Clearing Up the Clutter: On Removing "Trite Physicality" from Stories
Character vapor, pointless movements, and furniture moving in fiction
As Twitter implodes and Facebook lays off thousands, I’ve been thinking about what I missed in the era that proceeded social media domination. Specifically, the pleasure of the interconnected blogging era in which authors shared and responded to each other’s thoughts in a more sustained and thoughtful way that tweets could ever achieve. This isn’t a newsletter about tech and I’m not trying to predict the future of the internet, but it seems like the newsletter boom is a fine place to recreate at least some of the useful aspects of the blogging era. And so I thought I’d share and piggy back off a brilliant essay by my friend Brandon Taylor from his own Substack: “Against Character Vapor.”
“Character vapor” is an excellent term Taylor coined for a trend in modern fiction of stories in which the characters seem to exist more as floating consciousnesses collecting thoughts—perhaps separated by asterisks—than actual physical bodies that move in a physical world. Taylor: “Characters so beset and besieged by contemporary circumstances that the very narration meant to capture their lives has withdrawn all of its investment in the physical reality of those characters and directed it inward toward the acute, pulsing agony of their existential or psychological condition.”
I’ve noticed this disembodied trend—and wrote about recently it in reference to modern science fiction—and found myself saying, “yes! yes!” while reading his essay. (Okay, granted saying “yes” internally in a disembodied vaporous way.) The essay is beautiful, erudite, and piercing in the way anyone who has read Taylor’s fiction would expect. Please read it if this topic interests you:
There’s a whole lot that I could write about on this topic, but one thing that interested me was the way Taylor connects “character vapor” with another trend in modern fiction: “the trite physicality.” Character vapor stories can be quite bad, but they can also be pushed in interesting directions. (I quite like Cusk’s work, for example.) But stories that are cluttered with “trite physicality”—which I take to mean pointless movements and actions that serve only fill space between what the author really wants to say—should always be avoided.
Taylor mentions reading several stories where characters get out “salad ingredients” to no real effect and goes on to say contemporary fiction is full of such scenes:
Scenes in which characters are just kind of idling physically. The physical domain of fiction these days is filled with such trite physicalities. A literalness of physical representation that does not deepen or sharpen the reality of either character or story. These sorts of descriptions feel quite rote, dull, dead. They feel like a transcription of a visual event totally deprived of poetry or sense. There is this sense that we are being cinematic when we watch a character cross a room. Rather than cinematic, I think we ought to be more dramatic. That is, when a character crosses a room in a play, it means something. There is a deep rootedness both in the reality of the character who is crossing the room in the world of the play and the play itself.
Taylor later connects this to character vapor, saying both “come from an anxiety over embodiment.” I’d never connected these trends , but I’ve noticed both and think Taylor is exactly right. There is a certain kind of writer who takes that fear and simply cuts the body entirely, and another writer—often an “emerging” but not infrequently an established one—who instead clutters the page with pointless movements because they know a scene is supposed to have action and description even though they don’t seem invested in them.
Often I see this manifest as filler between the important parts, like foam peanuts cushioning fragile items in the mail. Say Anne and Arthur are sitting at the kitchen table because Arthur has to tell Anne, “Well… the boss caught me passed out in my own vomit, yet again. I’m fired.” And Anne has to tell Arthur, “I want that divorce.” Many writers seem happy to write those lines (which aren’t terribly good, just examples) and then backfill scene work.
“Well… the boss caught me passed out in my own vomit, yet again. I’m fired.”
Arthur picked up a spoon and stirred his coffee. He took a sip.
Anne ate a piece of her toast. The toast crunched between her teeth as she chewed. She turned her head toward the window to look outside. Then she turned back to look at Arthur.
“I want that divorce.”
While there are times where small movements serve a purpose, such as building tension, most of the time there shouldn’t be fluff between interesting parts. Every part should be interesting. And why write something like “the toast crunched between her teeth as she chewed” or “she turned her head toward the window to look outside”? Is there a different place toast crunches when being chewed? We know how looking out of windows works…
I have a not-terribly-intellectual principle for my own fiction writing, which is that sentences should strive to do “double duty.” That is, they should function on at least two narrative levels. They might deepen character and worldbuild. Or advance the plot and add to the atmosphere. But certainly a detail should do at least one thing. What is a way that someone eats toast that can tell us something about her? What can Anne see out of the window that deepens the story? If the answer is nothing, perhaps you just need to cut.
Taylor’s reference to the “dramatic” versus the “cinematic” above reminded me of advice that one of my writing teachers, the great Diane Williams, used to say: “cut the furniture moving.” Furniture moving—if my memory hasn’t completely mangled the meaning—was how Williams referred to pointless movements, especially those that get characters from one place to another. The reference was to drama. In a play, the curtain comes down between scenes and stagehands rush out to replace the furniture and props. When the curtain rises, we are in a new location. The theatergoer doesn’t need an explanation of how one character walks down the street from their apartment to the bank, at least not unless something important happens on that walk. They can just show up at the bank. The mind can fill in the rest.
This kind of “furniture moving” is one of the most common sources of clutter in stories. Many writers seem to think they must spell out the step-by-step movements of making a salad or taking the subway. Let’s say a character is feuding with neighbors and you want him to drive over the neighbors’ house and throw a pumpkin pie through their window. (Look, Thanksgiving is around the corner.) Maybe the neighbor left the pie on their porch with a passive aggressive note that put our hero over the edge. Instead of writing simply So I drove on over to their house and threw their dumb pie through their living room window one writes:
So I picked up the pie from the porch and went back inside to get my car keys. I walked over to the car holding the pie in one hand and with the other hand I opened the car door. I got in the car and drove down the street to the Smiths’ house, then drove down their driveway and parked in front of the house. I got out and threw the dumb pie through their living room window. Then I got back into the car, turned it back on, and drove home.
This is a bit of a parody, but not a gross one. I see this type of step-by-step description frequently, as if the authors were writing a WikiHow article on throwing a pie through your neighbors’ window rather than a short story.
My guess is this is a habit of our visual age, in which film, TV, and video games are the primary mode of storytelling most writers experience. It is cinematic writing not in the sense of being visually compelling but in the sense of recreating what might appear on screen. Even writers in MFA programs have probably watched more hours of visual media than they’ve read books, and so there’s a habit of defaulting—in one’s mind—to the visual when writing. The problem is that text isn’t visual. It’s words. There is an inherent power to moving images. The eye is automatically interested, even in rather rote movements like walking to a garage and opening a car door. But those movements are not inherently interesting in text.
We also have to remember that the visual in isntanteous in a way prose is not. Our eyes can register, say, a character’s entire outfit in split second. That same outfit would take far longer to read—He was wearing dark blue jeans and black sneakers and a white button-up shirt with the top button unbuttoned and a blue blazer and… this is already boring and there are items to go. Multiple characters can move on screen in a few seconds in ways that would take much longer to read. Time works differently in fiction. It’s more elastic. We can speed through an eon in a sentence or stretch out a moment for pages. But each sentence we do include adds time. Each sentence—each movement, each detail, each action—carries more weight in a story than on a screen.
So when we’re writing fiction, we have to make those movements interesting through great style, characterization, or description. Ideally, those movements will be embodied by the characters in the dramatic way that Taylor describes. The movements we get should mean something for the characters. For my own tastes, I say if you can’t do that at least make sure the movements are adding to the some aspect of the story—setting, atmosphere, plot, etc.
And if you can’t figure out a way to do any of that, ask yourself if the movement needs to be there at all?
As always, if you like this newsletter, please consider subscribing or checking out my recently released science fiction novel The Body Scout, which The New York Times called “Timeless and original…a wild ride, sad and funny, surreal and intelligent” and Boing Boing declared “a modern cyberpunk masterpiece.”
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An astute post! But I gotta quibble here.
"My guess is this is a habit of our visual age, in which film, TV, and video games are the primary mode of storytelling most writers experience. It is cinematic writing not in the sense of being visually compelling but in the sense of recreating what might appear on screen."
Is it? I think exactly the opposite thing has happened in visual media. In the screenwriting classes I took in undergrad, the reigning criticism was always "get to the @#$%ing point." I read plenty of scripts from my peers full of "CHARACTER takes her car keys off the table and leaves the house and gets in her car and turns the ignition and and and..." where the professor would do a verbal eyeroll and say "who wants to watch that? Cut way earlier."
There's definitely been a big shift in how network TV is written, away from the "cinematic" and towards the "dramatic." And I'm not just talking about prestige television here - I mean, boomer police procedurals used to have a hell of a lot more procedure. I know people like to make fun of Law & Order but christ, that is a show that does not fuck around, DUN-DUNning from scene to scene with literal title cards. You could fit one Cagney & Lacey and two Perry Masons in a single Law & Order episode - and bluntly, most TV dramas pre-1990 or so are so loaded with "CHARACTER takes her car keys off the table" as to be basically unwatchable. But again - that's 30 years ago, and this trend is way more recent than that, I think.
I wonder whether the pointless physicality of this particular mode of fiction is in reaction to visual media but from the opposite direction, as part of a hamfisted rejection of TV and film's relentlessly action-y action? I don't mean a rejection of how Movies These Days Are Just Endless MCU Fireworks Factories Which I An Intellectual Am Superior To, I mean the sort of relentless DUN-DUN economy that gets drilled into screenwriters these days. Does that make sense?...
Can you and Brandon and whoever else please set up a Discord for 'literary writers, editors and publishers with newsletters, for talking about the stuff in those newsletters'. thanks!