This post’s idea sparked by my fab writer buddy, Mo Buckley. Thanks! So what is Hokey Pokey Writing? Other, less creative teachers might call it “writing too many stage directions.” Think of it as trying to cram specific stage directions into a short description.
Writing Tip for Today: What’s Hokey Pokey Writing and how can you avoid it?:
The Hokey Pokey TMI
Several factors can combine to give a written scene the feel of that childhood dance we all learned: “You put your right foot in, you take your right foot out. . .” When writers imagine their scenes, they “see” the scene unfold in the mind’s eye in a specific way. If the character rushes into a room, spins around, draws the gun and fires, most would experience it as one fluid motion that occurs very quickly.
But there’s a problem: Readers can only process one action at a time. That’s why, in reading that same “fluid” motion, readers experience it in several different and separate actions. Rushes in—check. Spins—check. And so on until the gun fires.
Another way stage direction can become Hokey Pokey happens when the writer tries to control the reader’s experience with details that don’t matter. If you write, “He jumped to his right,” is it his right or the reader facing the book’s right? If you write, he stood five feet away,” suddenly readers are calculating in their heads: How long IS five feet anyway?
In both cases, readers are interrupted as they attempt to be sure they get the size or distance or direction correct. Instead of precise measurements, substitute common or well-known objects to compare size. Writing, “He stood an arm’s length away” or “Her purse was the size of a bread box,” readers get an instant picture and they don’t have to stop to compare.
Let Readers Assume
To fix this tendency toward Hokey Pokey stage directions, writers need to release the notion that readers must “see” the scene unfold just as it is written. One of the joys of reading is the active role that readers assume in interpreting the written words. If the reader interprets your scene a bit differently but still gets the intent and main point, it’s not a disaster.
When you edit a scene, look for and delete the actions readers can assume. If the point is that your character rushes in and shoots someone, why does it matter if she spins first? If your character is driving to work, we know he must open the car door, insert the key in the ignition, close the door, fasten the seatbelt, etc.
Which of these actions is crucial to readers? If you are planting a clue, perhaps it matters that your character must move the driver’s seat forward. If not, she can simply drive her car to work. Trust me, few readers will worry that the character doesn’t close the door before she drives off. Leave out the bits that readers can assume.
One of the biggest reasons that all this Hokey Pokey isn’t good for your story is that by listing a series of actions, the writer omits the necessary emotional involvement readers rely on to move the story. You know to write in scenes, but have you considered the sequels that guide reader emotions? A sequel is your POV character’s reaction to what happens in a scene.
Sure, readers want action, but if these actions aren’t complemented by character reactions, readers don’t know how the action affects both character and story. If your character gets yelled at by another character, we need to know how it affects that character. One person might cry, another might plot to get even.
These reactions serve your story by acting as signposts, showing readers where tension rises and the ways the character meets or doesn’t meet the challenges and obstacles. Avoid listing actions without at least some sequel or reaction by the character, to help readers stick with the story. The Hokey Pokey is just a laundry list until character emotions show readers why they should care.