Monday, June 15, 2009

Stop that! She said angrily!

Time for Creative Writing 101. We get a good number of readers visiting this blog who are working on their first novel or short story, so I thought it would not come amiss to repeat a couple of the basic rules of creating writing.

What brought this on is the following: I have read two books this week. Book One is published by a mid-sized Canadian publisher, by a mystery writer I have not read before. Book Two is an English crime novel by a writer who is one of my favourites.*

They both commit the unforgiveable sin of using expressions such as: he said angrily, she said crossly, he said suspiciously, he said coldly, she said hastily. And not once or twice, but once or twice per page, particularly in the case of Book One. What’s wrong with that? you may ask. Simply put, if you can’t tell by the dialogue that the speaker is angry or cross or suspicious or cool, or in a hurry, then there is something wrong with the dialogue.

Book One accompanies this with the excessive use of exclamation marks. I was taught that every author has a ration of five exclamation marks which they can use for the entire length of their career. Book One used four in one paragraph! Imagine that! Book Two has exceeded the aforementioned ration, but not too too badly. Again, you ask what’s wrong with that? It’s not natural. Unless you are writing about a gaggle of teenage girls talking on the phone: OMG! Did you see her dress! I don’t know why she even bothered! What a freak! My mom’s coming! people rarely spend their lives in a feverish state of high excitement.

Does it matter: yes, actually, it matters very much (actually, incidentally, is a word that should be avoided wherever possible – it’s a weasel word, one that reduces the impact of the sentence.) As I read these books, I am jerked out of the story at every ! and every he said, crossly. I will not seek out any more books by Author One, and I although I will read Author Two’s next book, I am disappointed.

* I must mention that I have never met either of these authors personally, so if you think I am talking about you – I’m not.


John Corrigan said...

Great advice. Suggested (dialogue) reading: Robert B. Parker.

Charles benoit said...

I agree. But there's a problem.
I was skimming a book from a popular series that its legion of fans insist has real bite, a book that almost drives them batty with the desire to read more so that they are up all night and need special meds to stay awake during the day (ok, did I drop enough hints?). In the pages I read, no one "says" anything - "he [insert past-tense adverb]" "she [past-tense verb] her response"...
I don't know, given how wildly popular these books are, maybe we're wrong. Not that I can bring myself to do it, but it makes you wonder.

Anonymous said...

He's talking about the Twilight series.

Vicki Delany said...

Like Harry Potter, that series you're mentioning Charles, was originally written for children or YA, if I remember correctly. Children's fiction has a different set of rules. Harry Potter, for example, often says things "angerly". As usual, it all depends on your audience.

Susan D said...

Oh, but here's another view!!