The rule, right off:
Eliminate “protagonist + sense verb” phrases that make us watch your protagonist have an internal experience, and instead simply dramatize the internal experience.
The sense verbs in question that this usually comes up with are:
- Look at
A) Katherine heard a man shout, "LORD GIVE ME PATIENCE!" and spun to see what was happening. She saw that a clown was dancing merrily across the parking lot, a small dog in a red ruff nipping at its heels.
B) "LORD GIVE ME PATIENCE!" a man shouted behind Katherine. She spun to see what was happening. A clown was dancing merrily across the parking lot, a small dog in a red ruff nipping at its heels.
In (A), everything is filtered through Katherine, and having to read about her actions first slows down -- and weighs down -- the action as a whole. In (B), we're presented with what she hears and sees with only the filter of what I call her "sightline": When Katherine looks at something, we see it too, as she's the camera through which we view the action. We don't see the camera in a movie, but instead get to experience what it records for ourselves as if we were there; and the same thing is going on here with (B), so it's more immediate and involving. (B) also has the benefit of eliminating the many repetitions of "Katherine"/"She," forcing the writer to vary the subjects and structure of the sentences and making the prose as a whole more interesting. These tightening and diversifying effects are especially notable with first person:
C) I walked around the corner and saw a woman leaning against the wall, crying. I heard a name repeated over and over through her sobs: "Clarissa . . . Clarissa . . ." I wondered who Clarissa was, and ached as I remembered my own sweet Suzette.
D) I walked around the corner. A woman was leaning against the wall, crying. Her sobs included the same name over and over again: "Clarissa . . . Clarissa . . ." Who was Clarissa? Was this woman mourning her for the same reasons I mourned Suzette?
As you can see from (D), this technique also works with verbs that take place inside the protagonist's brain, including:
E) Elroy thinks about where he'll be next week at this time: In the mountains, hiking up to the cabin. He remembers smelling the sharp evergreens and listening to the melted snow running in the brook. He imagines catching the first rabbit of spring and how good it will taste roasted.
F) Next week at this time, Elroy will be on the trail to his mountain cabin. The scent of the evergreens will be sharp in his nose and the snowmelt will warble in the brook, just as it has on this hike every year for the last fifteen springs. He can already taste the first rabbit, tender and plump.
With (E), we readers watch Elroy thinking, remembering, imagining. With (F), we skip Elroy altogether and see only his thoughts: where he'll be, how the trail will smell and sound, even the taste of the rabbit. It's much more intense and satisfying, in part because it requires the writer to dramatize that experience in full for us and bring it to life through additional details ("tender and plump").
Of course, the meaning does change from (E) to (F) in a way that points up one caveat to this technique: Sometimes you want readers to see your protagonist engaged in a particular sense or mental activity, as the fact that the protagonist is doing that is equally important to whatever they're experiencing. If you're introducing a flashback, the words "I remember" at the beginning can be enormously useful in orienting the reader to the fact that you're stepping out of the present narrative time; if a character is experiencing an epiphany ("Janie realizes the truth. She never should have left Mike"), the sense verb can reinforce the existence of that epiphany more effectively than a mere statement of the realization.
As with any writing technique, this is a sentence-by-sentence judgment call. But the "protagonist + sense/brain verb" construction is something I ask my writers to take out of their prose probably eighty percent of the time, and it's a quick and effective way to make yourself show, not tell -- to dramatize more, and better. Go forth and cut.