I would wager that most of us do not sit up all night thinking of ways to treat our readers like they’re stupid. Yet, it does happen, and many times I believe it is a very innocent mistake. It’s as if we get so wrapped up in our story that we mentally stumble in that brief span from synapse to keyboard, and inadvertently end up treating our readers like they need a drool cup. Hopefully this blog will help you be able to better spot these audience offenders so you can cut them or avoid them altogether.
Offender #1—Adverb Abuse
One of the reasons I am such a Nazi when it comes to adverbs it that they are notorious culprits for stating the obvious. “She smiled happily.” Um, yeah. “He yelled loudly.” As opposed to yelling softly? To be blunt, most adverbs are superfluous and weaken the writing. Find the strongest verb and then leave it alone.
It is really unnecessary to qualify. We get it. Using qualifiers is similar to adding in needless adverbs. If we have just written a scene about a heated argument, trust me, our characters don’t need to “slam the door in frustration” (yep…got it) or “scowl with disapproval” (uh-huh) or “cry in bitter disappointment” (gimme a break). It adds nothing except extra words that weaken the prose. Like adverbs, it is perfectly okay to use qualifiers, but it’s best to employ them very sparingly (and only ones that are super awesome). Allow your writing to carry the scene. Dialogue and narrative should be enough for the reader to ascertain if a character is angry, hurt, happy, etc. If it isn’t, then forget the qualifiers and work on the strength of the scene.
Offender #3—Punctuation & Font as Props
***You are allowed three exclamation points every 50,000 words—just so your editor can cut them and then laugh at you for using exclamation points in the first place. Hey, a little editor humor :). 99% of the time exclamation points are not necessary if the prose is strong.
“Get the kids out of the house!” he yelled. (Yep)
***Ellipses do not make a scene more dramatic, just…make…the…writing…more…annoying. Ellipses can be used but very sparingly.
***Bold font and italics are almost never acceptable if one is employing either of them to add emphasis. Again, if the prose is well written, the reader will stress the word(s) in his head. Trust me. We don’t need to hold our reader’s hand, or brain, or whatever.
Is it ever okay to use bold font and italics? Of course it is. Just not very often or you run the risk of insulting your reader’s intellect. If you come to a point where you believe it is absolutely necessary to use either of these tactics, I suggest trying to strengthen the scene first.
Offender #4—Telling Instead of Showing
Most of us have been beaten over the head with the saying, “Show. Don’t tell.” There is a good reason for that. Telling takes little to no characterization skills. Unless one happens to be an amateur who can claim ignorance, telling is a lazy method of characterization. Most readers are pretty sharp and like figuring things out on their own. Thus, if we spoon-feed information that should be given via the story, we risk turning off the reader.
New writers are almost always guilty of telling instead of showing. Why? Simple. They’re still learning techniques that are going to take time and practice to develop. Yet, all of us, regardless our skill level need to be wary of this narrative crutch. To be blunt, telling is far less taxing on the brain, and it’s very easy to slide into when we’re tired or pressed for a deadline.
Too much telling is often a giant red flag alerting us that we didn’t do our character’s Area Study (refer to Sin #5) as thoroughly as we should have. Writing the book is not the time to get to know our characters and their motivations. If when you’re editing, you happen upon a large chunk of telling, that could be a cue that you need to go modify your character’s background sheet (refer to “Novel Writers Toolkit” by Bob Mayer).
Actions speak louder than words. Yeah, it is easy to just tell the reader our antagonist is a real jerk, but it is better to show our antagonist doing things that make the reader decide this for himself. We accomplish this by creating an antagonist who simply does things jerks do. We create an antagonist who has missed picking up little Timmy for his birthday after promising on a stack of Bibles to be there. We have our nefarious antagonist show up at 3 a.m. banging on the door reeking of booze. We make him blow cigarette smoke in his ex-wife’s face. All in all? We get creative.
Good writers don’t tell readers a character is ticked off. Good writers show she is ticked off. Crossed arms. No eye contact. Clenched jaw. Slamming doors.
Remember that over 95% of communication is non-verbal. Use this to your writing advantage. When creating characters, think about what actions will define your character’s nature or mood universally.
For a character’s nature: If you want to create a cad, think what actions cads do that would make everyone in a room label him the same way—checking out every woman who walks by, openly flirting with other women, using breath spray every 5 minutes, telling sexist jokes, etc.
For a character’s mood/mental state: Regardless of culture, we can tell if someone is mad, hurt, sad, or happy by body language. Make a list of all the body language cues for the mood you wish to create. A book on body language can be extremely helpful for the more subtle stuff. For instance, people who lie often rub a body part (wringing hands) or tap. Why? Unless people are sociopathic, it usually causes mental stress to lie, so the rubbing or tapping is a sign of energy displacement. See, these are the sort of details that make good writing into great writing.
All of us stumble over Sin #6. We have all been guilty of patronizing our readers. Bob Mayer’s “Novel Writers Toolkit” is an excellent resource for learning skills that will keep your prose strong, your scenes clear, and your characters vivid (www.bobmayer.org).
Just remember, if your reader is smart enough to choose your story, then it is best to treat her with the respect she deserves.
Until next time…
Great blog post. I know I struggle with beating the reader over the head. I will show something, then tell it though a thought, and then tell it in dialogue. Um, hello, the reader gets it the first time. I can’t see when writing the draft, but I’m getting better and better at finding it when I go through the draft. Sometimes I just have to “make” sure I get it out, then I can delete. The delete key is my friends.
What I think is most important in all these problem areas is learning to write “different”. I’ve critiqued the same work for the same author who is making the same mistakes after I, and others, pointed them out. That is the hard part but the important part. Learn the craft. Learn the rules. Know when to break them.
Thanks Kristen – you are an inspiration!
Excellent advice with outstanding examples. Can’t tell you how many books I’ve put down (or slogged through) when encountering these types of speed bumps.
Also interesting is how your post mirrors the short editing series I did on my blog a few weeks ago on Words I Hate. Engaging readers is the whole key to success as an author, and anything we can do on our end to maintain the flow of our prose is valuable.
Thanks for the thoughtful post!
Thanks, Beth for the thoughtful comment. I will have to check out your blog. Sounds like a series after my own heart, LOL.
All on target. Writing is a craft we have to learn– then we can move on to being artists. Qualifiers are used not only in fiction, but in all writing. It’s the writer distancing themselves from what they are writing. We have to take responsibility for what we write. Also, less is almost always better. Less words, less telling.