Thursday, September 1, 2011

Pitfalls in Narrative

show don't tell mug 2

I’m going to talk about some pitfalls and mistakes that authors make in narrative, but I want you to know I’m writing from the perspective of a reader, not as an author-expert. I am by no means a perfect writer, and I try to learn more about my craft all the time. This is what I know: One way to learn more about writing is to keep reading.

So. Let’s talk about the things in fiction narrative that make me crazy, shall we? Starting with…

Repetition of important details:


Here’s the thing, readers are not stupid. If an author asks me to suspend reality to join his world, I will happily do so. If the author tells me that our hero looks like a high school teacher but is really an undercover cop investigating the death of Mary Mary Quite Contrary, not only will I believe the author, but I will actually REMEMBER this detail.

Readers are good at following the arc of a story. It’s what they do. It’s why they like to read.
Please don’t remind me every time I meet our hero that he’s not actually a  teacher, but, oh my, an undercover cop investigating the murder of Mary Mary Quite Contrary.

The fourth or fifth time the author reminds me that our hero is not  a teacher, but an undercover cop investigating the murder Mary Mary Quite Contrary, I start to feel annoyed.

The eighth time I roll my eyes.

The tenth time I vow to never read another book written by this person ever again.

When, on page 499, I’m told yet again that the teacher is not actually a teacher but an undercover cop, I wish I’d quit reading 400 pages ago and wonder if there was an actual editor involved in the publishing of this book.

Along the lines of repetition, PLEASE don’t explain who the main character is each time the narrative changes to his POV. It makes me want to beat my head against the wall. Or stop reading. And that’s criminal.

If the story is good, and the plot has intrigued me, I’ll make a point to remember the details. That’s what I came here (into the book) for. The author should trust me.

Next: Stating the obvious.


Within the narrative our hero answers the telephone and the caller says, “Hey, this is Sheriff XYZ. You’re right, we could really use some help from the inside, so consider yourself deputized.”
And then the narrative explains what the phone call I just witnessed means. The Sheriff hung up, effectively giving our hero the green light to investigate.

Um, yeah. I was totally there for that conversation. I followed exactly what happened.

Or how about this one… a virgin gets de-flowered and then immediately afterward is murdered. I’m right there with the poor virgin, as she’s having her first sexual experience, and then as she’s gasping for breath and fighting, literally, for her life, for at least a couple of paragraphs.

And then the author explains it to me: Mary Mary Quite Contrary lost both her virginity and her life that night.

Now, “Mary Mary Quite Contrary lost both her virginity and her life that night” is a really dramatic phrase, and it sounds nice and pretty and… dramatic. But it’s kind of telling rather than showing, right? Especially when the author has already effectively shown me what happened. So this is where the editing advice “kill your darlings” comes to mind. Sometimes even phrases that you really love need to become victims of the Delete key.

show dont' tell book 2

Don’t get me wrong, some characters DO state the obvious, and such statements are part of their characterization. Robert B. Parker’s Spenser character comes to mind. When he figures something out he might say, “Ah-ha!” or if he’s just caught the bad guy red-handed, “Gotcha!” And every time Spenser says, “Look, a clue!” – I laugh my ass off.  Because it’s part of characterization and is consistent throughout the series, it’s witty. Otherwise it would only be lame.


Next irritant: Typing an accent or speech impediment.

Don’t do it. Don’t. Even if you want to.

Comment on it. Describe it. Give a sentence or two for example. Then resume proper spelling and grammar. Really. The reader can now grasp the concept and let his imagination fill in the rest, from southern belle to Aussie bushman. Trust the reader.

A couple of polishing tips before I wrap this up…

Writers need to trust themselves. If a writer suspects she is over-using phrases such as “undercover cop” – MS Word has a remarkable feature called “find.”

When I think I’m working with a final draft I use the Find feature to see how and when each character uses cuss words. I study each use and give some thought to if it’s really necessary. I also use the Find feature to examine every word in the manuscript that ends in LY, and, specifically,  try to eliminate 2/3 of my use of the word “really.”

Polishing a final draft is more work than writing a first draft. Often it seems exceptionally tedious, but it matters.  I try to spice up the process with self-challenges. How can I strengthen this character? What mannerisms or speech patterns need to be consistent, and did I pull it off? How many words can I eliminate? How many sentences can I simplify?

And here’s one I discovered recently… if writing a “series” or trilogy where each book could conceivably stand alone, make sure to describe each character well one time in each book. Preferably near the beginning. I learned this through a FAIL. Because I’m not perfect, either!

Well, Darlings, it’s time for our PRIDE celebration here in the Northland, so I hope your weekend is as good as mine will be!

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