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I've been working for some time on a story about a detective who finds himself alienated, delusional and hopeless while trapped inside a dystopic, postmodern dream. This segment voices some of the sentiments that define the narrator's personality and ego-fixations.

"Outside my window you can make out the figures of people who have simply given up. Their daily glance in the bathroom mirror is met with an unarticulated notion of defeat, a resignation to the fact that any hope for their brilliant future as the protagonist of a lucid, satisfying destiny was misplaced. They had woefully overestimated themselves. They languished, doing nothing in particular for years, with the quiet promise of self-improvement, the re-imagination of themselves as a success, occurring sometime in the future. They would start their journey towards their patient destiny tomorrow, or the day after. As I move among them, standing beside these shadows on the subway, in the grocery store, I know that I, at some point, suffered the same fate that they did. After Kathy, I could never find a rhythm, a groove to approach life from- something that I could keep private and something that could give me direction, inspiration, meaning. So I withdrew from it. Somebody said that apathy isn’t the same as withdrawing in disgust, but I did it more out of confusion and insecurity.

Life then came to find me, and by the time it did I had starting losing my hair, grown older and tired, impotent and faded; all the while having loved no one else and nothing else in particular.

This is what people are most afraid of."

My goal is for this passage to be taken "straight" - I want the reader to get a taste of the despair and the alienation my protagonist feels. I want them to buy into his worldview, at least a little.

My problem is that I'm worried the piece comes across as simplistic, overwrought and cliched; I'm afraid readers won't take this seriously - they won't sit and think about these musings, and they won't respect my character since he does.

How can I improve my piece so as to convey the atmosphere and emotions in a powerful, engrossing fashion?

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4 Answers 4

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What strikes me most about your excerpt is that you're speaking in vague generalities, which on their own feel somewhat bombastic. "People have given up," there is "an unarticulated notion of defeat," and "they [i.e. everybody] has overestimated themselves." That's a sweeping, bombastic statement, and without shoring it up with some actual detail to support this observation, it indeed comes across as being detached and unconvincing.

Similarly, your detective doesn't give us any real detail about his own experiences. His history, too, is handwaved and described in generalities - he could never "find a rhythm," he "withdrew from life," and later "life came to find him." All of these are fine as an element of description, but they can't carry the weight of compelling portrayal - because they don't actually tell us anything specific.


Consider, for example, the lyrics to Billy Joel's Piano Man. Take a look at this bit:

Now Paul is a real estate novelist
Who never had time for a wife
And he's talkin' with Davy, who's still in the Navy
And probably will be for life

And the waitress is practicing politics
As the businessman slowly gets stoned
Yes, they're sharing a drink they call loneliness
But it's better than drinkin' alone

I think you'll find some startling similarity between Joel's sentiment and your own. He's got the same themes of pointless, doomed aspiration. But look how he paints it - he draws characters, each just a handful of words long. He uses the characters to exemplify his theme - instead of just telling us flat-out what his theme is. That's incredibly effective, because simply by recognizing a character of his, by identifying one of the "types" he's describing, you're already buying into the worldview. He's got you.

Watch how he does it. He chooses the simplest details - but just that give examples of what he's talking about. The guy who doesn't realize his dreams are hopeless; the guy who's stuck somewhere forever; the guy who's supposed to be well-to-do - but is portrayed in a sad, sorry state nonetheless. He gives us a simple, instantly-graspable example of each. Examples, not generalizations - this is simply the classic "Show, Don't Tell" guideline.

Once he's built up a solid picture of clear, visual details, then Joel can afford to set up a generalization or two. "They're sharing a drink they called loneliness, but it's better than drinking alone" - that's vague and general (albeit poetically so). Even without the poetry, this'd still work - "They're all so lonely, they'll take even the most pathetic company imaginable over staying by themselves." If I tossed this line out without context, it'd be just as cliche and angsty as you're worried your piece is. But supported by the examples, it becomes clear, concrete, convincing - because we just demonstrated this generalization to be believable with our individual examples.


Another great example is Kurt Vonnegut, whose Breakfast of Champions I read recently. Vonnegut can write with overpowering, all-suffusing morbidity which is nothing less than delicious. How does he do it? Vonnegut does make generalizations, talking about all humankind or about grands swaths of history. But he ties them in to specific, precise details - characters, observations, trivia. A snippet from the preface of Breakfast:

I tend to think of human beings as huge, rubbery test tubes, too, with chemical reactions seething inside. When I was a boy, I saw a lot of people with goiters. [...] Those unhappy Earthlings had such swollen thyroid glands that they seemed to have zucchini squash growing from their throats.

All they had to do in order to have ordinary lives, it turned out, was to consume less than one-millionth of an ounce of iodine every day.

My own mother wrecked her brains with chemicals, which were supposed to make her sleep.

When I get depressed, I take a little pill, and I cheer up again.

And so on.

So it is a big temptation to me, when I create a character for a novel, to say that he is what he is because of faulty wiring, or because of microscopic amounts of chemicals which he ate or failed to eat on that particular day.

Vonnegut's sentiment is different from your own - what Vonnegut is portraying here is a sort of disgust. Human beings are crude and helpless, he says; they have no free will - yet even though they can be manipulated so easily, their nature is to be sick, to be mad, to be depressed. That's not your sentiment, but it's strong and clear, so it makes a good example.

Here, Vonnegut says explicitly that he's talking about everybody - "those unhappy Earthlings," he calls us. But he, too, uses detail to achieve power. He doesn't say "humans are disgusting" - he gives us specific examples of disgusting things that happen to humans. He doesn't say "humans are pathetic" - he gives us specific examples of pathetic behavior common to humans.

Here, too, notice how he opens with a generalization - "I tend to think of human beings as huge, rubbery test tubes" - and closes with a generalization - the temptation to say that characters (i.e., people) do what they do because of "faulty wiring" and chemicals. All the rest, though, is detail, detail, detail.


If this is striking a chord with you, that means you've got work to do. You've got the sentiment - but you haven't fleshed it out yet, at least not here.

What needs to be done? Exactly what we've just seen. Think of a few specific, concrete examples of the sentiment you want to express. Then, figure out how you can use them in the text - describe those as things your protagonist sees or knows about; this will replace most of the pontificating, though you can keep a few lines here and there.

Obviously, the examples should mesh well with your setting and character - so you might go at it from the other direction, picking major elements that your protagonist interacts with, and then figuring out how those elements (or some part of them) might be a good example for your sentiment.

Best of luck to ye!

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Great answer. This being essentially an issue of show-don't-tell is bulls-eye. –  M.A Jun 12 '12 at 12:50

First off, I don't like the first sentence:

Outside my window you can make out the figures of people who have simply given up.

The my works to reveal the narrator's "ego fixations" – but why is that followed with a you? "Make out" reads awkwardly simplistic. And why "figures of people" and not just "people"?

Then, the rest of the paragraph seems too cluttered, too psuedo-intellectual. Your best sentences are your simpler ones. I'd suggest something more along these lines:

Outside my window I observe people who have given up. They glance in their bathroom mirrors daily, only to realize they've spent a lifetime woefully overestimating themselves. Their faces are marked with defeat, resignation, lost hope. They languished, doing nothing in particular for years, with the quiet promise of self-improvement, but their imagined success never came. Always tomorrow, always next week – but their journey never started.

I'm not saying mine is perfect, I'm just saying I'd move it in that direction.

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Flatten the scope - you are attributing personality to the people he sees, but the words imply they have none. Also focus on the self-obsession of the narrator ( as per @J.R. ). Just my suggestion for re-working it:

"Outside my window I make out figures who have simply given up. They glance in the bathroom mirror and are met with defeat. Unarticulated, maybe, but real enough, a resignation to the truth that hope for a brilliant future in a lucid, satisfying destiny was misplaced. They had woefully overestimated themselves. They languished, doing nothing in particular for years, with the tacit promise of "self-improvement". They imagined themselves as successes sometime in the future. They start their journey tomorrow. Or the day after. Or whenever. I move among them, standing beside shadows on the subway, in the store, I knew that I, at some point, suffered their fate. After Kathy, I could never find a rhythm, a groove to approach life from- something that I could keep private and something that could give me direction, inspiration, meaning. So I withdrew. Somebody once said that apathy isn’t the same as withdrawing, but I did it out of confusion and insecurity.

Life then came to find me, by which time I had starting losing my hair, aged and wearied, impotent and faded; all the while having loved no one else and nothing else in particular.

This, I understood, is what people are most afraid of."

I am not suggesting this as a finished piece, just an attempt to make the picture you are painting much flatter, more 2D.

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I will lead off by saying that I like the passage as written, but I feel it conveys a very different character from the one you describe that you want. The character you have written, as I see it, first comes across as arrogant and pompous as he describes the uninspired, defeated losers he is watching, and then hints that he might have experienced something that could reveal his nicer qualities once he began to really face his own mortality. The end of the passage makes me feel hopeful, not despairing.

If you truly want to convey a character that is alienated and hopeless, then you need to completely rewrite this paragraph. An alienated person does not observe other people's behavior and identify with it; that leads to a sense of connection and fraternity. Even if it is anonymous camaraderie, we can all lift a pint with strangers in a bar. An alienated person takes all that common feeling and turns it inward and believes that it isolates him from the world.

Also, I am confused about the hopeless desperation. "Life then came to find me" sounds hopeful to me, at least upon a first reading. It reminds me of Dar William's lyric "I think life chose me after all." I don't think this is what you are trying to say at all. I think you want something like "Life caught up with me," which would be a more clichéd way of saying "Then I got old." But because I stumbled over the message of the sentence, I missed the thrust of the emotion behind it.

Here is my suggested revision:

I turned on the faucet and let the water run until it steamed, hoping to erase the face in the bathroom mirror. An unshaven shell of a man met my eyes with an unarticulated sigh of defeat, resigned to an aged future that was far from the heroic dreams of burgeoning virility. I shook my head scornfully before I laid the razor to jaw. This pathetic reflection had woefully overestimated his ability to succeed. He had languished, frittering away the years, with the silent excuse that tomorrow his journey toward destiny would begin, or perhaps the day after.

Rubbing the towel vigorously against my face, my thoughts made their usual turn to Kathy. After a love like that, a triumph and a catastrophe, I could never find my rhythm or a groove to approach life from—something that I could keep private and something that could give me direction, inspiration, meaning. There was nothing to my life anymore but a balding head, aching knees, and a faded old man filled with memories of what might have been, what should have been. I have never loved anyone or anything else and now I know I never will.

Outside my window, I watch the figures of people hurry by without a glance in my direction. As I move among them, standing beside these shadows on the subway or in the grocery store, I know that I am living my worst fear. Not one of them will ever know me, and my death, when it comes, will go ungrieved.

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I like your revision; it inspired this thought: why not make his shave a metaphor for his thoughts? Something like this: As my razor scraped off yesterday's growth, my thoughts made their usual turn to Kathy. Ever since Kathy, I could keep my rhythm for my morning shave, but I couldn't find a groove for anything else in my life – not after a love like that, a triumph and a catastrophe... Finally, I rubbed my towel vigorously across my face, but I could not rub Kathy out of my mind. –  J.R. Jun 12 '12 at 9:31

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