(l to r) Laurence Fox as DS Hathaway and Kevin Whately as DI Lewis in the TV series ‘Lewis’
The reason I started thinking about being mindful when choosing words is this: the other night about 4am I was lying in bed wrestling with a paragraph for a story. Yes, I do this. A lot.
In one of the Universe’s most amusing ironies, disturbed sleep and insomnia are symptoms of my ME/CFS, so I can sleep for Britain during daylight hours, but can’t go for more than about 3 hours at a stretch at night. Then I lie awake, waiting for the next bout of sleep to come, and its helpful to have something to entertain my brain in the meantime. This is when I write. Not at my desk, but lying down in bed. In case you are wondering how I remember things, I tell myself the same scenes over and over again, perfecting them, until I know them pretty much by heart. I write them down during the day, once I’m happy I’ve got them right. Yes, its weird, but its my process, and it seems to work.
So anyway, there I am, lying in the dark, wrestling with a scene in which Detective Sergeant Hathaway has phoned Detective Inspector Lewis from his hospital bed for a reassuring chat. The two have just admitted their feelings for one another, but none of the talking and working things out has been done. Things are still delicate, tender and vulnerable between them. Having had a quiet, romantic chat, Hathaway ends the call, and Lewis, from whose point of view the scene is told, lies in his own bed, staring at the ceiling and contemplating how he feels for his colleague.
So how to convey that moment of transition from phone call to meditation in a single sentence? Here are the possibilities I came up with:
“He hung up.”
I don’t know, it just sounds too abrupt, as if Hathaway has rung off in a rage. I reject this option.
“The line went dead.”
Even worse. This suggests not only anger, but perhaps even peril – maybe an assailant has disconnected the phone or snatched it from beloved Hathaway’s hand, or there was an accident or an explosion that terminated the call prematurely. I reject this option too.
“He terminated the call.”
People don’t actually think like this. Its as bad as saying:
“He exited the building.”
Nobody uses this tone inside their own head. Verbs like terminated and exited are too distant and clinical. They contribute to what is known in the business as the ‘Authorial Voice’. In other words, the reader is aware that an omniscient storyteller-author is telling them what is happening, and what to think, rather than opening a door through which they can view the experiences of the characters themselves. If you want to read authorial voice done well, read Dickens or Thackeray, who are always commenting on their characters in this way. Its old-fashioned, and uncomfortable for most modern readers. Don’t do it. It just looks like you don’t know what you are doing. Always tell your stories from inside your character’s heads, regardless of what tense you are using.
And incidentally, words like terminated and exited are too formal. They should be kept for technical manuals and academic papers. If you are in doubt about whether a word is too formal, think about how you use language inside your own head. Would you think ‘I terminated that call’? No, I didn’t think so.
“He rang off.”
A little gentler than “He hung up”, but still a bit too brusque, as if there has been a tiff. I reject this one too.
I try to think of another verb for concluding a call, concluding again being too formal, but can’t think of one, so I decide to go for my next option, which is to skip the obvious:
“After Hathaway rang off, Lewis lay on his back and stared at the ceiling.”
You see what I’ve done here? I don’t really need to tell the reader that the conversation ends, because all readers know that telephone conversations end eventually, so I nod to the fact, and then concentrate on Lewis’s reaction.
If an act isn’t noteworthy in terms of action or emotion, if it doesn’t move the story along, then you can safely leave it out and allow the reader to make their own assumptions about the obvious.
After all, I don’t need to tell my readers everything Lewis did when he woke up that morning to get to the phone call, from the first yawn, through using the loo and scratching his bum, to noticing that the instant coffee in the jar has gone lumpy and that he’s almost out of bread for toast. What is important is not which toothpaste he uses, but the phone call from his future lover, and its aftermath. That is what moves the story forwards, and that is what the reader is interested in.
“Lewis dropped the phone handset onto the covers and lay back, Hathaway’s richly textured voice still echoing in his head.”
This tells us a bit more about Lewis’s reaction to Hathaway, and the effect of their conversation, but dropping the phone sounds a bit too abrupt as well. He would be too dreamy and relaxed by this point to drop anything!
“Afterwards, he lay back, allowing the memory of Hathaway’s richly textured voice to flow through him.”
This doesn’t mention ending the phonecall at all. It entirely concentrates on Lewis’s response, emphasising the sensual effect it has on him.
By iteration, I have completely removed the need for solving the original problem, which was finding a way to communicate the end of the call, and I have added to the emotional impact of the moment as well. So this is the version I will go with, at least for now. After all, first drafts always get changed.
I hope that by walking you through the process of wording the paragraph, I have been able to show you how much choosing your words mindfully can enhance your writing, and how you communicate emotion and action to your reader. It might take a bit of time, but thinking through the effect you want to achieve will make a huge difference for your reader.
If you want to read the previous post on this subject, click here.
To read the next post in this series, click here.
And if you haven’t come across the delicious TV series Lewis (called Inspector Lewis in the US, I believe), I highly recommend it. You can read a fanfic I wrote for it here.