Critique Technique, Part 49—Stating the Obvious

By Ross B. Lampert

Two people talking

Photo by Ambro, courtesy

When I was studying for my bachelor’s degree in physics, one of the things I hated—HATED—was when a textbook’s author would write “…it is intuitively obvious to the casual observer that…” and then go on to describe something that was anything but obvious, at least to me. I guess I wasn’t a casual observer.

The topic of this post is not quite the opposite of what those physicists were doing. They assumed what they were about to present was obvious because to them it was. Fiction writers, on the other hand, just come out and say what really is obvious to the reader, even the casual one.

Sometimes this takes the form of the “As you know, Bob…” statement, in which one character tells another something the second character (Bob) already knows. I discussed this back in Part 37.

What I want to discuss here is a bit different, though. It’s also a form of “telling versus showing,” but in this case, the showing and the telling happen together. Here’s an example:

Bob ducked and tried to protect his head with his arms as the white Chinette plate Alice threw at him whistled by. Another one followed, then a cup. The cup glanced off his arm, crashed into the wall behind him, and shattered, joining the pile of broken crockery on the floor behind him.

“You jerk!” Alice shouted. “You lying, two-timing, cheating bastard!” She launched the cup’s saucer at him, then picked up the knife.

Alice was angry.

“Alice was angry.” Gosh, really?

Sometimes the unnecessary, obvious statement leads the showing, rather than following it.

The town had seen better days. There were more boarded up doors and windows lining Oak Street, the main drag, than ones with the glass exposed. Ted’s Barber Shop and Carol’s Curlz ‘n Cutz were the only shops open on the north side between First and Second Avenues. Across the street, bricks had tumbled from the top of the second story façade of the hardware store, now closed, sometime long in the past, leaving it looking like an old dog’s lower jaw. In fact, an old dog, a stray everyone called Rocky, lolled in the entry, panting in the noon heat.

“The town had seen better days.” Yeah, we can tell from the rest of the paragraph. The sentence is obvious and unnecessary.

Not all cases of stating the obvious are going to be so, well, obvious, but you can be sure they won’t be subtle. Usually they happen when a writer wants to make sure the reader “gets” some point he’s trying to make. This isn’t really a lack of trust in the reader so much as the author not trusting himself.

For you as a reviewer, the task of catching these problems should be pretty simple, although it can be easy to glide right over such statements if you’re not paying attention. But if you’ve tuned your reader’s sensitivities so they go ping! when the author tells you something you can clearly see, you can mark it in the text to discuss with her later.

Are there any special techniques you use to prepare yourself to catch the obvious? Tell us about them in the comments.

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