Authorial throat-clearing

Writing is endlessly interesting because not only are you producing your own new material, which is a lot of fun, but you learn a lot about the writing process in general and become able to spot funny things about other people’s writing.

One concept which comes up in writers’ groups is “throat-clearing” on the author’s part. Often this term is applied to cases where the author begins the story too early, and spends those precious first pages on telling herself about the character and the world, rather than making something happen in it.

It can happen anywhere in a story, though, any time the author doesn’t know quite where something is going but doggedly writes on anyway. It can be difficult to identify this while it’s happening, but afterward it’s pretty comical to read the results. Characters pace, fidget, clear throats, hem and haw. Nothing much happens. Here’s an example I caught from part 4 of The Bear’s Wife. This is the first scene in which Hammer has speaking lines, and I didn’t know quite how to go about writing them:

He sat down and eyed me with something less than perfect friendliness. I watched him back. He was the least likely of the visitors I had received, and though I still found it hard to be interested in anything, I wondered why he had come.

After settling in the visitor’s chair he set to fidgeting . He picked at his fingernails. He leaned forward with his elbows on his knees, then sat back. His jaw flexed and circled. At last I decided that I would have to start the conversation, or he would be late to work.

“Mr. Hammer. It’s nice to see you.”

He nodded and rubbed his short beard. Big feet shuffled on the carpet. I sighed inwardly.

“Did you have news for me?”

His eyes narrowed. “No. Not news.”

I folded my hands on the quilt. If he wanted to be coy, I had all day.

See? Fidgets. Can’t find his words. Perry, the narrator and best-established character, is sweetly patient as ever.

Once you know that this happens, you can spot it in lots of books. Charles Dickens, I feel, worked in his fantastic character descriptions, tics, and oddities while clearing his authorial throat. How many paragraphs does each of his books spend on a character entering a room and being eccentric for several minutes before speaking?

I also found an instance in Diana Gabaldon’s fifth Outlander book just a couple days ago. Bree is angry and Roger doesn’t know why; of course Bree won’t explain her problem and poor Roger is reduced to looking out the window and observing the weather for a very long time. It’s a lovely descriptive passage, as ever, but quite definitely a case of throat-clearing. Roger doesn’t know why Bree is mad, and for a moment Diana didn’t, either.

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7 thoughts on “Authorial throat-clearing

  1. I actually liked that passage, with Mr. Hammer fidgeting and stalling. It built tension and curiosity for me, made me want to know what was so hard to say. As long as it doesn’t go on too long and the thing that’s finally stated is worth the wait, then I’m not sure this would bother me. This is the first I’ve heard of “authorial throat-clearing” though so I haven’t noticed it before.

      • Has nothing to do with eccentricity, but it is the author trying to fill time while she thinks of where the story goes next.

      • Ah, you have an example in the post of a character being eccentric for awhile before he says anything, so I thought that’s what you meant. 🙂 Ahhh so it’s any kind of hemming and hawing before the story moves on? Does it necessarily have to be before dialogue or could it be any kind of filler?

      • Any time you end up writing stuff that doesn’t even interest /you/, and does nothing to move the story, that’s throat-clearing. Generally means you need to stop typing and think.

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