Double the Trouble

Best-sellers make for quick, thrilling reads, but they can contain many poor examples for an aspiring writer. A primary focus of such books is exciting dialogue. That type of writing is not only easiest on a beach reader, but also for a beleaguered popular author, who may spend 10 months out of the year promoting a book before spending two months writing the next one. 

Effective dialogue, however, requires narrative interpolations. Commentary can add emphasis to certain sentences, or it can break up a spoken passage when a character wants to shift to a new subject. In order to maintain a fast pace, such work in between the lines needs to be easy to grasp. That is why so many of them feature the verbs: turn, look, stare, and nod. “He began to leave the room, then turned back” is a typical representative of this ilk. 

Even an author writing in white heat starts to realize that certain pieces of physical business are being overused, and that leads to attempts to disguise the repetition. The pieces are doubled: “He began to leave the room, then turned and stared.” Not exactly the same, and the writer doesn’t have to slow down to think of something original. Such a reflex can lead to bad habits, however. The author might start writing that a character looks at someone when doing anything else. “She sprang up from the sofa and looked down at him.” 

The problem is that such simple multiplicity forces the reader to wade through extra verbiage. If someone stands up, obviously she would be looking down at whomever she’s addressing. That part of the sentence isn’t needed. At times I feel like I’m editing a person who was as a child warned too many times to look before he crosses the street. I am witness to the adult scar that remains: always looking.

The doubling can occur in other forms. “They stood and followed him out of the room” is another common example. If they’re following out a doorway, obviously they rose to their feet first. The extra piece of physical business is inserted to make a pedestrian sentence more complex—when it isn’t. It’s just wasting the reader’s time. When that process becomes a bad habit, the extra words can add up into the thousands. I know, because I usually trim a popular manuscript by 10 percent.

Exercise: Review the manuscript with an eye toward eliminating the word “and” during dialogue passages. If the sentence is left feeling too plain, you need to focus more on the one verb you would like to use to drive it. Rather than a stage direction related to physical movement, try substituting a thought or a description of an item in the setting that arrests the character’s attention. That’s where you’ll find truly interesting variety.

“Design, refine and repeat, and keep learning all the way along. It sounds bland and pedestrian, but in fact, it's the reverse.”  —Anouska Hempel

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.