Characters Lost in Space

The other day I was helping my eleven-year-old make what he calls a “Cyclops egg.” You might know the dish (wrongly) as Toad in the Hole, but no matter what you call it the procedure is the same:  you cut a hole in bread with a biscuit cutter, crack an egg into the hole, fry the whole thing up, and eat it. Atticus was at the stove melting butter in the frying pan and asked me how he could tell when the pan was hot enough to put the bread in and follow with the egg. “The butter needs to sizzle,” I said.

“How can you tell when it’s sizzling?” he asked.

“Well,” I began, “‘sizzle’ is an onomatopoeic word. Lean down and take a listen.” He did, the butter sizzled, Cyclops egg commenced, and he had breakfast.

Yes, I really worked the word “onomatopoeic” into breakfast conversation, and since Atticus is my son, he knew what it meant. (Though thank God he didn’t ask me how to spell it.) But my linguistically nerdy parenting is not the point. What struck me was that I could have described the look and feel of the butter in that pan any number of ways: “The melting dairy fat will initially foam and then recede.” “The pan should be hot enough for the butter to have melted completely and vigorously, yet not show any hint of browning.” “The butter will begin to slide across the pan, tracing the slight incline of the pan on the burner. You must choose the moment when it bubbles and dances, but before it begins to smoke.”

But I simply said, “sizzle”—a word as useful as it is fun to say. It captures perfectly and succinctly the action it’s meant to convey. It is common, yes, but not clichéd. It works. Over the last year I’ve seen a trend in fiction writing in which that plain “sizzle” just won’t do. Nor will a simple “hug” or “smile” or “grin” or “shrug.” Instead, characters move to wrap their strong arms carefully around a body, resting them there with a not-unpleasant heaviness. Their mouths turn up at the corners. They squinch their faces and widen their eyes while their palms turn upward and move away from their bodies.

And while they sound very active, I am unconvinced that elaborating on those actions really helped paint the scene for me. To be honest, when an author goes through this type of machinations it makes me feel like I’m trying to sort through an IKEA instruction diagram rather than allowing me to focus on my own emotional response to the text. If a character smiles at another character, I get the intent. He or she is pleased. Or maybe not. Even if they don’t “smirk” or “grin” I should be able to discern from the dialogue and other clues surrounding the action what that smile is meant to convey—from “feel my pain” to “you’re sex on a stick” to “take that!” But if I’m confronted instead with overwritten character movements, I’m pulled out of the story, and while I am away, the pan gets too hot and the butter burns.

Better to stop at the sizzle.