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MICRO-CRITTING The Illusion Crashers

October 12, 2011

                                      A BIRD’S EYE VIEW FROM THE NUTSHELL

The preface and the first chapter laid the groundwork for why I felt it was important for me to explain my method of critiquing (critting) and why I chose to call myself a critter instead of a reviewer.

The next two chapters of this series revealed the process I use to get an overview of the selection I’ve chosen.  The process is largely intuitive and is developed from the “weight” and the “movement” of the piece.  It is best accomplished with the eyes slightly out-of-focus.  I call this process Macro-Critting.

The last two chapters began the nuts and bolts of the process I call Micro-Critting.  First, we discussed “beginnings” and “endings,” and looking for the effectiveness of “hooks” in the openings of short works as well as in chapter endings of longer works.  Then, last time we looked at the importance of drama in fiction, and we introduced the obvious idea that nothing creates drama like dialogue.

Join me now, won’t you, while we expand on dialogue and explore the first of writer abuses in that area that can break the mystical bond between him and his reader.


            The fiction to which we, as writers, should all aspire is a systematically maintained illusion of reality.  I started that sentence with the modifying phrase, “In my opinion.”  I did it because I didn’t want to begin this chapter out all wrong.  I didn’t want to ruffle any feathers.  I thought it would be better to be a little more modest, but after I studied each word individually and contextually, I scrapped that beginning in favor of the straightforward and uncompromising way it stands.  I doubt there’s enough looseness in its structure for dissent to wriggle in.  I don’t think, the more that I look at it, that it’s truly profound.  Only profoundly true.  And that ain’t bad.  So, let’s explore it.

Have you ever been so enrapt by a piece of fiction that you’ve lost complete track of time?  Neither have I –and thank you for being honest.  But, aside from that admission, I do love reading.  I love reading good, really good, quality fiction.  The better the fiction the more vital is the mystical (I use this word, “mystical” a lot because I can’t find an exacting synonym) connection between the writer and me.  And, though I know it might sound bizarre to some, I’m going to go ahead and say it anyway: when that connection is there, I feel a powerful kind of psycho-synergism at work.  I am cognizant (or seem to be at that moment) of the writer’s tireless quest to find a willing prisoner who is eager to be shackled to the movement and pulse of his message, and respond to it; I also know — and, I haven’t a clue how this happens and I realize it flies in the face of logic — the writer has a sense, on some level, of my spirit moving across his landscape along with my dependency on its unimpeded movement.  If he hasn’t this sense then how can he possibly expect empathy from me, or anything beyond superficial understanding?

Admittedly, this deep-level connectivity happens rarely.  But, when it does I come closest to losing track of time.

In chapter 2 of How This Critter Crits we explored what the reader needs to bring to the story.  These have to do with his recognition of, and decision to deal with, biases, those physical/psychological factors such as having enough time, being in the right mind-frame, and energy level, and such environmental considerations as the elimination of distractions and maintaining optimum comfort and lighting while reading.  These are the responsibilities the serious critter owes to the writer.

To answer the question, “What responsibility should the serious critter expect of the serious writer?” we needn’t go any further than the last part of the sentence that opened this chapter: ” … a systematically maintained illusion of reality.”  The body of this chapter, and the next, will be concerned with the interruption of this illusion.

*   *   *

            An Illusion Crasher is … anything the writer does that crashes through the illusion of reality that he is trying to maintain and jars the reader’s consciousness with the realization that he is no longer immersed in the illusion, but merely eavesdropping.  Through a careless tear in the fabric of the fictional reality, the reader’s attention has slipped out.  For a moment, at least (and perhaps forever), he is outside the magic of the story.  For that same moment the mystical connection between the writer and his reader has been breached.  A writer should look at this with horror.  At the same time, he should pray the reader will be forgiving.  Here are some common types of illusion crashers:

Speaker tags:  Artificial at best, speaker tags should only be used to prevent confusion over who is speaking.  Abuse in this is obvious:

“Are you alone?” asked John.

“You can see I’m alone,” said Betty.

“Can’t you just answer me directly?” asked John.

“Can’t you ask me an intelligent question, then?” asked Betty.

“There are other rooms, Betty.   People could be there,” said John.

“Face it, John … why would they, knowing you are here?” asked Betty.

Something is definitely bubbling in the cauldron beneath the surface of their relationship, but before you have a chance to let your attention nestle into all that delicious tension, reality crashes in on you.  With only two characters, a male and a female, as long as only dialogue follows, uninterrupted by narrative or description, tags are only needed the first time each speaks.  And, even following splashes of description “he” and “she” will do just fine.

A good writer will actively look for ways to avoid unnecessary speaker tags.  In well-developed characters there might be singular distinctions separating their dialogue.  One character may stutter.  Another may be identified by his use of slang.  A third, by her use of profanity.  But, even without these painfully obvious examples, an effective writer will strive to imbue each prominent and recurring character with his or her distinctive rhythm, as distinguishable on the page as the voice of a dear friend or spouse could be picked out of the din of the crowd.

Another tag-avoidance strategy is to precede speaker’s dialogue with meaningful action:

Joseph tugged at his collar.  “Am … am I next?”  Not only has he been identified without a tag, but also the action that introduced him enlarges the dialogue meaningfully.

Unnecessary or non-pertinent dialogue:  It seems ironic to me that the very effect of reality that many beginning writers try to achieve can be a singular reason their readers’ fictional reality is crashed into.  It might go something like this:

“Yo, James.”

” ‘sup,  Bobby.”

“Nada, James.  ‘sup with you.”

“All’s cool.”

“Ha’n’t seen you for a few.”

“Been around.  Don’t ‘member seein’ you, either.”


“Still do’n Joan?”

“No … broke it off.”

“Where you goin’?”

“Shoot some hoops.  How ‘bout you?”

“Goin’ to the library.  Wanna go?”

“Nah, don’t feel like readin’.  Wanna shoot some hoops?”

“No, better study.”

“Suit yourself.  See ya, dude.”

“Back at ya.”

The writer of the above dialogue is eager to tell you that in real life there is something of a sheer, but impenetrable curtain that separates even the closest of friends (and so much more the stranger), not allowing for intimacy.  “In real life,” the writer tells us, “people talk around intention.  People don’t rush to get to the point.  By rite of tacit understanding and acceptance, they are extravagant in their evasiveness.  It’s the way it is in real life, my friend.  It’s reality.”  And he smiles, parentally, and goes on to proclaim that the artist’s responsibility is to hold a mirror up to reality.  Then, he follows this profundity by asking you to consider what reality is.

“Listen,” he says, “I mean really … listen!  Listen to the words you say to the person you meet on the street.  Listen to what’s under them and around them.  There is this gulf between you.  If you listen you can hear it, you can feel it.  You like to think you are friends, you and this person you meet on the street; you see each other all the time, but the reality is, you see, that there’s this distance (maybe only as diaphanous as a curtain) between you and him, between you and her, you and me, between you and me and everyone else on this planet.  We all have this distance between us.  And what appears, to the uninitiated, as meaningless dialogue, such as I created above, can grow into something profound if it is not terminated by their shared denial and their subsequent departure, but is allowed to go to its natural, gulf-narrowing conclusion at which one reaches a brotherhood of understanding and acceptance … and … and … ”  And how the writer goes on and on!

Still … I know without much doubt that he would soon have my head bobbing like one of those bobble-head dolls, and have me believing that there is –there actually is –this distance between characters that is a palpable something that the reader must patiently deal with before the forward movement of the plot can, in reality, be got on with.

While he has me totally mezmersnoodled, however, I’m counting on the majority of you savvy critters in Fanstoryland to point out to the writer that the fictional reality his mirror is supposed to reflect back is a kind of condensed and distilled reality.  Tell him, while you’re at it, that if he has the need to demonstrate this proposed chasm between people he’d better, paradoxically, find a way to bring people together dramatically to show it.  He’d better do that because, however profound the message beneath the fiction, it won’t be communicated until it is read.  And, it won’t be read unless it is engaging.  And trite, superficial conversation is not engaging.  And that is the reality of that.

So, stand up, square your shoulders and assert to him –assert to me –confidently: “There is no place in a well-intentioned story for non-pertinence in dialogue, for flab, for waste.  Every word should be carefully chosen to play its part in moving the storyline forward.”

Thank you ….  I needed to hear that.

And, now, buffered with the truth of it, I think I’m ready to explore with you, next time, other ways a writer’s illusion can be crashed into.


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  1. Yep, those illusion crashers just stink. Sometimes it’s hard to see that objectively in our work. That’s what we need objective eyes for. 😀

  2. Thanks for reading, Sonia. I do appreciate it.


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