From the Forge

The Problem of Filtering Action

Read the following two passages and think about which of them offers a more direct expression of the action:

  1. “As Larry sat on the sofa reading the paper, he heard a car engine roar from the street outside, followed by two sharp backfires.”
  2. “As Larry sat on the sofa reading the paper, a car engine roared from the street outside, followed by two sharp backfires.”

In both of these passages, the writer offers the reader a character in a setting and an experience the character has. But of course, the reader shares the experience with the character. That’s one of the things good fiction does—allows the reader to share an experience vicariously.

Look at what happens to the reader’s experience in each of the passages. In the first passage, the reader sees Larry sitting on the couch reading, and then the reader is told that Larry hears an engine roar and backfire. In number two, the reader sees Larry sitting on the couch reading, and then the reader hears the car engine roar and backfire.

In the first passage, the writer has, in effect, pushed the reader a big step further away from the action. This is called “filtering” the action, and its typical effect is to ratchet down the reader’s experience of the action. The reader is no longer sitting with Larry and experiencing the car outside. The reader stands at a distance and watches Larry experience the car. Not so in the second passage. By eliminating the “he heard,” the reader experiences the action directly.

As with any rule for writing, there are exceptions. If the action of hearing itself is the most important thing, then the writer may choose to use the filter. But in fact, that is rarely the case.

A retired English professor, Gary Guinn writes both literary and mystery/thriller fiction. You can read about him and his books at and follow him on Facebook, Goodreads, or Twitter.

Blog From the Forge

What’s in a Name

Juliet tells Romeo that nothing’s in a name. “That which we call a rose, by any other name, would smell as sweet,” she says. And even Hamlet seems dismissive in his “words, words, words.” But after this past week, I must rebuff the beautiful maiden and challenge the churly prince. Au contraire sweet Juliet. And as for Hamlet, well, a noble mind o’erthrown, and so forth.

Monday afternoon, my friend George sat beside me as we watched the moon creep through those final degrees toward totality. A short while earlier, thousands of people rested in lawn chairs or lay on blankets before the beautiful Greek Revival capitol building in Jefferson City, MO. On the stage, set up on the capitol steps, the Fort Leonard Wood military orchestra performed. Kids tossed footballs, played in the fountains, chased each other through the obstacle course of resting adults. Clouds drifted lazily by, bringing with them some unease.But when the final seconds ticked into totality, all eyes stared at the sky, and a roar went up from the multitude. Then just as quickly, the roar died into silence as, awestruck, we listened to the cicadas wailing in the mid-day dark, and the bright corona flared around the black ball of the sun. It was an eclipse, but suddenly that word, which had been mundane, even common, was charged with mystery and awe. It had put on a stunning new mantle.

A few minutes later George asked, “What word would describe the eclipse? What word would best communicate something beyond the ordinary, beyond the natural?” We rejected the word “supernatural” immediately as far too tired and burdened with the clutter of history. A dictionary reveals the problem: Supernatural: of or relating to an order of existence beyond the visible observable universe; especially, of or relating to God or a god, demigod, spirit, or devil; departing from what is usual or normal especially so as to appear to transcend the laws of nature:  attributed to an invisible agent (such as a ghost or spirit). Nope, just doesn’t fit. What we had seen was governed entirely by the laws of nature.

The term preternatural offered itself, and we thought perhaps it would work. Preternatural: beyond what is normal or natural, extraordinary, exceptional, uncommon, singular, unprecedented, remarkable, phenomenal, abnormal, inexplicable, unaccountable; strange, mysterious, fantastic. That’s more like it. All these words accurately apply to the eclipse, and in fact, when taken together, they are, as a whole, a good summary of an abstract description of what happened in the sky above us. But our experience was not abstract in the least. Preternatural would not do.

Each of us had experienced the eclipse as something spiritual (notsupernatural), something natural that seemed to stop time, to pull us out of ourselves. And the response of thousands of people gathered there revealed that the immediate, shared human response was not just awe, but joy. A shout, clapping, and laughter erupted. We were all drawn totally into the moment, and in that moment there were no democrats or republicans, no liberals or conservatives, no northerners or southerners, no believers or atheists. There were only human beings sharing an experience of totality, an experience of total self-forgetting, of good will and unity. It must have been like what the ancient Israelites (or any other ancient peoples in a similar vein) felt when they first saw their God in a whirlwind or a pillar of fire.

Looking back now, those so-brief two-and-a-half minutes of totality, and the response that followed, tempt me to a bizarre comparison. Forgive the incurable English professor in me, but I think of the words of The Misfit in Flannery O’Connor’s short story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” after he kills the meddling, bossy grandmother: “She would have been a good woman,” he says, “if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”

Perhaps you can see where this is headed. In some future aeon, after humanity has destroyed itself, I see a cosmic Misfit, sitting on an asteroid, looking down at earth and shaking its head. “They would have been a good species,” it will say, “if it had been a total eclipse to strike them with awe and wonder every minute of their life.”

From the Forge

David Hare’s Rules for Writers

Last month I read a post I liked on Advice to Writers, a site I enjoy reading because they offer brief, and usually pithy, quotes from writers. This post was titled “David Hare’s 10 Rules for Writers.” Sharing successful writers’ personal rules happens often in this column, and I think you will enjoy three of David Hare’s ten rules.

1. Never take advice from anyone with no investment in the outcome. This seems somewhat counter-intuitive, doesn’t it? Don’t we usually want at least some of the advice we get on our writing to come from an objective source? I know I do. But for writers, it’s also important to get advice from people who have an investment in writing, people who know writing and believe writing is worth investing time and energy in. Those are the people who can give advice worth listening to.

2. Never complain of being misunderstood. You can choose to be understood, or you can choose not to. When I taught fiction and poetry workshops at the university, there were always students who received unwelcome feedback from the group and responded by saying something like, “You just don’t understand.” And my response was always, “When more than one person in this group doesn’t understand, the problem is almost surely in the writing, not the reading.”

3. The two most depressing words in the English language are “literary fiction.” This one made me laugh. It expresses, of course, one of the longest-running tensions in creative writing—the conflict between “literary fiction” and “genre fiction.” During most of my career as an English professor, I was biased in favor of the literary side. But my guilty pleasure was always crime fiction, and when a few years ago I began reading Scandinavian crime fiction, also known as “Nordic Noir,” and when I read Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove for the first time, I realized that there is genre fiction and then there is literary fiction in some genres.

Who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks?


Consider Your Audience, But Write For Yourself

I had fun with Billy Wilder’s tips for writing in the last column, so I’m going back to that well one more time. Remember that Wilder, who died in 2002, won six Oscars.

1. The audience is fickle.
We’ve all heard the advice “Know your audience! Know who you’re writing for.” Well, Wilder seems to be saying you can’t always count on that audience. I would add that the only audience you can really count on is yourself, so write for an audience of one.

2. Grab ‘em by the throat and never let ‘em go.
This may be a natural extension of Tip #1. Wilder seems glibly to say writing
that grabs the reader’s mind and emotions (the throat) won’t be sabotaged
by a fickle audience. Intensity, drama, is important.

3. Know where you’re going.
I frequently advise writers who struggle with plot to write a draft of their
final chapter, then come back to where they felt lost and write toward that
chapter. It helps them know where they’re going.

4. Let the audience add up two plus two. They’ll love you forever.
The more a reader can bring to a work, the more they will invest in it, the
more they will remember it. Wilder is telling us not to explain away the
subtleties of our work. Good writers find the sweet spot between obscurity,
on the one hand, and explaining, on the other.

5. In doing voice-overs, be careful not to describe what the audience already sees. Add to what they are seeing.
As applied to screenwriting, this tip has a quite different meaning than it
does in fiction. I’d say “voice-over” in fiction refers to the author’s use of
narrative voice, and it’s an extension of Tip #4. The setting and the action, including dialogue and thought—i.e., “what the audience already sees”—should
carry most of what the reader needs to know. An insecure author may be
tempted to use the narrator to explain what the author fears the reader won’t

Billy Wilder was a highly successful writer. And though he tosses writing tips out like peanuts at the zoo, I’m pretty sure he’d agree experience—hard work in The Forge—is the only way to make them stick.

Happy writing.

Blog From the Forge

Trust Your Instinct

Here are five tips for writers from screenwriter Billy Wilder, who died in 2002. Wilder won six Oscars and was one of the most admired writers in the business. These tips were aimed at writing screenplays for movies, but if you are familiar with the three-act structure in fiction, you will see how they apply to fiction as well as they do to screenplays.

  1. Develop a clean line of action for your leading character. The key issue Wilder addresses here is “character arc,” which simply means the trajectory of development your character undergoes. All the actions of your leading character should clearly contribute to his or her line of development, and that line of development should be coherent and seem inevitable.
  1. The more subtle and elegant you are in hiding your plot points, the better you are as a writer. Your plot points, those major incidents that are turning points in a story, may look quite different in different genres. The plot points in a literary novel might indeed be quite subtle, but in most genre novels, they are more prominent and fall in predictable places.
  1. If you have a problem with the third act, the real problem is in the first act. “Setup” is a key idea here. Everything that happens in the third act should be predicated on what happened in the first. Getting this thread of causality right is usually a matter of revision, going back in the later drafts and making sure you have what you need in Act One and then refining how it plays out to the end.
  1. The event that occurs at the second-act curtain triggers the end of the movie. The plot point at the end of Act Two is the catalyst that leads to the big climax in Act Three. You might say it’s the point of no return. After it, the leading character is committed to a course of action that makes the climax inevitable.
  1. The third act must build, build, build in tempo and action until the last event, and then –that’s it. Don’t hang around. Once your catalyst kicks in at the end of Act Two, it’s a dead run to the climax. Again, this is more prominent in genre fiction than in literary fiction. In writing a thriller, romance, or mystery, this final section has to sustain the intensity, and when the climax happens, Wilder says, wind it down and get out.

Here’s a final thought from Wilder that’s worth keeping in mind in all of this:

Trust your own instinct.
Your mistakes might as well be your own,
instead of someone else’s