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Forty-five more flaws that expose your lack of storytelling experience, part 5


Rookie truck driver mistake

This is it. The final installment in this series. If you’re just joining us, you can find part 1 here. I hope you’ve all found the series helpful so far. It has been fun writing it. At last, here is the final batch of 9 rookie mistakes to watch out for in your own writing.

37. Repetitive sentence structure. If you dust the cobwebs off that part of your brain that holds middle school memories, you might find something in there about different types of sentences: simple, compound, complex, and compound-complex. Yeah, that module bored me too. But now that you’re a writer, you need to know that stuff. It’s actually important for establishing a rhythm and flow to your writing that won’t bore your readers like those middle school English lessons did.

I’m not going to re-cap what all those sentence types are (plus, of course, questions, exclamations, interjections, et cetera). Hit your favorite search engine for “types of sentences” and you’ll find plenty. I’d rather let an example do the work. Which would you rather read, this one:

Mad Jack drew the Colt out of its holster. He flicked open the cylinder. Two bullets remained. He checked his pockets. There were none. He drained the last of his bottle of rye. He thought, I better aim careful.

Or this one:

Mad Jack drew the Colt out of its holster, flicking open the cylinder. Two bullets remained. He checked his pockets, but came up empty. He drained the last of his bottle of rye and thought, I better aim careful.

The first one is nothing but simple declarative sentences. And can’t you just feel the monotony of it? The second one has all the same facts, in exactly the same order, but mixes it up with different sentence structures. Feel the difference?

38. “And” abuse. Close on the heels of repetitive sentence structure is abuse of that stalwart conjunction “and.” Here’s the thing about English: there are probably dozens of ways to join two clauses together into a compound or complex sentence. Yet, rookie writers reach for “and” more often than not. It gets dull. Worse than that, it’s a missed opportunity to inject additional meaning into your prose. To make the text richer with information for the reader to ferret out.

All that “and” tells us is “here are two things I’ve put into the same sentence.” By itself, “and” doesn’t add much in the way of color or nuance. Look for different ways to connect things that you want connected. If nothing else, reach for a different conjunction. Something that does hint at the relationship between the two things being connected. If you connect them with “but,” you establish a contrast. “Sam didn’t care for strawberries, but Doris lived for them.” Using “yet” establishes a different kind of contrast, between what is and what might have been expected. The list goes on and on and on. This web page has 44 different conjunctions and conjoining phrases listed. Why use “and” all the time when you’ve got that palette to paint with?

You don’t have to use conjunctions all the time, either. If the subject of two otherwise independent clauses is the same, you can often omit the conjunction by converting the verb in the second one to a gerund. There’s an example of this above, with “Mad Jack drew the Colt out of its holster, flicking open the cylinder.” That could have been done with “and flicked” instead, but to me, the gerund form adds a nice feeling of immediacy to the sentence.

You want a great writing exercise? Use your word processor’s search function to look at all the times you use “and.” When you find “and” being used as a coordinating conjunction (versus just to separate items in a list), re-work the sentence to use a different conjunction or grammatical form. You’ll be amazed at how much brighter and more lively your prose becomes.

39. Mis-capitalizing surrogate proper nouns. Besides the first letter of sentences, what do we capitalize in English? Proper nouns, right? The names of specific people, places, and things. Easy enough. But we also capitalize anything that functions as a proper noun. Where I see the most confusion in client manuscripts about this is with nicknames, titles, and words that refer to people by relationship.

The general rule: if something is being used in place of a person’s given name, treat it as a name and capitalize it. Not sure? Try substituting the person’s actual name in that same spot to see if the sentence still works. If it does, then capitalize. Here are some specifics that trip people up:

  • If you have a character who’s a little crazy with the risk taking and has the nickname “Gonzo,” and that’s what everybody in the book calls him, most writers know to capitalize that. But in spontaneous circumstances such as a father calling his daughter “Pumpkin,” somehow that tends to trip people up. I see those types of personal, cutesy nicknames lowercased quite often when they ought to be capitalized. Again, it’s that general rule: the girl’s actual name would fit just fine in that same context within the sentence, which is your tip-off that the nickname is functioning as a surrogate proper noun.

  • Immediate family relationships. I see “Mom” and “Dad” mis-capitalized all the time. Weirdly often. This same rule applies for any kind of relationship within the family, it just shows up for mothers and fathers more often. This mistake is perhaps more understandable, since these kinds of relationship words are legitimately either capitalized or lowercased depending on context. When used as a form of direct address (again, in place of the person’s name), capitalize: “Hi Mom, what’s for dinner?” When used as a reference to a person holding a particular relationship to the speaker or narrator (and usually prefixed with a possessive pronoun such as my/his/her/etc.) then lowercase it: “You won’t believe what my mom made for dinner last night.”

  • Non-family relationships. These are typically references to people who hold some kind of business or service relationship to the speaker or narrator, and are referred to by their profession. A doctor, lawyer, seamstress, et cetera. I see fewer mistakes with these, but it’s the same rule as for immediate family relationships. Don’t capitalize unless the profession is being used as a form of direct address. You’d write:

Jack went to the doctor (lowercased) to get his head examined. “What do you think, Doctor?” (capitalized) he asked. “Am I crazy?”

  • Titles. “Sir,” “Ma’am,” “General,” “Lord,” “Sire,” et cetera: capitalize. While these aren’t a part of a person’s given name, they are used as if they were. They’re just like “Mr.,” “Ms.,” and so forth. It is as if the person’s name includes the title, and when the title is used by itself, it’s like using a shortened form of the person’s name. So “Thank you, General Harrington,” becomes “Thank you, General.” But not “Thank you, general.”

40. Unclear scene openings. The original post from storyfix.com, the one that prompted me to write this series, talked about turning invisible scene transitions into visible ones by means of whitespace. A simple and effective technique. But that leaves aside the elephant-in-the-room question of how you open the scene after the transition.

An unclear scene opening really hoses up the flow of your story. I’m just going to say that. It does. Because rather than being able to smoothly segue into the next meaningful set of events, readers are instead forced to wrestle with simply understanding what the scene is. There are a few really core things that a scene opening needs to establish to give the reader a smooth transition from one scene to the next, and to introduce those, let’s briefly talk about what a scene break is. Intuitively, we know, but let’s make it explicit. A scene transition is a jump in time, place, viewpoint character, and/or supporting characters. I make that explicit because those are pretty much the things readers need to know in order to get their heads into the new scene.

If time has shifted, we need to know by how much and in which direction: forward (the most common; we’ve skipped some boring time in order to get to the next period when something interesting happens), backwards (the new scene is a flashback, or the story is being intentionally told in non-chronological order), or laterally (we’re jumping to a different character so we can catch up on what she was doing at the same time as someone else).

If the new scene takes place somewhere different than the prior scene left off, then we need to know where we are. Or at the very least, we at least need to know enough about the location that we can visualize it, because sometimes you legitimately don’t want to tell the reader exactly where the place is. But we still need to be able to visualize it in order to understand what we’re about to see the characters do.

If the set of people in the scene is different from the prior scene, and those people are in obvious evidence to the POV characters, it’s only fair to let the reader know right away who’s present. It’s confusing to read a page and a half of scene, believing that only Pete and Lisa are in the room, only to be find that Janet has actually been there all along but she just hasn’t said anything up to now. That’s irritating to readers, because now we need to adjust our understanding of what Janet knows to include anything Pete and Lisa said and did in the meantime. You force us to stop to make that adjustment, whereas if we had simply known Janet was there from the beginning, we’d have been able to do that automatically.

And finally, where is everyone in the space? For our ability to visualize and track what’s happening, it isn’t enough to know who’s there. We need to know where they are, too. And when they move around, we need to know about it. Let’s say you have three people sitting out on the porch, talking and sipping iced tea. If they all stay put, it’s easy to track who knows what based on what might be revealed during their conversation. But if one of them steps inside for a minute to refill their tea and you don’t tell us, then again, our mental model starts to diverge from what you have in mind. If we suddenly see that person come back out to the porch, we’ll be confused. “Wait a minute. Grandma went back inside? When did that happen?” We don’t know how much of the conversation she missed. We feel cheated, and justifiably so, because we weren’t allowed to track the movements of the characters, even though those movements should have been perfectly obvious to anybody witnessing the scene.

41. Overly complex verb forms. Pop quiz. What’s wrong with this?

Beth started to cross the yard towards the oak tree. She stretched one hand up to a gnarled branch and began to climb. It was hard work but she finally reached the top, where the branches grew thin and she could feel herself swaying in the breeze.

What’s wrong are the verb forms: “Started to cross.” “Began to climb.” “Finally reached.” Once in a while, I get a client who just can’t help but do this. They turn every straightforward action into some complex verb construction, generally by prefixing the core verb with some form of begin, start, continue, finish, finally, or similar.

After a while it starts to drive the reader crazy. It’s like nobody’s ever actually doing anything. They’re always just beginning to do something, or finally getting around to something, but never just plain doing.

Remember waaaaay back in part 1 of this series? Item number 3 was “weak verbs.” Well, this is another way writers weaken otherwise strong verbs. They clutter them up with these overly complex lead-ins, these hair-splitting gradations of tense. I promise you this: whatever verb comes after the lead-in is pretty much guaranteed to be stronger than “begin,” “start,” “continue,” and the rest. Cut those lead-ins to let the character—and the reader—jump straight to the action.

42. Naked dialogue. It’s fine to have characters talk when they’re naked. That’s not what I mean. Naked dialogue (or sometimes “on the nose” dialogue) is when a character’s dialogue reveals exactly and specifically what they’re thinking or feeling. The dialogue bares all, as it were.

Let’s say you have a couple in a rocky relationship. One of the things he’s unhappy about is that he feels that the relationship isn’t equitable. That she doesn’t really respect his time, his space, his opinions, et cetera. If they’re arguing and she asks, “Why are you so grouchy all the time?” he’s not going to say this:

“Because I don’t get my due in this relationship. I don’t feel like you take my feelings or opinions into account. I feel disrespected, and if you don’t respect me, it makes me wonder if you really love me. Then I worry that you’re going to break up with me, even though I love you and I don’t want to break up.”

It’s just not believable. Regular people don’t say things like that. I mean, if this guy is so well adjusted and self-actualized that he can articulate his feelings so clearly, chances are he would have said something to her long ago at the first signs of the problems. No. A regular, believable person would say something like:

“Because we always see what movies you want to see, and eat where you want to eat, and even though I paid for our damn queen-sized bed, somehow you get as much space as you want while I sleep on a twelve-inch strip right on the edge, and if I god forbid ever ask you to maybe give me just a little bit—on anything—you look at me like I’m asking you sell a kidney so we can buy beer, that’s why.”

Real people rarely say exactly what’s going on. Little kids don’t, as we explored in the last installment, because they don’t have the capacity for self-analysis which would let them. Grownups don’t, because somehow in our culture we’re just not that blunt about it. We talk around the real issues, hoping people will figure out what we really mean. As a writer, your job is to write dialogue that does exactly that: hints at the real issue so readers can figure out what’s going on (whether other characters do as well depends, of course, on what you’ve got going on in the story), without hitting the nail exactly on the head.

43. Passive voice. Good grief. I just realized I haven’t mentioned passive voice writing yet. Passive voice is a grammatical construction which switches the subject and direct object of a sentence. And then for good measure, often drops the subject entirely. For example, a nice active-voice sentence like this:

Jane threw the package to the ground in a blinding rage.

Suddenly turns into this:

The package was thrown by Jane to the ground in a blinding rage.

“Jane” and “the package” have switched grammatical positions in the sentence, and “threw” converts to “was thrown.” But then, because “by Jane” sounds so horribly awkward in there, we dispense with Jane:

The package was thrown to the ground in a blinding rage.

The problem, as I blogged in some detail a long, long time ago, is exactly with this last step. The subject of the original sentence, the actor, the character who your story is about, gets cut out of the text.

44. Passive characters. Your grammar isn’t the only thing that can be active or passive. Characters can too, and it’s just as bad. If you write a passive protagonist, even in active voice, we’re going to be bored. A passive protagonist is one who is not interacting strongly with the plot. What that means is that the character is floating through the story without any driving goal or motivation to achieve anything. The feeling this creates is that the protagonist doesn’t much care what happens. And it’s pretty hard to get the reader to care what happens if the main character doesn’t.

I don’t mean that you can’t have a passive narrator. You can. Many stories use a viewpoint character who is there to witness the exploits of the true protagonist, so as to narrate them to the reader. Look no further than The Great Gatsby or Moby Dick.

What I mean is that whatever character you set up as the main person in the story, the one who the story is fundamentally about, that character had better have some strong goals and motivations. We need to see that the main character cares about something. We need to see care so strong that we’ll believe, want to follow, and root for that person as he or she does whatever the plot requires.

45. Telling instead of showing. I had to save something substantial for last, and this is it. Even if you’ve heard the “Show, don’t tell” rule before, don’t stop reading now, because chances are you’re still not following it as much as you should. Violating this rule—that is, telling instead of showing—is easily the most frequent mistake I see from writers of all stripes. Rookies and seasoned folks alike.

It’s also the worst mistake you can make, because “Show, don’t tell” is the most fundamental, bedrock skill of narrative fiction. Skillful use of showing and telling is what makes narrative fiction work.

It’s not hard to understand why people tell instead of show, though. Telling is just so damn easy. You can convey so much information, so fast, using telling. With telling, you can lay out a character’s whole backstory so we know exactly who they are, where they came from, and what all their foibles are, in a half a page. With telling, you can trivially let us know exactly how everybody feels, and why, all the time.

Telling is so easy it’s downright seductive, but it’s still a mistake because the things rookie writers want to tell are usually the most important things in the story. Which, ironically enough, means that they are the exact same things that you need to let readers infer, deduce, and conclude for themselves. When the reader concludes something, the information becomes theirs, and they’ll believe it to the end of time. When you just tell them outright, the information remains yours, and is therefore much more suspect. After all, you’re a novelist, a title which is probably the greatest euphemism for “liar” ever invented. By definition, you make stuff up! You’re not to be trusted!

You need to show, rather than tell, because that’s how you lead readers to make the critical inferences and conclusions you need them to make. That’s how you earn the reader’s belief in your characters and your story.

How do you do it? I have a whole 90 minute lecture on this subject that I can’t cram into this blog post, but in brief: what you’re allowed to tell is anything that would be visible (audible, smellible, et cetera) to the reader if the reader were a fly on the wall in your scene, plus the viewpoint character’s inner monologue if you’re using that. That’s what you’re allowed to tell. All the stuff that’s directly manifest in the world of the story. Everything else, all the invisible stuff you want the reader to know, everything those flies on the wall would have to infer on the basis of what they observe, is what you need to show. Here’s the cool part: you show the invisible stuff by telling the visible stuff.

Every invisible fact will manifest in some observable way. To show us the invisible fact, you tell us about its visible manifestation, and let us connect the dots. That’s how you do “Show, don’t tell.” So I leave you with this:

The difference between telling and showing is the difference between the visible and the invisible.

And we’re done

So that’s it. Forty-five rookie writing mistakes, and how to avoid them. Thanks to anybody who read this far, and happy writing!

< Back to part 4 | << Way back to part 1

August 24, 2011 16:12 UTC

Tags: writing, writing mistakes, rookie, show don't tell, passive voice, active voice, conjunctions, passivity

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Do you know the real reason not to use passive voice?

Ask anybody in this business whether you should use a lot of passive voice sentences in your writing, and they’ll say “No, of course not.” Ask them why, though, and you’re likely to hear only vague and useless answers:

“It’s awkward.” “It’s boring.” “It’s emotionally cold.” “It’s dry and academic.”

That’s all true, but none of it helps you understand the real problem. Here’s the real answer:

Passive voice hides your characters from view.

It’s really that simple. Novels are about characters doing things. Passive voice shifts the focus of the writing away from the characters and onto the things they’re doing, or the things they’re using to do whatever it is they’re doing. Check this out:

Bread was placed on the counter. Two slices, whole wheat. Peanut butter was spread on the left, jelly on the right. The halves were joined, and inserted together into a baggie. The sandwich, along with a shiny red apple and thermos of milk, was packed into the shiny, new Lightning McQueen lunchbox, with a folded paper towel for a napkin.

The lunchbox was handed to its intended recipient. A rosy smooth cheek was presented for an obligatory, if not entirely welcomed, kiss. The door was opened, and the new school year was begun.

That’s an extreme example, but I’ve seen people write like this. I’ve seen whole novels written almost entirely in this style. The problem with passive voice is that it’s great for saying what happened, but absolutely lousy at saying who did it or how they did it. It hides the characters. And in doing so, it hides all the warmth. All the emotion. It undermines any sense of the relationships between people.

I made those paragraphs the best I could—adding colorful details here and there—but they’re still awful. In those two paragraphs, where’s the mother’s love? Where’s the child’s mixture of anticipation and trepidation? Where are anyone’s feelings about anything? Oh, here they are:

Sam watched as his mother made a PB&J sandwich. Use the grape, Sam thought. He smiled as she took the purple jar out of the fridge. She packed the sandwich into his new Lightning McQueen lunchbox, taking care that it wouldn’t get squished by the apple or the thermos of milk. She closed it with a tinny, metallic snap.

“Here you go, Sam,” she said, handing him his lunch. She bent down to kiss his cheek. Sam squirmed a little but smiled anyway, secretly glad he wasn’t too old for it. “Run and catch the bus now!” Sam held her eyes for a moment, then ran out the door to begin the new school year.

The active voice version is very clear about who is doing what, and how they’re doing it. That much is obvious. But what is most interesting to me is the source of that improvement. The very process of writing in the active voice focuses my attention as a writer in a different and altogether better place: On the characters.

I had intended to write a straight, sentence-for-sentence version changing nothing but the grammatical voice. But I couldn’t. As soon as I typed “Sam watched,” I was forced to wonder not about the minutia of sandwich making (which happens all too easily when writing in passive voice), but instead about what Sam was thinking, feeling, and hoping: Duh, he’s hoping his mom will choose his favorite kind of jelly.

Having raised the question of which jelly she’ll use, I have to answer it, which forces me to wonder about the mom’s state of mind. Because she’s his mom and knows him and loves him and wants his first day to be a good one, it was obvious to me that she’d pick the grape. Her love and concern shows in her choice, in her ability to read her son’s mind. We see Sam feel that love when he smiles about it.

Similarly, I was forced to consider how she packs the lunch. Again, love and concern makes her do it in a specific and intentional manner. She doesn’t just cram it all in and slam the lid. Writing in active voice forces me to consider how—not just what—someone is doing, which in turn gives me an opportunity to show, rather than merely tell.

The simple decision to write in active voice forced me to focus on my characters. It forced me to focus on the people, rather than the objects.

It’s the characters who are interesting. A peanut butter and jelly sandwich isn’t interesting except to the extent that it has anything to do with the characters. In passive voice, the sandwich is just a sandwich. Boring. In active voice, the sandwich conveys the relationship between the characters. That’s interesting.

Relationships between characters are what we love to read and see. Passive voice writing withers on the vine precisely because it hides that from view. In so doing, passive voice encourages authors to be lazy and to focus on the entirely dull objects and events of the story.

It takes work to figure out how characters feel about everything, and how those feelings shape people’s actions. Active voice forces writers to do that work. It forces us to focus on the interesting characters of our stories and the fascinating relationships driving them.

September 03, 2009 23:49 UTC

Tags: passive voice, active voice, character, show, tell, show don't tell, Lightning McQueen, lunchbox, apple, sandwich, peanut butter, jelly, school, relationships, writing

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