Tag Archives: readers

Readers, Rebels and the Rules of Writing

(The third installment on gender differences in relating will be posted soon. Here is a post in our ongoing series on what Readers Really Want.)

I have always been a rebel. When I was a kid, telling me that something was against the rules was a sure-fire way to get me to do it. As an adult, I try to resist the temptation to break a rule at least once, just to see what happens.

 

From a 1915 musical score, public domain in the U.S.

When I retired from being a psychotherapist and turned my writing talents toward fiction, I was so relieved. No more having to follow the ‘introduction, literature review, evidence, conclusions’ format required for professional journal articles. My creativity would finally be free and unfettered.

Imagine my dismay when I discovered that writing fiction had rules! (One of which is to avoid using exclamation points. Teehee!) My editor probably ended up with muscle spasms in her neck from shaking her head so much over my first manuscript.

My editor probably could have used some of this. (Photo by Craiglduncan from Wikimedia Commons)

An internal battle then ensued, between the part of me that wanted to ignore the rules and the part that wanted to get published. The latter won and I beat the rebel into submission. Now, as a somewhat more seasoned novelist, I’ve developed a bit more of a compromise in my view of these rules. But before I get into that, let me present a few things to you, the reader.

Here are three rules that I find somewhat, shall we say, stifling: (1) Use exclamation marks very sparingly (as in, almost never); (2) only use said or asked in dialogue tags; and (3) avoid adverbs like the plague.

So imagine the hero is trying to seduce the heroine. He is nibbling on her earlobe and then starts trailing kisses down the side of her neck. *pauses to fan face, is it getting hot in here?* She is trying to resist but her body has other ideas.

“Please, stop,” she gasped breathlessly.

“Please, stop,” she said, in a breathless voice.

“Please, stop.” Her voice was breathless.

You tell me, which do you like better? Which is more powerful? And which will tend to slow the story down?

Example number 2: The protagonist tells his buddy that his pet gerbil can talk.

“No way,” Jimmy said.

“No way!” Jimmy said.

No way,” Jimmy exclaimed.

“No way.” Jimmy’s voice was incredulous.

I don’t know about you, but the first one sounds to me like Jimmy isn’t all that interested. Either the second or third one works for me, although I like number two best. Technically, according to the rules, the fourth one is correct. But looking at that one, and the third one, through my reader eyes (instead of those of the writer trying to follow the rules), I can’t help wondering why there isn’t an exclamation mark there, if Jimmy is so all fired incredulous.

Now, some editors would respond to this by saying, if you need an exclamation mark or the word exclaimed in order to convey the speaker’s emotions, then you need to rewrite the dialogue to make it stronger, or show (not tell; yet another rule) the emotion through action.

Okay, how about:  Jimmy’s eyes grew wide. “No way.”

Nope, sorry, I’m still feeling like this reaction is too lukewarm without that exclamation mark. For me, first prize would go to:

Jimmy’s eyes grew wide. “No way!”

So here is the middle ground I have found, with three–soon to be four–published novels under my belt. These rules should be guidelines, because they have merit, but they should not be strictly enforced.

Use too many exclamation marks and they lose their punch (not to mention the fact that the speaker starts to sound silly.) Let’s not outlaw them completely, however.

Use said or asked most of the time as dialogue tags, because the reader’s eye glides right over them and they don’t interfere with the flow of the dialogue. But when describing the emotion or tone of voice would interfere with the flow of the dialogue, use a different dialogue tag to convey that emotion.

Likewise with adverbs; use them sparingly, but sometimes they may be the tighter way to convey the mood or tone.

Protagonist and her husband are in the middle of a disagreement that is about to heat up:

“Look, I know I go on and on sometimes, but I feel like you aren’t always listening to me.”

“What, you go on and on? Naw, never!” he teased.

“Like right now. You’re not taking me seriously,” she shot back.

He realized he had gone too far. “I do listen,” he said softly, hoping to appease her.

Oh, yeah, forgot to mention the rule about avoiding italicizing words for emphasis. So here’s the same conversation, following all the rules:

“Look, I know I go on and on sometimes, but I feel like you aren’t always listening to me.”

“What, you go on and on? Naw, never,” he said, a teasing note in his voice.

“Like right now. You’re not taking me seriously.” Her tone was now angry.

He realized he had gone too far. “I do listen,” he said, softening his voice, hoping to appease her.
Now there’s nothing wrong with the second version. But, in my opinion, the emotions aren’t as powerful. And we have ten extra words that slow down the pace of the scene, which makes the interchange sound less heated.

Let me reiterate, however, that I have matured enough through the years to realize that rules usually exist for a reason. These elements should not be used too often. Note the following, which is not far off from several first-page samples I have read on Amazon in recent times:

Jeannette sat down on a bar stool, longingly glancing in Carlos’s direction, then blatantly ignoring him.

Suddenly, she felt hot breath on her neck. Carlos gently picked up her hand and, lovingly and tenderly, kissed the soft palm. “So you can’t resist me, querida!” he breathed lustily into her ear.

Jeannette shivered deliciously but kept her face turned away.

Another man had taken the stool on her other side. “Can… uh, I buy you a drink?” he stammered nervously.

Carlos leaned forward and stared aggressively at the interloper. “She’s taken!” he growled emphatically.

“I am not!” she protested, equally emphatically.

Carlos instantly jumped from his barstool and grabbed her arm firmly. “We’ll see about that!” he growled menacingly as he hauled her off her stool and moved her hurriedly toward the door.
Now this writer has promise (Ha, ha! It’s me, several decades ago), but the mood of the scene is ruined by all the melodramatic adverbs, exclamation marks and overused irregular dialogue tags. It reads more like a farce than a serious scene. My fingers are itching to go back and edit it. (I would keep two of the fourteen adverbs, one of the four exclamation marks, and two out of the five irregular dialogue tags.)

But I won’t bore you further by ridiculously hammering home an already obviously made point about the annoyingly frequent habit of over-using these temptingly easy elements rather than writing truly fabulous and exceedingly tight, emotionally tantalizing dialogue.
Please, wade in, readers! (Yes, I do so love those exclamation marks.) What do you think about these rules? Writers and editors, feel free to join the fray.

(Posted by Kassandra Lamb. Kassandra is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer. She writes the Kate Huntington mystery series.)
We blog here at misterio press once a week about more serious topics, usually on Monday or Tuesday. Sometimes we blog again, on Friday or the weekend, with something just for fun.

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Readers: How Do You Feel About Cliffhangers?

This is the first in a series asking readers what they do and don’t like in fiction. Please, readers, let us know what you think! We authors want to give you what you want.

I’m going to go out on a limb here, or maybe I should say a ledge, and assume that at least some readers are like me and don’t like cliffhangers.

My husband and I were watching Criminal Minds, Season 2, on DVD the other night. At the end of the last episode, all the main characters get into their various look-alike black FBI-issued SUV’s, and then the scene flashes to a black SUV blowing up! Grrr! We’ve learned the hard way to already have the next season’s DVD in hand before watching the last episode on the disc, so within minutes we knew whose vehicle it was. Our annoyance was short-lived, this time.

I find full-blown cliffhangers even more annoying in novels. Awhile back, I read a debut novel in a mystery series by an indie author. The story had come to a satisfying end, and then, as the loose ends were being tied up, the protagonist’s boyfriend suddenly disappears. I turn the page, and there is a note from the author telling me I should run, not walk, to my computer and order the next book in the series.

I don’t think so!
Instead, I vowed never to buy another book by that author. I was offended by this blatant manipulation.

Now I don’t mind if an author leaves something dangling a little bit, such as a budding romance or hints of some other new development in the protagonist’s life. But please don’t hang me off the cliff! I get vertigo.

Then again, I know that semi-cliffhangers, have become a bit of a trend in some series and trilogies. I just finished reading a friend’s debut novel and she did this. The initial story, in which the young protagonist is running for her life from her abusive father with the help of her boyfriend and a stranger from another world, is resolved. But there are lots and lots of loose ends dangling when you turn the page and discover the book is done. What saved the day for me, the abhorrer of cliffhangers, was an excerpt from the beginning of Book 2 in the trilogy. It gave enough hints of where the tale was going next to turn the sour taste in my mouth to a whetted appetite. Well done, Myndi Shafer! (I highly recommend her book, Shrilugh)

And then there are soap operas–those time-honored, slow-moving series on daytime TV, and sometimes during evening prime time. I will confess that even I watched Dallas, in its first rendition. And I had an aunt who would do you bodily harm if you got in her way when she was trying to get home in time to watch her “afternoon stories.”

How about it, readers, do you like wandering along paths close to the edge of the cliff? Or do you get vertigo like me?

All of these pictures were taken at the Cliffs of Moher in Ireland (gorgeous country!)

Just how tolerant are you of loose ends at the end of a book? Do you have any other pet peeves about how some novels are written?

(Posted by Kassandra Lamb. Kassandra is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer. She writes the Kate Huntington mystery series.)
 
We blog here at misterio press once a week about more serious topics, usually on Mondays or Tuesdays. Sometimes we blog again, on Fridays or the weekend, with something just for fun.

Please follow us by filling in your e-mail address at the top of the column to the right, so you don’t miss out on any of the interesting stuff, or the fun!