What’s wrong with this next sentence?
It’s odd Mary isn’t answering her phone, he thought to himself.
If you said “nothing,” you’re probably perpetrating one of the prevalent problems I encounter in manuscripts, that is, the incorrect or overuse of the “self” pronouns. In fact, it’s an epidemic of self.
What’s wrong with that sentence is that unless the speaker—let’s call him Norman—is a telepath, who else would he be thinking to, if not “himself”? The phrase “to himself” is redundant, but you’d be amazed how many people still use it when writing internal monologue.
Okay, how about this?
“Walking the familiar streets, John found himself outside the old drugstore where he had worked as a teen.”
Nothing wrong there, right? Guess again. The phrase “found himself” implies that the person doing the action lacks knowledge of either where he is or how he got there. It’s also weak wording. The nonrestrictive phrase that starts this sentence—“Walking the familiar streets”—says John both knew where he was and was there by conscious decision. There’s no ambiguity about his being outside the drugstore so he doesn’t, in fact, “find himself” there. He just is there.
Notice how using an action verb increases the strength of the sentence.
Walking the familiar streets, John stopped outside the old drugstore where he had worked as a teen.
Having people “find themselves” doing or thinking things instead of just doing or thinking them is what I refer to as lazy writing. It’s okay to use it in a first draft, but it should be replaced forthwith on the first revision, and it has no place in a manuscript you’re planning to send to an agent or editor.
Better yet, train yourself not to use it at all unless it exactly suits the situation. How might we phrase this sentence so that it not only eliminates the incorrect usage but actually provides more information than it already does (which is that John worked as a teen, a fact that we will assume is important either to our knowledge of John or to the story)?
“Walking the familiar streets, John discovered the drugstore where he had worked as a teen was still there, although now the logo of a national chain hung above the glass-paned door.”
What do we now know? We know that John worked in a drugstore as a teen. The use of discover suggests he’s returned to his hometown after having been away for some years. We also know that there have been changes.
”The stores and buildings he held in his memory had been replaced by fast-food restaurants and flashy chainstore franchises. He was both surprised and delighted, then, to discover the drugstore where he had earned his gas money as a teen still nestled unchanged between a Pizza Hut and a Dollar Store.”
Lots more color and information, and John is now finding what he’s supposed to—the drugstore—instead of “himself.”
Yes, there are times when it’s appropriate to have a character “find herself,” but they are very specific. If she is banged on the head and abducted, she might “find herself” in the trunk of a car. If she’s in a city she’s never visited before, she could go strolling and “find herself” on a little side street where a block party is going on. Or she might move into an ashram and “find herself.”
The problem is, the phrase is so overused it’s a cliché, almost to the point of parody. With the vast wealth of words available, there are always better ways to convey the same idea. Find one.