Writing: don’t, don’t, don’t

Susan Hill puts her finger on what makes bad writing bad.

Robert Harris, in his terrific thriller, GHOST WRITER, has something spot on to say about bad novels, through the mouth of his narrator. It explains in a modest number of words almost everything that is wrong with 99% of the manuscripts I read by aspiring writers.

‘All good books are different but all bad books are exactly the same….they don’t ring true. I don’t say that a good book is true, necessarily, just that it feels true for the time you’re reading it.’

Let me add my two bits. Here are a few things that make writing ring false — techniques guaranteed to leave readers cringing.

Exclamation points. They do not make dull work exciting, any more than banging cymbals together every four seconds makes Muzak exciting. No. They make you sound like you’ve overdosed on screaming pills. “Coffee, please!” “My God, you’re evil!” (Often accompanied by “she gasped.”) Listen to Elmore Leonard: restrict yourself to two or three exclamation points per 100,000 words.

Exposition in dialogue. “Finster! What are you doing at midnight on the banks of the Yangtze river, here in China? I haven’t seen you since we hijacked the space shuttle and buzzed NASA Mission Control in Houston!” “Wilhelm! Your wife, Sabine, told me you would be here. She says your son, Rannulf, who’s been fighting with the Foreign Legion, and your six-year-old triplets, who star in a reality television show, are planning a coup d’etat!”

Throat clearing. Also called announcing the cast. This means introducing the characters one at a time, in a static way, usually by having an omniscient narrator describe each person’s looks, habits, strengths, and failings. Sometimes accomplished by having a character recite his biography in a two-page block of dialogue. Frequently accompanied by lengthy flashbacks to a tragic event in the character’s past. Or a trivial yet formative event. I know, I know — you must introduce the characters. And you think that this is the only possible way to do it. You think that unless the author holds up the characters one at a time and tells readers who they are, nobody will understand the next 500 pages of the novel. You think that once readers memorize the characters’ CVs, then the story can begin. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Too late.

Fake mystery. Withholding information from the reader can create suspense. But withholding the identities of the people in a scene just creates frustration — if you do it in half your scenes. “Two men huddled at a corner table, speaking in low tones. ‘It’s time,’ one said.” By the thirty-fourth time you’ve used this technique, and it turns out yet again that the two men are the protagonist and his brother, the reader is ready to tear the story to shreds.

I could go on. But I need to return to my own rough draft to make sure I haven’t commmitted any of these sins.

4 responses to “Writing: don’t, don’t, don’t

  1. I hadn’t even noticed, but I did the fake mystery one by accident on a story a posted a couple of days ago. The short story was horror and it never occurred to me to describe the main character. Until someone pointed that out in a comment.

  2. Pingback: Writing: don’t, don’t, don’t « Web Writer

  3. I usually commit all these sins, but only in rough draft. I revise, revise and revise to get them all out.

  4. Pingback: Quid plura? | "It's a thousand pages, give or take a few..."

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