(reprinted from The Wild Rose Press greenhouse of articles.)
Beginning Writers: Prose Pitfalls
by Natasha Bacchus
You read a story, something seems “off,” but what is it?
Here are things I always check for—they are more, but these are the ones that came to mind and can (for me) make or break an offer to contract.
What is it: A dialogue tag is the part on the end of a spoken section that tells you who is saying what.
What it looks like: “he said” “she said” “she exclaimed.”
Quite often, we are redundant with them:
“Don’t do that!” she exclaimed.
Because of the exclamation point, there’s no need to add “exclaimed.”
“Don’t do what?” he asked.
Again, the reader already knows the character is posing a question.
“I hoped to have the report done by Thursday,” she said.
“Okay, there’s no rush,” he said.
“I’ll meet you at Starbucks for lunch,” she said.
Now, you’re just torturing the reader. Don’t include dialogue tags in every sentence.
And don’t do this:
“I hoped to have the report done by Thursday,” she said.
“Okay, there’s no rush,” he responded.
“I’ll meet you at Starbucks for lunch,” she rejoined.
The eye glosses over “said” but will catch every other dialogue tag. Most publishers like writers to stick with “said” and sprinkle in the occasional pumped up tag.
And definitely don’t do this:
“I hoped to have the report done by Thursday,” she said worriedly.
“Okay, there’s no rush,” he responded comfortingly.
“I’ll meet you at Starbucks for lunch,” she rejoined cheerfully.
Use adverbs judiciously.
How to fix it: So when would you use tags?
1) When you have a variety of speakers in a conversation. You help the reader keep track of who is saying what.
2) After a passage of narration and you’re starting into dialogue.
White Room Phenomenon
What is it: The author gives little to no description. You don’t know where you are, what the scene is.
What does it look like: Charlie sat in his office and took the file. The room felt hot, claustrophobic. He opened a window and went back to his work. The door opened and she came in.
A story is only as good as the world it creates. The world is only as rich as the writer’s descriptions.
How to fix it: Charlie sat the scarred pressboard desk and took another parole application from the drawer. The room, a renovated janitor’s closet, felt hot, claustrophobic. He turned on the fan by his foot (note: b/c a janitor’s closet wouldn’t have a window) and went back to his work. The door opened and she came in.
What is it: A lack of description of the characters, leading to the impression that they’re talking heads, with no tangible/physical form.
What it looks like:
“Oh, you’re here,” said Charlie.
“Yes. I wanted to talk to you about Winston.”
“There’s nothing to talk about. He’s a bad egg.”
“Can’t you reconsider?”
Again, a fictional world is only as vibrant as the writer behind it. I read a book series about a detective, but the writer never described him, (and he wrote in 1st person). It was the most frustrating book. I can only guess that the author wanted the reader to superimpose their own image of the man, but I found it annoying. He was nothing but a talking head to me. Coupled with other problems with the book, I never read the entire book and never read another book by the same author.
How to fix it: Action, description, sensory detail.
“Oh, you’re here,” said Charlie.
The smell of her perfume, cranberries and spice, curled around his head, seducing him. He swallowed, trying to get moisture in his suddenly dry throat, and concentrated on the file with enough force to burn a hole through the desk.
“Yes.” Mary’s voice, too damn husky and sexy for his own good, tickled his libido with smooth tones. “I wanted to talk to you about Winston.”
“There’s nothing to talk about. He’s a bad egg.” Don’t look at her. Don’t look at her.
Red hair, soft skin, and a smile that turned his legs to pudding.
“Can’t you reconsider?” Her brown eyes were wide with hope.
“No.” He readjusted his wheelchair, locking it into place. Then he engaged the brakes on his heart.
What is it: The author includes detail, you have a sense of the scene. But the descriptions are so generic, it doesn’t create a three-dimensional image/ground the reader.
What it looks like: Jon set the chips on the coffee table, then went to the fridge and pulled out the drinks. He arranged the food, shooed the dog from the chair, and turned on the music. When the doorbell rang, he answered it.
“Things” tell character/setting. They can intensify a scene, kick the reader in the gut.
How to fix it: Compare the difference in what we know about Jon, based on the following (and special thanks to Nancy Kress for the inspiration/creation of this):
Johnny set the beer nuts on the formica coffee table, then went to the fridge and pulled out the beer. He arranged the food, shooed Rover, the Heinz-57 mix from the Lazy-boy chair, and turned on the Garth Brooks CD. When the doorbell pealed, he answered it.
John set the tortilla chips on the glass coffee table, then went to the fridge and pulled out the Wild Vines white wine. He arranged the food, shooed Murphy, the Labrador retriever from the suede chair, and turned on the Kenny G CD. When the doorbell chimed, he answered it.
Jonathon set the canapés on the Louis XlV coffee table, then went to the fridge and pulled out the 1964 Chateau LeFic. He arranged the food, shooed Emerald Ginger Sparkle, the pekinese from the over-stuffed chaise, and turned on the Mozart CD. When the doorbell rang, he answered it.
Which Jon would most likely own season tickets to the Philharmonic? Which Jon would love a monster truck rally? Which one is most likely to shop at the Gap?
Each Jon has a distinctive personality, socio-economic status, and attitude and all because of minor details—beer nuts over canapés, a retriever rather than a show dog. Details make the story, they are what help to pull readers in and create that fictional dream.
What is it: The author uses adverbs in every (or almost every sentence).
What it looks like: Jon hurriedly set the chips on the coffee table, then went to the fridge and quickly pulled out the drinks. He artfully arranged the food, shooed the dog from the chair, and leisurely turned on the music. When the doorbell rang, he answered it smilingly.
Adverbs are used like salt—to spice up writing. But just like salt, too much of it can spoil the story and leave a bad taste in the readers mouth. Also, the brain will start to repeat the “ly” sound in the readers head, leading to an impression of boring/repetitive writing.
Adverbs can also be a great indicator that the writer is in passive, rather than active voice, and is telling rather than showing (more on this later).
How to fix it: 99.9% of adverbs don’t need to be there.
1) Delete them
2) Replace with more active verbs (ie. “quickly pulled” becomes “yanked”)
3) Show don’t tell
What is it: When a writer repeats information.
What it looks like:
1) “The water completely surrounded the tree.” (taken from http://www.scj.us/tcj/articles/fall06_stevenson1.shtml)
2) “Let me explain what happened. The pipe broke,” he explained.
Thanks to Governments, Universities, etc., we’re very used to reading redundant writing, but in fiction, avoid it.
How to fix it:
1) “The water surrounded the tree.” (“surround” doesn’t need “completely”)
2) “Let me explain what happened. The pipe broke.” Or “The pipe broke,” he explained.
What is it: Similar to redundancies, but in this instance, the author offers information, then keeps repeating it.
What it looks like:
She noticed his startling blue eyes…(then, 5 paragraphs later)…his startling blue eyes hypnotized her.
Or, the hero is tagged as handsome, and then the term “handsome” is used again, and again, and again.
Something that authors need to keep in mind is that the page is a gold mine. Sift through the words, let readers find gold. Don’t cheat them by repeating the same information. Every sentence is a glorious opportunity to share something new.
How to fix it: Rewrite the sentence.
What is it: Loads of extraneous, boring writing that does nothing to move the plot along.
What it looks like: Pages of internal monologue; pages of descriptions of the setting sun; dialogue like:
“Hey, how are you?”
“Okay, I guess.”
“Just okay? What happened?”
“Nothing, couldn’t really sleep last night.”
“I don’t know. I guess I had a lot on my mind.”
“Yeah? Like what?”
“Well, work for one. Yesterday the copier broke down and it really annoyed me, because I had to run photocopies off for Mr. Heiniken.”
Are you bored to tears, yet? Go back to the metaphor of writing as panning for gold. Bloated prose is like silt. It’s there and doesn’t do anything, other than cover the nuggets.
How to fix it: If a scene or chapter doesn’t move the plot, cut it.
Dysfunction masquerading as Conflict
What is it: Characters act/think/feel in a manner that’s supposed to read as conflict or tension, but in reality, makes them seem immature or in need of psychotherapy.
What it looks like: Jack, aged forty-five, looked the beautiful middle-aged woman in front of him. He didn’t understand why men his age chased after younger women. What could they have in common—other than the obvious?
If you really read this sentence, it’s not just dysfunctional, it’s discriminatory. The Wild Rose Press will not print racist, sexist, or discriminatory stories or protagonists. If the villain is discriminatory, that’s one thing, but not the protagonists.
Why is Jack an ass? Because he’s judging an entire group (younger women). Take out “younger” and insert “black” and you’ll see what I mean. What a stupid comment: what could they have in common? Duh. Intellect, life experience, philosophy, religion.
Dysfunction can also be the hero/heroine refusing help for the sake of refusing help. Again. Stupid. You don’t want your protagonists to read as the jerk that the reader knows; you want them to inspire the reader. Yes, they need to be fallible. Fallible. Not dysfunctional.
How to fix it: Tweak, rewrite, or delete.
What is it: The over-use of weak verbs (to be, to have, to feel, etc.) that leads to a stale, uninspiring story.
What it looks like: The note on the table told him goodbye. He could hardly bear to hold it. It made him sad. He felt it in his bones. Jeff was regretting his rash words.
Again, we live in a society where business and educational institutions push passive writing. Think about this sentence: Cigarettes were determined to have been a cause in cancer. Now think about this one: Cigarettes cause cancer. Which one hits you in the gut? The second one. Why? Because it’s intense, to the point and vibrant.
Now, let me state that these verbs are not “bad” they should not all be omitted. But often, with a little work and imagination, a writer can create a better sentence which evokes emotion and a sense that the reader is living and breathing the story, rather than just reading it.
How to fix it: When it comes to “was,” often you can take it out, change the verb it precedes to an “ed” ending, ie. Jeff was regretting his decision „³ Jeff regretted his decision.
With states of emotion, or the “to have” verb, these are great places to show (ie., to create word pictures). So, he felt sad (or he was sad). Despair washed over him, drowning him in regrets and images of a future that would never be.
One other way to pump up a weak verb, is to link it with an image.
So rather than writing “he was confused” try “he was in free fall.” Stick in images, classical references, and see what happens.
The Bystander Phenomenon
What is it: A lack of sensory detail leads to the feeling that you’re a witness to events, rather than a part of them.
What it looks like: Traffic was backed up. She prayed it was better on the north side. Her father was heading to the doctor to get his heart checked. She wanted to drop off her paperwork and meet him there. Kassie hoped he would be okay.
Okay, we know where she is, and what’s going on…but do you care? Really? Or do you feel like I do, that I’m standing on the side of the road and watching her, but not really identifying with anything that’s going on?
There are seven senses: feel, touch, taste, sight, smell, sound, and humor. Writers need to include these (not everything, all at once) in their writing to pull readers in.
How to fix it: A stalled car on the 401 had turned the freeway into a six lane parking lot. Kassie inched along in her Ford Focus, cursing fate so she didn’t curse at the cars around her. Each swish of her watch’s hands boomed like canon-fire. Please God, that traffic was better on the north side. A sudden, swift image of her father came to mind. His gnarled hands clasped on the steering wheel, the pounding of his heart as he drove for the follow up on the heart tests. Her dad, alone in the cold, sterile examining room, a thin scrap of paper covering him, fear clogging throat, panic making his voice crack.
One thing to notice here, is that the inclusion of details makes the story longer. All we know here is that she’s afraid, and worried about her dad. We don’t know she’s trying to make it to the office and finish off her work, and the paragraph is already twice the size of the original.
That’s okay. That’s part of the give and take of more active writing. It increases word count.
Something to bear in mind is that writers don’t always have to turn every sentence into a show sentence. That would bog down the writing, decrease the pace of the plot.
You want to use show when you’re talking about emotion, internal/external conflict, or dealing with the climax.
Don’t use it to talk about the weather—unless the weather can be referenced by the character or is vital to the plot (ie. the rain comes at the black moment and symbolizes the heroine's despair or they're trapped in a log cabin and the snowstorm is preventing them from escape).
There are a variety of other things to bear in mind, when reviewing a submission:
• Does the plot move at a good pace?
• Are the characters behaviour/thoughts consistent?
• Are the characters 3-D?
• Is the conflict realistic?
• Does the author change Point of View (from hero’s internal thoughts/sensations to the heroine’s) too often (you want a ratio of one POV/scene, unless you in a climatic moment).
• Is the writing cliché (ie. He was as hungry as a horse)?
Natasha Bacchus is an editor and multi-published author who writes under a pseudonym. She has graciously given permission for the reprint of this article.