Quick Edits is a short feature where I give quick editing advice on how to handle common problems in fiction writing.
If you have two or more people of the same gender in the same scene, it’s easy to use pronouns in a confusing way. (I’ll be using male/female pronouns in these examples, but neutral and non-gendered pronouns are also subject to this issue.)
Say Tina enters a room and sees her sister, Marcy, who has been missing since the day before.
She ran over and gripped her in a bear hug, and her bag fell onto the floor.
We might assume that the subject (she) is Tina herself. And that the first “her” is Marcy. But think for a moment. Couldn’t the subject (she) also be Marcy? The sentence works that way too. And then the first “her” would be Tina. And we have no idea, either way, which of them dropped their bag. See how that can be confusing?
I generally advise, at the very least on the sentence level, but it’s probably even more effective on the paragraph level, to choose one character for whom you’ll substitute pronouns.
So pick either Tina or Marcy as being the one that can have the pronouns. And the other, you’ll use her name. This doesn’t mean you can only use pronouns for that character. You can still use the pronoun character’s name. Just don’t use pronouns for the non-pronoun character.
So the sentence could be changed to look something like this:
Marcy ran over and gripped her in a bear hug, and Tina’s bag fell onto the floor.
Tina ran over and gripped her in a bear hug, and Tina’s bag fell onto the floor.
Tina ran over and gripped her in a bear hug, and Marcy’s bag fell onto the floor.
See how the same sentence with ambiguous pronouns could be clarified to mean a lot of different things? We should shoot for clarity in our writing, and this is one that is really easy to flub up! But it’s a pretty simple fix, as you can see.
Are there any editing issues you run into that you’d like covered in the Quick Edits series? Drop a comment below!