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What A Character Can Or Can't Experience

By Expert Author: David Parker

An Action Has to Be Physically Possible
I remember the first partial manuscript of mine an agent requested, 20 or so years ago, and how destroyed I was when it was sent back full of remarks written in red pencil. (Yes, in those days some agents would routinely edit a few pages and return them, along with their comments. This still happens today, but very rarely.)
The predominant complaint this agent had with my writing was that many of the things I assigned to my characters were not humanly possible.
It Began With "I Held My Heart in My Hand"
I don't know where I came up with this goofy phrase. I probably heard somebody say it and thought it accurately expressed a person's deepest emotions. Regardless, it was pointed out that a person couldn't hold his or her own heart unless this occurred after a heart transplant. I know, dumb but true.
Can a Jaw Really Drop to the Floor?
If a person got knocked down or fell down, his or her jaw could of course drop to the floor. But standing and becoming in awe of something wouldn't allow this to occur unless this was written around an animated character with no physical limitations.
What About Idiom?
We've all read something to the effect that a character's ability to anticipate danger coming from behind is so uncanny that the person must have "eyes in the back of his or her head." Of course no one can have eyes in the back of his or her head, but here's where idiom rears its ugly head as to what is or isn't considered allowable. And, as much as idiom,"must have" (the modal "must" with "have") is what will save this from being edited out by me, since this implies a logical conclusion.
"Save Grace" Sparingly
Phrases with antecedent modifiers (I've underlined the modifiers so it's clear what I'm referencing), such as "It felt as if my jaw had fallen to the ground," and "It was as though I were carrying a ton of bricks on my back," are perfectly acceptable once in a while. And this means once in a great while. As soon as I read a couple of phrases in a client's draft like those I just referenced, I delete the rest.
How Much Is Too Much?
My rule is two per 100,000 words, and I'm dead serious, or at least as serious as I can be about anything in the complex world of writing material people will want to read, because these phrases in and of themselves can become a tic in a hurry.
Should a writer receive a rejection from an agent or publisher with the word "overwitten" in it somewhere, the sorts of phrases I alluded to can often be the justification for the comment.
This Sometimes Goes Too Far
I remember reading that a person couldn't walk through the trees, as technically this was impossible. Come on. The same with someone walking through or into a house. Only The Hulk or some such creature could walk through a house, since anyone walking into a house would likely have a bloody nose and skinned knuckles. But we all know what walking into a house means, and I believe that a modicum of sanity needs to practiced, lest very few things could happen as described.
For example, "The car turned into the driveway" isn't possible unless by some automated assistance or the steering wheel's being locked in place. Yet we all know the car is being driven by someone. Likewise, do car lights coming toward something require clarification that they're attached to a vehicle? I remember Fitzgerald's writing about car lights weaving their way through the fog in THIS SIDE OF PARADISE. It remains part of one of the greatest descriptive vignettes I've ever read, and I'm so happy Charles Scribner wasn't a stickler for "absolutism" in this instance (or throughout the whole book, for that matter, ha ha).
"Correctness" Can Lead to Some Very Boring Text
Isn't John's "pulling his car in the driveway" implying that he's physically towing it in some way? And that the car is being pulled right into whatever the driveway is made of? The distinction between what's allowable and that which isn't is often quite blurred. My advice is to stick with what makes sense, without tincturing the phrase to make it acceptable. And ignore the ridiculous pedants; however, during the past few years I have found my characters walking through doorways more often than into houses, and this is probably not a bad idea.

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