“There are some who could have lain, chained in that noisome cell, and felt no fear-no dread of what the blackness might hold. I confess that I am not of these. I knew Nayland Smith and I stood in the path of the most stupendous genious who in the world’s history had devoted his intellect to crime. I knew that the enormous wealth of the political group backing Dr. Fu.Manchu rendered him a menace to Europe and America greater than that of the plague. He was scientist trained at a great university -an explorer of nature’s secrets, who had gone further into the unknown, I suppose, than any living man. His mission was to remove all obstacles -human obstacles- from the path of that secret movement which was progressing in the Far East. Smith and I were two such obstacles; and of all horrible devices at his command, I wondered, and my tortured brain refused to leave the subject, by which of them we were doomed to be departed.”
The Mysteries of Dr. Fu Manchu, chapter 14, by Sax Rohmer.
Unlike the adventures of Sherlock Holmes, whose two protagonists have become part of our collective conscious, from Sax Rohmer’s Dr. Fu Manchu series it’s the villain, Dr. Fu Manchu, who is recognized even by people who have no idea the Chinese evil genius was once a character from literature. Very few people would recognize the names Nayland Smith or Dr. Petri (the narrator,) the Holmes and Watson of those stories. The true protagonist of the stories is, of course, Dr. Fu Manchu, the bane of the White Man, Destroyer of the West.
I have chosen that paragraph as it shows some common writing errors, especially in first-person narrations. It is the tendency to use filler words that do not explain anything and, in fact, create a gap between the reader and the story. These are verbs which function as shortcuts to describe sensory experiences (hear, see, feel, smell,…) mental and emotional states (“he was angry,”) and other verbs about similar cognitive states, especially self-referential (I knew, I suspected, I confess…)
Most of them can be easily removed without any loss of meaning as they make the reading clunkier. True, they make the writer’s job easier, but the reader’s experience will be for the worse. All of this is, in fact, nothing more than another version of that “show, don’t tell” creed, because all those verbs merely tell but do not show.
The point of a (good) writer is not to mechanically write “he felt cold” but to describe what the character is doing, suffering, or feeling because he is cold. In fact, you do not even have to write the word ‘cold’; the reader is intelligent enough to make that deduction if he reads that the characters were half-covered in snow, shivering and hugging each other.
Sometimes it’s not a big of a deal to use a “tell” style, but in certain genres, like fantasy and horror, it may be a grave sin. I cannot count the number of books where the writer described some allegedly scary creature, but since he did not bother to describe how the character reacted to that creature -his emotional and visceral reactions-, the scene left me cold while I should have been shivering. The point of literary fear is not that something is/looks -“objectively”- scary but that someone is terrified of it. It could be a 10-feet demon or a pathetic spider, it does not matter.
In any event, here’s the edited version of the quoted paragraph, with the filler words removed. I think it has a greater impact and strength now.
“Lain and chained in that noisome cell, there are some who would have given in to dread and fear of what the blackness might hold. I am not one of these.
Nayland Smith and I stood in the path of the most stupendous criminal genious in the world’s history. The enormous wealth of the political group backing Dr. Fu.Manchu rendered him a menace to Europe and America greater than that of the plague. He was scientist trained at a great university -an explorer of nature’s secrets who had gone further into the unknown than any living man. His mission was to remove all obstacles from the path of that secret movement which was progressing in the Far East. Smith and I were two of such obstacles. And at that moment, my tortured brain refused to leave a dire subject -of all horrible devices at his command, by which of them were we doomed to be departed?”
As in the previous post, there is a slight and antidramatic contradiction between the introductory sentence and the rest of the text (“I am immune to fear, but my brain cannot stop thinking about how are we going to be tortured to death!”) but I’ll let it slide this time.