Writing: Don’t Be Captain Obvious

Writing requires clear communication and good management. Readers must know what to remember as they follow your character from Start to Finish. But when you repeat or overemphasize details, your story begins to go off the rails.

Writing Tip for Today: What are some common ways to spot and remedy Captain Obvious mistakes?

Micromanaging

If you’ve ever read a story where the author keeps including the same detail, you likely didn’t finish it. Writers who fear that their readers will not “get” a detail often repeat it. The result is an irritated reader.

Mike was late for work. He grabbed his keys and his travel mug. Mike opened the front door and shut it behind him. He walked to his car and unlocked it. He opened the driver’s door and put in his right foot. Mike sat down, put his coffee in the cup holder, stuck the key in the ignition. He turned the key, put the car in drive. He checked his mirrors and pulled out into the road.

Are you screaming yet? The above is an example of micromanaging a scene. As the details pile up the scene’s purpose is defeated. He’s late? Sure doesn’t feel like he’s in a hurry. Although these details are accurate, readers can assume most of them to give the sense that the guy is rushing. The fix? He was late. He grabbed his keys and rushed out the door. Or even He hurried to work. Boy the boss was gonna be mad. Establish the action and then add only enough details to suit the scene’s goal or purpose.

Dialogue ‘Splaining

Another place where Captain Obvious pops up is in the dialogue we write. Resist the urge to put words in your character’s mouths solely for your benefit. Some call this Author Intrusion. Captain Obvious says just don’t.

Here’s an example: Sam said, “Hey, Mike, aren’t you going to work at the Sanitation Engineering Site over at Garfield and Main in the tiny town of Placerville?”

Mike replied, “Why yes, Sam. I work the swing shift from three to eleven P. M. every day except Sunday. Why do you ask?”

Sam said, “Well Mike, I’ve been thinking about applying at the Waste Management facility over in the city of Mainberg. You know, the one that has that great big American flag flying outside the red brick building?”

Captain Obvious says don’t overexplain in dialogue.

Captain Obvious says this passage of dialogue needs help. First, characters don’t talk about information that both of them already know. Second, repeating names in dialogue isn’t necessary when you use attributions. In real life we rarely call each other by name unless we’re upset or there’s urgency. Last, keep dialogue lively by giving each character their own personality—don’t make all the characters sound like you.

Need to Know

Every detail you write in your story should be a necessary detail. After you’ve set the scene, repetitive names, details or descriptions give readers the sense that the author didn’t think they could remember much. Your readers are smart. Set the scene and then try not to repeat the same description.

But what about readers forgetting where they are? In dialogue we avoid “talking heads” for that reason—the speakers soon become disembodied if we don’t keep placing them in the scene. The trick is to vary the detail or let the POV character notice different aspects.

If the character is strolling on a warm summer night, establish that right away at the scene’s opening. Then, later, Character might gaze up at a harvest moon or hear crickets, smell jasmine, feel rough pavement under bare feet. Keep Captain Obvious away by adding only those concrete sensory details which further enhance the scene.

About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

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