk
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    Mckk Moderator Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Well, words like "seemed" etc have their place. The most obvious thing I can think of now is for my own book, actually. My co-author alternated chapters with me and she wrote from her character's POV. Serycia, her character, would be describing the expressions and emotions of my character, with lines like "His eyes travelled down my body" or something to that effect.

    I personally completely bypassed it. It didn't bother me. I took it as Sery's observation of my character.

    And then, @KaTrian who's been beta-reading it (half way through now I think?) commented that she thinks Sery's arrogant and self-indulgent to be so sure of what the other person's feeling, thinking, or looking at so specifically. Sery described my character's thoughts and emotions without any of these pesky little non-commital words like "seemed" or "almost" or "probably" etc, and ended up annoying the heck out of poor Kat :D

    So... just a very practical example really, but it seems these words do have their place. (and in this instance, "seems" is used for effect - the softening of a statement that actually communicates clearly I have no doubt in what I'd just said at all. That softening effect of the word "seems" there actually ends up strengthening the statement by way of putting emphasis on it. So I guess they're used for more things than an expression of doubt :p )
     
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  21. KaTrian
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    KaTrian A foolish little beast. Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Haha, the novel is very good, I'm just a slow critiquer, sorry.

    Anyway, it bugged me a teeny bit 'cause she was certain of how people felt, and I think it felt somehow implausible to me. It wasn't the narrator informing me about it, which would've worked for me, but it was the character, which made her look like a mind-reader.

    Not saying it couldn't work. One of my favorite novels, Dina's Book, does something similar, actually. It's written in omni 3rd, but at times when the author shows what the main character Dina thinks of others, she's almost always certain of her observations. The reason it worked for me was that I was led to believe that Dina was either a) a basketcase b) a witch c) both. I don't think Sery is either.

    In your novel, the reason it rubbed me the wrong way was the fact that it's written in first person present. The narrators are, in a way, supposed to be unreliable because their reality is sifted through them. So when someone is certain of how a person they hardly know feels about stuff, it comes off as a curious character trait instead of an intentional narrative intrusion (like in omni). Maybe I was supposed to shrug it off as "the author (your friend) just didn't want to use "seem" 'cause people say you should avoid it" but it truly bugged me a bit, which, I guess, is one example where I wouldn't have approached writing from the "writing rules" perspective ("I'm failing to commit if I don't make her uncertain of what she thinks of others"), but instead written it as it is (if that's the way it is), e.g.:

    He mourns for my loss already.
    vs.
    I believe he mourns for my loss already.

    That was the quickest example I could find. In fact there it kind of made sense Sery could tell the guy mourned losing her 'cause he was all teary and clingy, but there were some bits where I expected hesitance but she appeared certain.

    Sometimes qualifiers and hesitance verbs are word clutter and completely unnecessary. However, this example was of an experience where the author's successful commitment read like an odd character trait.

    P.s. I think one can see if someone's checking them out (eyes traveling over their body), so that wasn't a problem, or if I marked it as such, then it was a brainfart! I know I can usually tell if someone's ogling at me. Granted, one could complain about how it's really the gaze, not the eyes that do it, but... I'm not going there, it's never bugged me. :p
     
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  22. Mckk
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    Mckk Moderator Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Hahaha Sery a basketcase! :D I like the description. It's true she's neither a witch nor a basketcase, but the idea of her being a basketcase amuses me hehe. She does seem to have suicidal tendencies for no reason - it was one trait I never got my head around but she was my friend's character, so... *shrugs*

    As for the ogling - you did mention it in your feedback, except the line you quoted goes into a lot more detail. I don't remember the line anymore lol but it was something like "His gaze travels down my breasts and the side of my body and down my thighs" - or something. (that was a horrible sentence on my part...) But basically that Sery was being oddly specific about exactly what Soren could possibly be looking at.

    So if someone was looking at a chair, of course you can tell. But the line was something like: "His gaze travelled over the tall back of the chair threaded with gold and across the cushioned arm of the chair, down the curves of the mahogany legs..."
     
  23. KaTrian
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    KaTrian A foolish little beast. Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Oh yes, that sounds like me. Seemingly I did and would find that weirdly specific. :D The thing I tend to do is point out what stood out for me or jarred me, but like we've discovered, many of the things I considered somewhat strange in Sery didn't catch anyone else's eye. T and I have had similar "issues" with our WIP, too. One beta got pretty annoyed with our heroine, another saw nothing but an asshole in a guy we didn't mean to be an asshole. Sometimes the fault's in the writing, sometimes that's just how we react to characters. Can't please 'em all. :)
     
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