Hello, folksies! It’s been a crazy month. Shanghai is now locked down, and… life is back to the old days of spring 2020. Except with covid tests literally every other day. That part is definitely new.
Anyway. I’m afraid I’ve fallen behind in preparing blog posts ahead of time–not because I don’t have time, what with lockdown, but because I simply can’t stand staring at a screen any longer than I absolutely have to, what with online classes, digital homework assignments, and wasting time on YouTube (which I try not to do as much, you know). So yeah, this post is coming to you two weeks late 🙂 Either way, I hope you enjoy it.
So…. let’s talk writing mistakes (whoopee)!
If you’re a “new” writer, I don’t mean to call you out; I’m sure you’ve already heard a lot of this advice anyway. But whether or not you’re a new writer, you may not completely understand why these unspoken writing “rules” exist. When you don’t understand something, you’re more likely to wanna rebel against it, yeah?
If any of the following seem familiar to you but you don’t fully get why, this is a reminder to read with intention. Not everyone has time to read as much as they like, so you have to make it count. For someone who wants to write good books, reading can never be entertainment only (unless you are another Edgar Allan Poe, but that is highly unlikely). You can learn from reading good books, bad books, and so-so books, if only you’re in the right mindset (which you don’t always have to be!).
It’s when you do that you understand why something is in the unofficial “writing rulebook.” And only when you understand a rule can you start to figure out how to break it 🙂
But don’t let’s get ahead of ourselves. For the most part, the following mistakes break rules that do not fare well when broken, no matter what. Let me show you why that is…
#1: improper use of dialogue tags
Unfortunately, this is simply one of those rules that you should not attempt to break under any ordinary circumstance. And yet I keep seeing this anyway! It seems to be more common in middle-grade than other genres, but that’s only out of those I’ve read. Here’s an example.
“I don’t understand,” she protested. “What’s the reason for all of this?”
“That’s not something you need to know. Go home, Vivian,” he ordered, turning away with a swirl of his cloak.
She stepped forward to grasp the edge of it, unwilling to let him go after finally finding him. “No,” she snapped. “I need answers.”
“Won’t you just leave me alone?” Aidan sighed.–not your novel
Wasn’t that so very annoying to read?
The first and second line of dialogue seemed all right–but once we got to three and four, it wasn’t so great, huh? Dialogue tags, y’all, dialogue tags.
For some reason, English classes teach you that “stronger verbs make stronger writing.” If you’ve been misled along this path before, let your eyes be opened to the light, folksie–it’s not true. It’s the biggest lie they’ll teach you in school these days (except that you will be able to use imaginary numbers to solve real-world problems in the future).
Before you ask why that is, answer me this: What is the purpose of dialogue?
To give your characters’ thoughts, feelings, and emotions a voice, isn’t that right? We do the same thing with everyday speech. Dialogue paints a picture pure narration can never achieve. When paired with descriptions of your character’s inner thoughts or physical actions, it presents an even more powerful message.
Dialogue tags, on the other hand, are additional. Their purpose is to direct you to the proper location–where the voice is coming from, and perhaps a hint of tone while they’re at it, but nothing more. You need to focus on strengthening the dialogue, not the dialogue tag, and the description, not your use of vocabulary.
Instead: In the words of Gail Carson Levine, the word “said” is beautiful. Use it, as well as other “invisible” words that appear often enough in writing that your readers’ eyes will skim over them–“ask,” “reply,” “ejaculated,” etc. There will be times you can use other dialogue tags when adding on a description would be awkward (such as a well-placed “shout” or “muttered”), but don’t max out your opportunities. When it’s pretty clear which characters are speaking, you should omit them altogether. Use discernment and judge wisely, my friend, and let your dialogue shine on its own.
#2: expositional dialogue
What continues to astound me about this particular phenomenon is that it occurs… very often. In popular movies and TV shows, in books, in anime and manga… WHY, people?? You don’t even have to be a writer to notice how awkward it sounds!
He grunted. “I just came back from the Signing.”
Vivian reeled back with a gasp. “You’re kidding.”
“I’m serious.” Aidan frowned. “You know the Signing occurs only once every five years, after all. It’s the recruitment of the most promising trainees produced since the last Signing into the Collective, and anyone who’s important needs to attend it. Why else would I have been missing for so long?”— not your novel
Well, thanks for explaining, Aidan, but golly, doesn’t Vivian already know all this stuff? Why would you need to tell her, when her reaction shows she clearly understands the meaning of your words? Wait a second… are you trying to tell us something, buddy?
Remember what I said about dialogue? It has a fixed purpose of getting a message across, but nothing needs to be added on to it. Likewise, dialogue is not responsible for adding on something as simple as an explanation. Not only is it glaringly obvious to the reader that this line was added for their benefit, but it breaks the whole rhythm of the conversation. The example I used up here is compared to other instances I’ve seen somewhat subtle, but it is still noticeable. And if it’s noticeable, it’s time to axe it.
Instead: See, folksies, as authors, we have something scriptwriters and mangakas don’t. If this passage were in Vivian’s POV, all you’d have to do is replace everything Aidan said into the narrative itself.
Vivian reeled back with a gasp. “You’re kidding.”
The Signing was the biggest event among the inner circles of the Collective–the recruitment of the most promising trainees produced in five years.
It’s not perfect, but what can you do; I’m totally making up this nonsense from scratch right now.
Don’t confuse this with a situation when a character does not know something and needs it to be explained–in that case, go ahead and explain! Use discernment and judge wisely.
#3: describing the character’s eye color in weird places
When it comes to describing a character’s eye color, there are a million ways to do it a way that will strike your readers as strange or awkward.
She rolled her green eyes.—not your novel
I’ve actually seen this in an installment of a popular series written by multiple big-name authors, y’all. This is pretty serious.
Eyes are the windows to the soul–if you like your vivid descriptions, they’re fairly important. And yes, we can know your character’s eyes are green if you tell us so while she’s rolling her eyes, but that’s just about the strangest combination of information you could ever give us. Is the key here the fact that she’s rolling her eyes, which is an expression, or that she has green eyes? You gotta choose one. Giving us two entirely unrelated facts won’t help us receive them properly, and it just stands out as awkward.
Instead: Be strategic, but don’t go overboard. Take your time when describing any character’s appearance (but not too long, or the reader will have established their own mental image already!) and use discernment to judge when it’s most appropriate to do so. Slip in smaller details when they come in use, such as when establishing the outward personality of a new character, in which case make room in the narrative to go all-out! This is not something you need to seriously consider while writing a first draft, but it’s important to keep in the back of your mind so it doesn’t form a bad habit. It’s also worth noting that green-eyed people make up about 2% of the global population and at first glance can easily be confused with blue or grey.
#4: improper use of italics
I wouldn’t have thought of this one if my sister didn’t bring it up, but this can be a problem! (Thanks, Susie.)
Vivian watched Aidan walk away. She thought he wouldn’t leave her, not like this. Where was the Aidan she thought she knew?
“Wait!” Without thinking, she ran up to him and grabbed his arm. “I’m sorry. This is just… just wrong. You can not leave us at a time like this.” Pure rage filled her, holding her fast in its fiery clutches.— not your novel
There are two things italics are most commonly used for in our writing: Stating thoughts and placing emphasis.
Let’s start with the first problem here: Vivian’s thoughts. Writers generally avoid going into a character’s thoughts lie this because it’s usually possible to put it straight into the narrative. However, we all like italics, so we use it anyway. In that case, simply treat it as dialogue… but inside your character’s head. And remember, people don’t usually think in complete coherent sentences, and neither do they speak that way. Your reader will definitely tell something is off if they have paragraphs of inner monologue stacked in perfectly-punctuated, full-length sentences of text.
Now for the second problem: there are way too many italicized words in that passage. The words “wait” and “wrong” in the dialogue are meaningful enough that they don’t need additional emphasis; you can already feel the emphasis put on them by the word choice alone. Secondly, as a general rule of thumb, we want to avoid italicizing words in narrative. The word “rage” certainly doesn’t need italicizing–it embodies a potent anger such that the emphasis is extra. We avoid extra in writing.
#5: juggling all of this in your first draft
No matter how carefully you consider each and every one of the above, none of it is really worth going over in great detail during the first draft.
If you don’t write with super tight, well-detailed outlines, and sometimes if you do, you will have to go back and rewrite a lot. As the great Shannon Hale remarked, the first draft is your sandbox. You have plenty of time to come in again and shape that mess into a beautiful sandcastle.
When writing a first draft, you don’t necessarily have time to think all of these through. It’s very much a get down what you can while you can kind of thing, regardless if you use outlines or not.
However, keeping these rules in mind is good for getting through your draft quicker. For example, by following #1, instead of thinking of elaborate verbs for every little piece of dialogue you write, just skip through all that by using “said.” Any others will come to you naturally. As for the others, it’s almost guaranteed that your first draft will be full of them all, but it will draw your attention to where your writing needs refinement when it comes to your edits. Use these rules to your advantage no matter where you are in the writing process!
Whew! That was a long load of info (also not a good thing to do in your writing xD). I hope that some of you found this helpful! What are some of your writing pet peeves and why?
Until next time,