Writing exactly like people talk. We want our characters to sound like real people, so it makes sense to have them talk like the people we see every day. The problem is that natural conversation is broken by lots of utterances (“um” and random phrases like “ok” or “um hum”) and dropped phrases. (“I meant to put gas in the car, but there was a traffic jam and –“). The problem is that the ear naturally passes over these glitches, while the eyes catch them in written text and is easily disrupted by it. Take this brief passage as an example:
“Why didn’t you put gas in the car like I asked you to?” Dathan asked.
Kaylee looked at the floor. “I meant to, but there was a traffic jam –“
“Then why didn’t you call me? I would have –“
“Would you? Or are you looking for a fight again. I’m so sick of this crap –“
On television, you could see their body language and filter out all of the dashes and drops. In written test, you’re left with uncertainty and wonder if even they know what they’re trying to say.
Compare to this:
“Why didn’t you put gas in the car like I asked you to?” Dathan asked.
Kaylee looked at the floor. “I meant to, but there was a traffic jam and the entrance to the gas station was blocked.”
Dathan puffed up. “Why didn’t you call me? I would have told you there’s another station up the road.”
Kaylee looked up, her face flushed. “I didn’t call because I knew you would order me around and pick another fight. Why won’t you cut me a break?”
It might sound more formal, but there’s no question about the argumentative tone expressed in body language and dialogue. The dropped phrases in the first example make Kaylee sound apologetic and frightened, when in fact she’s looking for a way to express anger to Dathan. Looking at the floor expresses a delay tactic to search for words that she finds when she looks up with a flushed face. The difference isn’t just in the clarity of the passage, but in the tone of it as well.
Using a lot of exclamation marks! I was sited on this error a lot in my early writing days, and still get zinged by editors and beta readers over it. You want to convey action scenes clearly, but the problem is that too many exclamation marks make readers feel like you’re shouting at them. IT’S LIKE USING ALL CAPS! Reading entries with a lot of exclamation marks takes a lot of mental energy, and readers can easily get exhausted or frustrated by it. The recommendation I was given was to show the action in other ways, like body language, dialogue exchange, or setting.
Yes, I said setting. You can have background action keep the tension up if it parallels the main action taking place. I used this in Progenitor when describing a scene where a character was attempting to communicate with her father, who was in a confused state from late stage Alzheimer’s by paralleling the conversation with a football game playing on a television in a nearby room. Running the conversation parallel to a football team on a touchdown drive expressed the conversation highs, lows, and tension better than using an excess of exclamation marks, or even dialogue. Look for creative ways to keep the energy of active or tense scenes up without peppering it with too many exclamation marks, and your readers will thank you. In fact, they’re more apt to stay “in tune” if you give them credit for their intelligence and make them think, instead of hitting them over the head with it!!
Using clichés and dated references. I spent my entire year of 11th grade English learning literary devices, and how brilliant they are at enhancing writing. While it’s true that the endless list of those devices can be useful, writers need to bear two things in mind: first, storytelling mechanics have changed drastically since those dreadful literary pieces of our English classes were written, and second, our reliance on simile and metaphors can become a distraction. Comparing one thing to another, or drawing a parallel to something else to express similarity or dissimilarity is a wonderfully creative expressive mechanism, but it can be overdone. Worse yet, it can date your writing if you rely on clichés to do this. Consider this:
She jammed the pills in her mouth like a hammer and washed them down with an oceanic wave of water, like a tsunami. Then she slammed the cup down like a hammer and glared at her reflection in the mirror, defiant of whatever tried to stop her. She was ready. Life was a highway and she was ready to ride it!
Wow. “She” certainly is dramatic, and I wonder if this is set in the 90’s. What’s more is that it puts a lot of tension in the basic, routine task of taking medication and studying her reflection. I get that more action is coming, but I’m already exhausted from the preparation!
You can foreshadow better by taking it down a bit, with appropriate hints at rising action to come:
“She washed the pills down with a cup of water and set the cup down roughly. She could do this. It might be tough, but she felt confident that she could stand to whatever came her way. She pulled herself straight and studied her reflection in the mirror. You can do this, she thought. You will come home a winner!
That passage clearly expresses the mounting tension that the character feels as she prepares for her day without the dramatics. And if one of the medications she took was to give her something that will help her through the next action scene, then it sets the stage well by placing a hint in just the right place for a reader to remember her washing down those pills in this passage later.
Editors have always recommended against clichés, and I can see why. It’s another one of those things that aren’t technically incorrect, but readers roll their eyes at it when they run across something that they hear or see frequently. Another risk that you run is drawing parallels that your characters have no frame of reference for. Here I say think of a lot of the imagery you see in The Bible. It was written when people were living in an agricultural society, so a lot of references like threshing floors and wine presses were very meaningful in the day it was written, but we often have to research it. The difference is that The Bible is canonized text, but your writing isn’t; so don’t run the risk of dating it by using phrases or terms that might be “out” in a few years. Heck, I hesitate to mention technology specifically, given how often it upgrades. I recently realized that I had a character rip a newspaper out of somebody’s hands in Blurry during a tense scene. Blurry is a YA novel, so the characters are teenagers. They might have been reading the article about their friend’s death in a newspaper when I wrote it 10 years ago, but today they’d be looking it up on a phone or tablet. Oops. Outdate error – and that book is through an epublisher, so I can’t update it for current technology.
The point is to be careful with comparisons. They can get tricky and frustrate readers if they aren’t done right, or if they’re done too often.
I close this blog with a disclaimer that no rules are absolute. Certainly, there are times and places to break the rules and be a renegade. We are, after all, writers, and we don’t see the world in the same straight lines that everybody else sees. The trick is to express this different reality in a way that expands the mind and entertains our readers without frustrating them with mistakes or misunderstandings.
That’s all today. Take care. Have a happy Friday tomorrow, and a wonderful weekend.