Michael J. McDonagh

An established writer who recently went to work becoming an author, trying valiantly to make someone give a damn and chronicling the process.

Writing Blind (well it’s really about dialogue)

I’m editing a novel by another author that has presented an interesting dilemma: Her protagonist is blind.

On the surface, you would think that would present problems in terms of setting scenes. Surprisingly, though, that isn’t the challenging part. I think it might be making her writing better. In fact, I think simply editing something where the primary sense is disabled (don’t get on me about the PC aspect of that word, I literally mean it as a verb) is making ME a better writer. If nothing else, I don’t need to worry about boring descriptions of sunsets.

The biggest challenge it presents has to do with dialogue. Not being able to see physical cues limits the good ways (i.e., show don’t tell) of explaining the thoughts and emotions underlying dialogue. This has been driving me nuts as her editor, because it’s pretty damn hard to show instead of tell when your first-person narrator can’t see shit.

We’re working through her manuscript. Since my job is to critique, not rewrite, I get to point out problems without having to dirty my hands trying to fix them. Except this is my critique partner, I absolutely adore her, and she just found out she is going to have a baby, so I got soft.

Not soft enough to try to fix the issue throughout the entire manuscript (I’m sentimental, not drunk). Sentimental enough to try to put together a matrix of the best through worst ways to “show/tell” what is happening in dialogue without visual cues. Nor surprisingly, if you add “observing physical action or phenomenon”  as a priority 2 way of doing it, this list (which is probably still pretty rough) is not a bad general guide to doing this whether or not your character can see. 

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Needless to say, whether or not your characters can see, dialogue that is strong enough to convey everything is always the first, best choice.  There is no substitute. That’s why Hemingway could only crank out part of one page in a day, but seldom needed to explain anything. At the opposite end of the spectrum, exposition and internal monologue blows. It is a tool of last resort. If there is a way to avoid it, do.

I’ll probably be back to retool that list at some point, and if you think I missed anything (or missed the boat on anything), hit the “ask me” and let’s chat about it. I don’t love posting first drafts of things, but that’s because I was writing before there were teh interwebs and old habits die hard.

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5 thoughts on “Writing Blind (well it’s really about dialogue)

  1. Just know that before it drove you nuts as her editor, it drove her nuts as the author for months and almost kept her from writing the book.

  2. Oh, shnittles…I would have never thought of that being a very *now* obvious problem w/writing a blind character. Great guide you put together, Michael! And congrats, slightlysmall! =D

  3. Thanks to both of you. I think, if I ever taught a creative writing class, I would require students to write a story with a blind 1st person POV character. Maybe a deaf one, too.

  4. Nina Kaytel on said:

    Very helpful. It is a struggle to get writers to engage all the senses when writing. This would make a great exercise.

  5. Thanks, I’m glad you thought so. I may put this idea into my toolbox for drafting, too. I know I rely too heavily on visual cues. Temporarily taking away sight for a conversation or scene –without telling the reader– could be a good way to break some old habits (or bust out of a slump).

    Thanks for commenting.

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