Fiction writing tip: Don’t use “soap opera dialogue”

Providing readers with information they need to know is necessary, of course, and a great way to do that is by using dialogue. You have to make sure, however, to avoid what I call “soap-opera dialogue.” You shouldn’t have characters discussing things they already know just for the benefit of the reader. Chitchat like this is called soap-opera dialogue because it’s used in soaps frequently to help viewers who may have missed a few shows. Example:

Rick: “Jeff got here about ten minutes ago.”

Todd: “Jeff? That sleazy attorney who broke up with Natalie last week after Dr. Lebowitz told him she had a brain tumor?”
Rick: “Yep. He flew in this morning. I guess he figures that big murder trial of his in New Orleans can go on without him.”

In conversations like this you can almost see the characters winking at each other. Never use soap-opera dialogue in your novel.

Paul Thayer
Thayer Literary Services
www.paulthayerbookeditor.com


Paul Thayer is a full-time professional book editor with more than 35 years of experience. During that time he worked in the trenches of the real world of writers, editors, and publishers. He uses his extensive knowledge to help writers who still have a lot to learn, offering them critiques and line editing of their work.

Did you like this post? If so, please click Like and share it.

 

Grammar tip: When to use “who” and “that”

The pronoun that may have a long history of referring to people as well as things, but using it can sound illiterate in some contexts where you’re obviously referring to humans—a habit that writers have picked up from spoken American English. Further, despite the long use (or misuse) of that in connection with people, current English textbooks maintain that who should be used to refer to people or to animals with names or special talents. That and which, they say, should be used to refer to animals, things, and sometimes to anonymous or collective groups of people.

A few exceptions exist, as usual. Using that instead of who can sometimes get you out of a tough situation, like this one:

“Did she say it was a man or a book that she curled up with last night?”

I could make an inappropriate comment about this sentence, but this time I’m gonna restrain myself.

Paul Thayer
Thayer Literary Services
www.paulthayerbookeditor.com


Paul Thayer is a full-time professional book editor with more than 35 years of experience. During that time he worked in the trenches of the real world of writers, editors, and publishers. He uses his extensive knowledge to help writers who still have a lot to learn, offering them critiques and line editing of their work.

Did you like this post? If so, please click Like and share it.

 

Top 12 fiction writers’ mistakes

 1. Writing sentences in the passive voice—Watch out for excessive use of the passive voice of verbs. Replace was and were with verbs that show action:

Burglars stole a lot of jewelry.

instead of

A lot of jewelry was stolen by burglars.

2. Using the same words over and over—Watch out for pet words. Find good synonyms to bring variety and life to your writing.

3. Using too much punctuation—Avoid being showy or self-consciousness about punctuation. Save the semicolon for formal writing, and don’t use it in dialogue. For guidance, consult a good basic text like The Elements of Style.

4. Using too many contractions—Using many contractions in exposition (narration) signals an informal style that may not suit the target publisher or the audience. When in doubt, check the publisher’s style sheet or ask for advice.

5. Writing “purple prose”—A common affliction of new writers, who often use too many adjectives and too much description:

“The rich, red tropical sun rose brilliantly over the sparkling azure blue water, spreading its glorious warmth over the dewy dandelions, sensuous snapdragons, and sleepy morning glories, which opened their blue mouths wide to taste the delicious dawn.”

Arrgh! Gimme a break.

6. Overusing pairs of adjectives—Another way writers sometimes overdo it. Trim the fat. One good adjective almost always works better than two.

7. Using clichés—Writers should avoid clichés like (ahem) the plague. Find an original way to express your thought.

8. Overusing $10 words—Too many unfamiliar, highfalutin’ words will turn off most readers. You don’t want to sound as if you’re showing off or talking down to the reader. Academic and technical writing, however, allows more such terms.

9. Making all sentences the same length—Varied sentence length is one characteristic of good writing. The right combination of short, medium, and long sentences actually helps hold the attention of the reader and keeps things moving.

10. Adding information that’s off the subject—Is all your text relevant to the story? Do all the people mentioned add something to it? If not, determine where you have strayed, cut out the junk, and get the narrative back on track.

11. Using too many words (overwriting)—Some writers just go on and on, with no sense of getting to the point, piling on adjectives and adverbs, making vague or irrelevant statements, and using several words when one would do. Eliminate unnecessary words.

12. Being too general—Vague and general statements take the life out of your writing. Be specific. The best writing is packed with details that engage the senses and emotions, allowing your readers to participate in the scene being described. Fiction or nonfiction, the principle is the same: Give your readers details, details, details.

Paul Thayer
Thayer Literary Services
www.paulthayerbookeditor.com


Paul Thayer is a full-time professional book editor with more than 35 years of experience. During that time he worked in the trenches of the real world of writers, editors, and publishers. He uses his extensive knowledge to help writers who still have a lot to learn, offering them critiques and line editing of their work.

Did you like this post? If so, please click Like and share it.

 

Fiction writing tip: When to use a scene break

You must indicate a scene break on your manuscript page when one scene ends and another one begins. To do this, just leave a blank, one-line, horizontal space on the page by hitting the “Return” key twice.

You must insert a scene break whenever:
• The narrative point of view shifts to a different character
• A significant amount of time passes between one scene and the next
• A different set of characters enters the story
• The characters move to a different location

No rules, dashes, or dingbats of any kind should be placed in the white space of a scene break unless the scene ends at the bottom of a page. When that happens insert three asterisks (*), centered on the page, with five spaces between each one, at the bottom of the page or at the top of the next one to alert readers to the break.

Paul Thayer
Thayer Literary Services
www.paulthayerbookeditor.com


Paul Thayer is a full-time professional book editor with more than 35 years of experience. During that time he worked in the trenches of the real world of writers, editors, and publishers. He uses his extensive knowledge to help writers who still have a lot to learn, offering them critiques and line editing of their work.

Did you like this post? If so, please click Like and share it.

 

Using (and overusing) similes and metaphors

In case you don’t know already, a simile is “a figure of speech involving the comparison of one thing with another thing of a different kind, used to make a description more emphatic or vivid,” usually introduced by the words as or like. A metaphor is “a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable: “I had fallen through a trapdoor of depression,” said Mark.

Figurative language adds depth and resonance to writing. Be careful when you think about using them, however, because you can have too much of a good thing. I caution writers against peppering their prose with similes and metaphors. In the strictest sense, you should use a comparison only when 1.) you think the reader won’t quite get the picture without it and 2.) when you aren’t able to provide an approximate description without it. If your comparisons become gratuitous, you’re pushing your luck with readers, who may find them intrusive once you’ve crossed the line.

Tip: Similes and metaphors are best when they are a natural part of a character’s environment. If you’re writing a western, for instance, you shouldn’t say, “He looked like a New York City street peddler.”

Here are some fresh and effective similes:

“Tom felt weighed and measured as neatly as a goose on market day.”

“The crew got as skittery as water on a hot griddle.”

“Even on Central Avenue, not the quietest dressed street in the world, he looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food cake.” (Raymond Chandler, Farewell, My Lovely, 1940)

“Some dance critic, who worked behind the bar in a honky-tonk, said that when Boomer danced he looked like a monkey on roller skates juggling razor blades in a hurricane. (Tom Robbins, Skinny Legs and All, 1990)

“Rails suspended overhead, from which black chains hung like jungle vines that clattered through their blocks, making a tooth-rattling noise, a noise like the jabbering of a thousand jawbones in a thousand skulls.” (John Griesemer, Signal and Noise. Hutchinson, 2004)

“Carl reached for the phone, his gut tightening. Even before he heard the voice on the other end, he suspected—no, knew—it would be him. ‘You did real well,’ the voice said, a voice like dry leaves rustling down a sidewalk.” (J. Michael Straczynski, “We Killed Them in the Ratings.” Blowout in Little Man Flats, ed. by Billie Sue Mosiman and Martin Greenberg. Rutledge Hill, 1998)

“I took a deep breath and started to speak. I can’t remember half of what I said, but I do know that I was at least a million times more inspiring than Lyle Filbender. He sounded like a defective robot in need of a battery change and had to be reprimanded twice for calling the Mission’s clients ‘bums.’“ (Maureen Fergus, Exploits of a Reluctant (but Extremely Goodlooking) Hero. Kids Can Press, 2007)

“For all his roughness and arrogance, the boy was transformed when he was in the presence of girls. He spoke in a voice as soft as the silken filaments that float out of a cocoon.” (Carol Field, Mangoes and Quince. Bloomsbury, 2001)

“Without warning, Lionel gave one of his tight little sneezes: it sounded like a bullet fired through a silencer.” (Martin Amis, Lionel Asbo: State of England. Alfred A. Knopf, 2012)

“The street was alive with them, hollow-eyed and faceless astride coal-black horses, their muffled hoofbeats sounding like rapid shots miles away. Only these sounds were right here and I was in the midst of them. Sabers whistled. Once I heard a noise like a cook’s cleaver striking half-boiled meat, a nauseating sound. Then there were real shots, hard and sharp, like derisive coughs, and metal-gray smoke that mingled with the white vapor exhaled by the horses.” (Loren D. Estleman, Murdock’s Law, 1982)

“Everyone who heard it—even the people who said that Dylan sounded like a dog with his leg trapped in barbed wire—knew Bob Dylan was a phenomenon.” (Lewis Macadams, Birth Of The Cool. The Free Press, 2001)

“When the train horns sounded and then were quiet, there were pure reverberations up and down the river that sounded like a plucked harp string or a piano note sustained by holding down a pedal.” (Mark Knudsen, Old Man River and Me: One Man’s Journey Down the Mighty Mississippi. Thomas Nelson, 1999)

“The floorboards creaked in the room where Rain used to be, and the branches of the cherry tree in the front yard near Edgar Allan Poe’s grave swayed in the wind. They scratched against the glass with a soft tap, tap, tap. It sounded like a lizard’s paws. Then it sounded like a serpent’s tongue. Then it sounded like five weak fingers rapping on the windowpane, the same gentle fingers that used to comb and braid Alice’s hair.” (Lisa Dierbeck, One Pill Makes You Smaller. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003)

“Welshmen like Mr. Davis put great stock in Welsh singing, but to my Irish ears it sounds like men jumping off chairs into a bathtub full of frogs.” (P.J. O’Rourke, “The Welsh National Combined Mud Wrestling and Spelling Bee Championship.” Age and Guile, Beat Youth, Innocence, and a Bad Haircut. Atlantic Monthly Press, 1995)

Paul Thayer
Thayer Literary Services
www.paulthayerbookeditor.com


Paul Thayer is a full-time professional book editor with more than 35 years of experience. During that time he worked in the trenches of the real world of writers, editors, and publishers. He uses his extensive knowledge to help writers who still have a lot to learn, offering them critiques and line editing of their work.

Did you like this post? If so, please click Like and share it.

 

Punctuation: Using a comma with an adverbial clause

A comma is required before or after an adverbial clause, depending on whether it begins or ends a sentence, and if it functions as a nonrestrictive clause. A nonrestrictive clause is not essential for the reader to understand the full meaning of the word or words that it modifies. It simply adds more information, describing but not limiting (“restricting”) what it modifies. (For more info about restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses, see my post “Which hunting.”)

Look at this example:

When Charley woke up a horrible stench filled the room.

I have underlined the adverbial clause. It’s nonrestrictive in this sentence, so you should place a comma after the word up. Then readers won’t misread the sentence and think that Charley woke up a horrible stench.

For the same reason you should put a comma after the adverbial clause in this cannibalistic sentence:

When we had finished eating Robert and I left the room.

Poor Robert!

Two cannibals are eating a clown. One cannibal looks at the other one and asks, “Does this taste funny to you?”

Paul Thayer
Thayer Literary Services
www.paulthayerbookeditor.com


Paul Thayer is a full-time professional book editor with more than 35 years of experience. During that time he worked in the trenches of the real world of writers, editors, and publishers. He uses his extensive knowledge to help writers who still have a lot to learn, offering them critiques and line editing of their work.

Did you like this post? If so, please click Like and share it.

 

Fiction writing tip: Filtering images

Look at this sentence:

She noticed John waving furiously to get her attention.

As the novelist and teacher John Gardner tells us, new writers often fail “to run straight at the image.” In other words, they filter imagery needlessly through some observing consciousness. That’s what is happening in this sentence.

Gardner says:

“Generally speaking, vividness urges that almost every occurrence of such phrases as ‘she noticed’ and ‘he saw’ be suppressed in favor of direct presentation of the thing seen.

To avoid filtering the image (what she saw—the act of John’s waving) in the example sentence, change it to read:

John waved furiously to get her attention.

In context, the reader knows that the point-of-view (POV ) character (the woman) sees John waving. You don’t have to tell the reader that she is seeing him waving at her.

Another example:

He saw two dogs fighting over a bone.

Change this to:

Two dogs fought over a bone.

In other words, let your POV character filter emotions and information for the reader, but present the sensory details directly. Search for and rewrite sentences in your text that include phrases such as she noticed, he saw, she could see, she could hear, etc.

Paul Thayer
Thayer Literary Services
www.paulthayerbookeditor.com


Paul Thayer is a full-time professional book editor with more than 35 years of experience. During that time he worked in the trenches of the real world of writers, editors, and publishers. He uses his extensive knowledge to help writers who still have a lot to learn, offering them critiques and line editing of their work.

Did you like this post? If so, please click Like and share it.