Posts Tagged ‘common writing mistakes’

Common Writing Mistakes: Lack of Conflict

So I lied, Squiders, and found one more common writing mistake.

Today we’re going to talk about conflict. Conflict in the writing sense is when something stands in your protagonist’s way of getting what he/she/it wants.

(NOTE: The protagonist of a scene may be different than the protagonist in the book.)

Conflict breaks down into external (forces outside the protagonist standing in the way) and internal (forces inside the protagonist standing in the way).

In elementary school, you probably learned a conflict breakdown that included Man vs. Man, Man vs. Nature, etc. That’s just a further breakdown of external conflict, for the most part.

Stories need conflict to be interesting. The tendency for some beginning authors is to think that means they need exciting things, like battles and car chases and gunfights, etc. While these things can all be good in the right circumstance, without an emotional tie to the plot, they fall flat.

A conflict does not need to be big, but it does need to be present. This is why scenes where the character brushes their teeth or takes a shower so often fail. Now, if they’re taking a shower to wash off the blood, or if they notice their canine teeth don’t look quite right…

Kit! I hear you shout. But what about slice of life stories? Or literary stories? Those don’t have conflict.

Sure they do. They might not have “Evil shall descend on the land and destroy all life” levels of conflict, but they have it.

The best book I read last year was A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman. It was originally published in Swedish and was translated into English in 2013. The main conflict is that Ove wants to die, and things (mostly people and cats) keep getting in his way. It’s a lovely book and I highly recommend it if you have not read it.

Is this an earth-shattering conflict? No. Does it matter to anyone except Ove? No. But it is there.

A story needs an overarching conflict that drives the plot, but each scene also needs some form of conflict. These can be directly related to plot, or they can be related to characterization or a subplot. And, as I noted above, the protagonist of a scene (the one who has a conflict thrown in his way) does not have to be the protagonist of the book. In some cases, the book’s protagonist can be the antagonist in a scene.

There can be the urge to include scenes just because they’re fun, or they’re exciting, or they’ve got the coolest bit of worldbuilding in them. But ask yourself two questions:

  • Is this scene telling me anything about my character?
  • Is this scene driving the story forward?

If the answer to both is no, the scene’s doing nothing, and it either needs to be removed, or it needs to be reworked.

Thoughts on conflict, squiders? Tips on making sure you’ve got the right amount/the right type of conflict?

Common Writing Mistakes: Wrong Audience

Good morning/afternoon cusp, squiders! I think this will be the last post in this series, and I’ll save the rest for the book. Also, it is cold and I forgot to put a coat on like an idiot.

Today we’re going to talk about audience. A story’s audience is the type of person that is likely to read a particular story.

This is more of a marketing issue. It can be hard to match the creative flow and inspiration necessary to make it through writing/editing a story to the marketing box a writer is trying to fit into. Most don’t try, figuring they’ll write the story as it needs to go and the marketing aspect can come later.

It can be a writer’s first instinct to say “My story is amazing and it will appeal to everyone!” but this is patently untrue. People like different things. I’ve certainly read bestselling books that I thought were horrifically bad, and I’ve read books I loved that seemingly everyone else hated.

It’s part of the reason genres exist. People experiment, discover what sort of stories they like, and then they look for more stories like that.

Some people recommend inventing a “reader”–a fictional person who would fall into the prime audience for a story to use as a stand-in for the entire audience so they can personalize things for marketing purposes.

But during the writing process, do you really need to worry about your audience? The answer is: to some extent. Some genres have strict conventions that you’re going to run into issues with if you circumvent them. For example, it’s really hard to get romance readers to buy into a story that doesn’t end with a happily ever after, or a happily for now. Most romance readers are looking for an escape; if you provide a story that doesn’t match what a reader is expecting, you’ll run into readers not finishing the story or leaving bad reviews. Mystery readers expect a murder in almost all cases; thriller readers expect twists and turns at regular intervals. It is possible to successfully break a genre convention, but you’d better know what you’re doing.

But in a lot of cases, as long as you’re not wildly outside of what’s acceptable for your chosen genre, your audience can be mostly forgotten while writing.

Revision is where your audience starts to become more of a focus. There’s a saying that the first draft is for the writer, and the revision is for the reader. Things that might be confusing need to be clarified, plot or character issues will need to be fixed, and if something has been consistently pointed out by your beta readers/critiquers (who hopefully are regular readers of your particular genre in most cases), it will need to be looked at.

And if you’re planning to sell or publish a story, you will need to be able to choose a marketing category for it, which tends to include age ranges (children’s, middle grade, young adult, adult) and genre. A story that is not easily classifiable might be a hard sell.

Have anything else to add about audience, squiders? Examples of stories that went horribly awry on estimating who their audience was?

Common Writing Mistakes: Ending in the Wrong Place

Good morning, squiders. Last week we discussed starting in the wrong place. But one can end a story in the wrong place as well.

(To be fair, there are a lot of issues that have to do with what scenes are chosen to be included in a story. However, whole books about structure have been written if this is an issue you would like to explore further. My personal favorite is Story Engineering by Larry Brooks.)

Ending in the wrong place typically falls into two categories:

  • Going too long
  • Going too short

You can probably see what I mean by either of these, but for the sake of completion, let’s use examples. The Return of the King movie is commonly brought up as a story that goes on too long. Part of this is because there are so many characters in so many places and they all need resolutions.

On the other end of the spectrum, you have Monty Python and the Holy Grail, where Arthur and his remaining knights are just about the reach the Grail–and then the police show up and the film is shut off. Yes, it’s purposeful, and yes, it falls in line with the Pythons’ humor, but the story cuts off abruptly and can be unsatisfying.

(NOTE: TVTropes has a whole page of different unsatisfying ending types. You can find it here.)

Endings, like beginnings, are highly subjective, and invariably, you can’t please everyone. If you conclude quickly after your climax, you’ll have people who wanted more. Did the sister end up with the lawyer? What happened to the corrupt mayor? Did magic return to the land? But if you make sure you wrap everything up, people will groan about the story being never ending. So, to some extent, the ending that feels right to you is probably best.

On a related note, there are unsatisfying endings. These typically occur for one of the following reasons:

  • The story seems to be foreshadowing something that doesn’t happen
  • There’s too many loose ends
  • A deus ex machina comes in last minute, robbing the main character of their agency
  • The ending doesn’t fit the tone of the rest of the story
  • The ending doesn’t fit with the main character’s personality
  • The ending dumbs everything down too far

This is not to say that unexpected things can’t happen in your ending. They certainly can. I think we all appreciate a truly great twist, one that we didn’t see coming and yet falls in line perfectly with what’s come before. In fact, you need to have some surprises in your ending or you run the risk of your readers being disappointed by things being too predictable. They may know a battle is coming, and who the main people in that battle will be, but they hopefully won’t know how it’s going to play out.

And, lastly, let’s talk about epilogues. An epilogue is usually (hopefully) a single chapter at the end of a book that shows the main character’s life after the climax. Usually some time has passed (years, in some cases) and they’re used to show how the effects of the story have changed (or not changed) the character.

Epilogues can be fantastic or be mistakes, depending on the story and how they’re handled. Look at how much controversy has surrounded the epilogue from the Harry Potter series. But they can be useful, especially if the climax doesn’t allow for an easy transition into a resolution chapter (such as when something traumatic has happened, or the main character has died, or if it’s important to the emotional arc of the story to show the impact of the characters’ sacrifice, etc.). I sometimes write stories with and without epilogues to see which works better.

Thoughts on endings, squiders? Ideas on how to tell where’s the best place to stop?

Common Writing Mistakes: Starting in the Wrong Place

Trucking right along, squiders.

(As an aside, Pinterest now allows you to create sub-boards, so I spent a lot of yesterday organizing my most problematic board, unhelpfully called “Your Pinterest Likes” and left over from when you could like pins. I, unfortunately, would both like and pin some pins, which has resulted in a lot of duplicates across boards, but I have gotten it straightened out now. Bwhaha. I wonder how the sub-boards affect the feeds of anyone who follows your boards. Anybody know?)

Now that we’re into story mechanics issues, let’s talk about what might be the most common issue of all: starting your story in the wrong place.

This is ridiculously easy to do. You can start too early. You can start too late. You can pick the wrong character to focus on, or have them do something completely useless in relation to the rest of the plot.

And the most annoying thing is that, a lot of the time, it’s not obvious that you’re starting wrong until the rest of the book is written.

Stemming from this issue is that starting in the wrong place can make it hard to get the rest of the story to flow, which means that you might languish at the beginning of the story, trying to beat it into submission.

Has that happened to you? You just can’t seem to get going because something’s obviously wrong.

(Ask me how many times I rewrote the beginning of my fantasy trilogy before I found a workable beginning spot. I dare you.)

Starting Too Early

This may be the most common of this common mistake. Your character does things, sometimes for chapters, before the story manages to get going. Some people will argue that you have to show what’s at stake for the character to lose before you have them lose it, but this can be done without three chapters of watching someone go through the daily routine.

Starting Too Late

You can get away with starting in the middle of the action, or even working backwards from a later plot point. You can even show a lot of earlier story through conventions such as flashbacks. But you can start too late, and if that information doesn’t come out in a timely fashion, then it feels like you’ve walked into a movie five minutes too late and are missing key information for the rest of the story.

Starting with the Wrong Character

Even if you have multiple viewpoints, there is still usually a “main” character, someone whose stakes are higher, someone who has a bigger journey to go through, to get through the completion of the book. You don’t always have to start with your main character, but realize that readers tend to bond with the first character in a book unless something is obviously a one off (a prologue, or a chapter from a murder victim’s point of view, for example). There also can be the problem of you trying to focus on the wrong character in general, and changing to a different character might make the story work better.

Starting with Useless Actions

Every scene counts in a story. It has to explore characterization, or move the plot along, or introduce new information, or some combination thereof. Yet many authors make the mistake of starting with something that does none of the above, such as going through their character’s daily routine. Can you have their daily routine mean something? Of course. But you do have to be purposeful with your intent. Even an exciting scene, such as a character getting carjacked, is useless if it doesn’t provide something larger to the story.

So, how do you fix this? Look at the story you’re trying to tell. Are you trying to stuff too much in the beginning? Are you leaving out key information? How does your opening scene work with your intended plot?

Some people recommend thinking about where you want the story to end instead, or even writing the ending first. By knowing where the story needs to go, it can help you understand what’s necessary to have it start.

What do you think, squiders? Other ways beginnings are wrong? Ways to fix them?

Common Writing Mistakes: Pacing and Plot Flow

Back to it, squiders!

Also, a reminder that we’ll discuss Dream Thief by Stephen R. Lawhead next Thursday, if you’re planning on reading that along with me. (Have you been reading it? Once again we have a future where all the scientists are men and who knows what the women are doing with themselves. It’s pretty sad in ’60s-era scifi, but this is mid ’80s and he should know better.)

(Also, I kind of want to punch the main character in the face, but we’ll get to that next week.)

Today we’re going to talk about issues with pacing and plot flow. Pacing is the speed of your story, and everything affects it, from how often you hit your plot points to your dialogue, your description, and even the length of your sentences. Plot flow is related, but is essentially the order your plot happens in and whether or not things make sense.

Have you ever read a book where you realize you’re halfway through and nothing’s happened? Or where things happen so quickly you’re exhausted just thinking about it? These are pacing issues.

The range of what is acceptable for pacing varies widely, with some genres tending to be faster (a lot of thrillers, for example) and others slower (romance). Some readers are willing to accept a slower or faster story pace than general as well, so you may find that some of your readers are fine with your pace while others are yelling at the book.

Pacing is a hard thing to work on. To some extent it’s instinctual, and it can help to read books to use as an example. Personally, I’ve found that the best way to get pacing to work better is to make sure you’re hitting key plot points when you’re supposed to. Too spread out, or lacking them early in the book, and your pacing is too slow. Too close together or bunched in weird places, and you get other problems.

Plot flow is directly related to pacing in that if your flow is messed up, your pacing is probably also messed up, and vice versa. If you have five things happen within a chapter and then another five chapters pass before anything else of note occurs, well.

But plot flow issues can also include what’s happening, and in what order. Is your character learning things before they should? Are they doing things and then doing them again because you forgot they’ve already been there, done that? Are you skipping key scenes that will help explain what’s happening? Are you forcing things to happen because you feel like they have to, not because they flow organically?

Plot flow issues can be hard to see while you’re writing as well. Some are obvious, such as when you get your character into a situation with no way out except some deus ex machina that stretches disbelief. But it might not be until you start getting feedback from your betas that you realize that you never showed your characters falling in love.

Perhaps the best way to avoid plot flow issues is to outline. If you know how your story is supposed to go, and what steps you need to go through to get there, it’s harder for things to sneak in (or get left out).

(See posts about outlining for more information on the subject.)

Thoughts about pacing and plot flow, Squiders?

Another nonfic post on Tuesday, and then the Dream Thief on Thursday. I hope everyone has a lovely weekend!

Common Writing Mistakes: Point of View and Filtering (Part 2)

Sorry it’s a bit late, squiders! Also, I haven’t started wrapping Christmas presents yet and aaaaaahhhhhhhh

So, last week we talked about common issues with Point of View, and today we’re going to be looking at a specific, sneaky issue known as filtering. We talked briefly about filter words a few weeks ago, which is a related issue.

Filtering is when you add something unnecessary that adds a layer between the reader and your chosen point of view. This is mostly an issue in first or third limited point of views, when you’re directly following a single character at a time.

Filtering is also extremely subtle. As I mentioned last week, this is something I learned about this year. I belong to a specfic message board that does critique marathons twice a year. You submit a chapter each week for others to critique and then return critiques so everyone gets something useful out of it.

And one of the other critiquers pointed out a few aspects of filtering in the chapter I submitted. And I learned something new, and it was amazing.

Filtering normally comes about around what a character is thinking or feeling. When in first or third limited, you are essentially in one character’s head along with them. Here is an example of filtering:

She thought that perhaps he was cheating on her.

Do you see it?

It’s the “thought.”

Here’s another example.

I felt my stomach churn as I watched her walk away.

Here it’s “felt.” And the “watched,” actually.

Do you see the filter? When you’re sad, do you think “I am sad”? No. You just feel sad. Tears form in the corners of your eyes. Your heart sinks. Things happen. The same thing with characters. By adding words like “think,” “feel”, and “seem,” you take an action out of its immediacy and add a level of detachment.

Here are the examples without the filtering (be aware that there are multiple ways to fix these, and this is just one):

Was he cheating on her?

My stomach churned as she walked away.

Most filters are set up by mental verbs: think, feel, seem, wonder, decide, know, realize, etc. These are all things people do, but it’s not something they think about as they do them. And it’s really easy to have these instances sneak into your writing. It still happens to me all the time. But knowing what you’re looking for can help you edit these instances out later, or become aware when you’re writing.

That being said, it’s still okay to use filter words occasionally. In dialogue, of course. For clarity or understanding, if the sense is important to the meaning of the sentence. And sometimes, there’s just no other good way to put something.

Clear as mud, squiders? Thoughts about catching filtering in the writing stage without completely ruining your flow?

In other news, I’m reading Ready Player One (because the preview for the movie showed in front of both Thor: Ragnarok and The Last Jedi and it looked pretty awesome) and loving it. I know I’m several years behind the times, but that’s how it goes. Feel free to share your thoughts on that too, but no spoilers, please, since I’m still a little less than halfway through.

 

Common Writing Mistakes: Point of View and Filtering (Part 1)

Happy Thursday, squiders! I’m doing #SFFPit over on Twitter today, so if you follow me there I apologize for the amount of pitch tweets you may or may not be seeing.

Before we get going, I just want to talk briefly about filtering. This is something I didn’t know about, or least didn’t have a name for, until earlier this year. Someone read my first chapter for me and pointed out a couple of instances. Just to show you that there are always new things to learn.

Anyway, on to it!

First off, to review, your point of view is, according to Google’s dictionary, “the narrator’s position in relation to the story being told.” In almost all cases, this will be either first or third person.

If you get confused, I like to compare it to Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The “person” in this case refers to how close the reader is to the narrator. In a first person narrative, the reader is directly in the narrator’s head. First person point of views are characterized by using “I,” “me,” and associated words when referring to the character.

Example: I realized that, once again, I was cutting my blog writing close. I would need to leave soon or I would be late.

Third person is more distant, and the character is referred to by their name and the appropriate “he,” “she,” “it,” etc. words.

Example: Kit realized that, once again, she was cutting her blog writing close. She would need to leave soon or she would be late.

Third can be further broken down into limited and omniscient viewpoints. With third person limited you’re in a single character’s head at a time, going along with them, hearing their thoughts and experiencing their feelings. It’s similar to first person, but a step away. Third person omniscient is like you’re in a hot air balloon looking down on what’s happening. You can see what a bunch of people are doing at once. Some people also make a distinction between omniscient and what can be called third person objective. In an omniscient point of view, like a god, the narrator knows what everybody is thinking or feeling. In an objective, they don’t.

Understanding and sticking with your chosen point of view can be hugely helpful in solving a ton of issues.

(NOTE: Second person is rarely used, but you may see it occasionally. In second person, the narrator is talking to “you.” Example: You are reading this blog post. You may or may not realize that this post is late.)

Issue #1: Not sticking with your point of view

It is surprisingly easy to slip out of your chosen point of view. Your character can suddenly know something they shouldn’t, for example.

Perhaps the easiest and most common way people slip out of their point of view is by “head-hopping.” This is where you jump from your viewpoint character’s head into another character’s head. In an omniscient third viewpoint, you can get away with this (provided you are using omniscient properly), but in every other viewpoint it is jarring.

Example: Jane bit her lip, watching Jared walk away. God, how she hated to watch him leave, despite the great view. How could he leave her like this?

Jared looked back over his shoulder. Jane looked like she might cry.

Do you see the point of view slip? It’s a bit subtle. We’re in Jane’s head, hearing her thoughts, her feelings. We see what she sees.

Can you see what you look like? No. That’s Jared’s point of view.

NOTE: You can use more than one point of view in a book. Just stick with one at a time. Using our above example (and, indeed, many romances are structured this way), you could do one chapter from Jane’s point of view, the next from Jared’s, etc.

Issue #2: Choosing the wrong point of view

In most cases, it’s pretty instinctual what point of view will work best, based on the story you’re trying to tell, your genre conventions, how many characters have viewpoints, etc. But it is possible to choose the wrong one, and it basically boils down to your chosen viewpoint not having–and not being able to get–information necessary to the completion of the plot.

Sometimes the character you pick initially just isn’t the right person to tell the story.

That’s not to say that there aren’t published books out there that do this (if you try hard enough, you can find most of these common mistakes published somewhere), but the story tends to be unsatisfying, sometimes in a way that a reader can’t put their finger on.

A way that authors get around this with varying degrees of success is to include one or more chapters from a side character to provide the information.

Issue #3: Too many viewpoints

This one is highly subjective and depends on the genre as well. In a romance, you’re going to want one or two viewpoints. In a thriller, you can have one off chapters from any number of unimportant characters that never have viewpoints again.

The issue tends to be the most apparent when you have several viewpoints that are all vying to be important in some manner. Important viewpoint characters need to be important to the plot, which means you need to check in with them fairly regularly, they have to be advancing the plot or a subplot every time they show up, they have to be interesting, they might need a character arc, etc.

If you have two characters, this isn’t bad. Three? Sure. Some people can manage five or even seven. But eventually, there’s too much going on, too much to keep track of, too much, too much, too much. A lot of times those characters can be cut or combined to make a tighter, more enjoyable read.

Other viewpoint issues, squiders? We’ll talk about filtering in part 2 next week.

Common Writing Mistakes: Tenses and Passive Voice

Hi, squiders! Today we’re going to talk about tenses and passive voice, since they tend to be related, and because this is a good segue from our grammatical issues into our storytelling issues.

Tense in this case refers to the form of verbs used in the prose. In English we have three major tenses: present, past, and future. In most cases, you be writing in either present or past tense.

Present tense: I type this while I wonder where I put my tea.
Past tense: I typed this while I wondered where I put my tea.

NOTE: Just because you have a main tense for your writing doesn’t mean you won’t occasionally use other tenses WHEN APPROPRIATE such as in dialogue or in complex sentence structures.

Voice in this case refers to the voice of the verb. In English, verbs can be active or passive.

Active voice: I type this.
Passive voice: This is being typed by me.

The difference between active and passive voice is in the subject. Is the subject doing something (active) or having something done to them (passive)?

Problems with Tense

By far the biggest mistake made with tense is tense consistency, i.e. staying in the tense you’ve chosen for your writing. Have you ever started writing something in past tense only to find that somewhere along the line you accidentally switched into present? This can happen for a number of reasons: you were writing in a non-preferred tense and your brain switched over to your normal one automatically, you started a new day of writing without remembering where you were or what you were doing, you switched tenses for a particular reason–such as a flashback–and forgot to switch back, etc.

The good news is this is pretty easy to catch when you read back through your work. Tense switches stand out. They’re a bit harder to fix, however, because you need to go back through and correct verb forms throughout, and also make sure the sentence still makes sense grammatically.

If you find you’re often switching tenses without noticing, it may help to put a note somewhere obvious–such as a sticky note on your monitor or even a note in the header of your document–about what verb tense you’re using. (It can be as simple as “Past tense.”) This can also be helpful for remembering point of view, which we’ll discuss next week.

Problems with Passive Voice

Passive voice is okay in small doses–and, indeed, in some cases, it’s preferable to use passive voice. When you want to emphasize something, if you don’t know who is doing a specific action, when the person doing the action doesn’t matter, if you’re stating a general truth, etc.

In general, however, using passive voice creates clunky, unclear sentences that can drag down your pacing and the flow of your writing.

Examples:

This post is being written by me. It is being written on a computer. It should be stopped soon so I can run an errand.

The sword was swung by the hero toward the villain. Dodging, the villain’s spell was released.

Passive voice can often by identified by some form of “is”: is, are, was, were, has been, etc. And if you take a closer look at the sentence, the “active” party (whatever or whoever is doing something) has been pushed into the object portion of the sentence while the object has become the subject.

(Back in the day, Word used to have a feature that would tell you what percentage of your sentences were passive. We’re talking ages ago. I was a teenager and didn’t quite know what a passive sentence was. They also had an Autosummarize feature which has also gone by the wayside, alas.)

Using a passive sentence here and there is fine. But routinely using them doesn’t work in most cases (excepting academic papers in some fields). Unfortunately, if you find that you’re using a lot of passive voice, you’re probably going to have to train yourself out of it, or else face a lot of rewriting in your revision process.

Luckily, changing from passive to active voice is pretty easy, in most cases:

Passive: This post is being written by me. It is being written on a computer. It should be stopped soon so I can run an errand.
Active: I am writing this post. I am writing it on a computer. (Or even better: “I am writing this post on a computer.”) I’ll have to stop soon so I can run an errand.

Clear as mud, squiders? Questions about tense or passive voice, or other issues you’ve noticed with these subjects?

Common Writing Mistakes: Pronoun Confusion

Full confession, Squiders–this is something I had problems with for a LONG time. (Doing this today because I make no guarantees about Thursday.)

What is pronoun confusion? Well, take a look at this example:

Doug and Larry decide to go to the coffee shop from some of their seasonal coffees. He decides to get a peppermint mocha while he decides to get a pumpkin spice latte, because miraculously this shop offers both at the same time. Unfortunately, his coffee is burned and the whole thing tastes bitter.

Who’s doing what?

Who knows?

Pronoun confusion is where you have a pronoun that either cannot be directly tied to the proper noun or is tied to the incorrect noun.

As a quick refresher, a pronoun is a word that replaces a noun, such as he, she, they, or it.

The above example shows a situation where the pronoun “he” cannot be tied to either Doug or Larry, so the reader has no idea who is doing what.

Here’s an example of a pronoun tied to the incorrect noun.

Laura and Susie are on a tour of wine country. They have decided to ride bicycles between the wineries just in case. At their first winery, Laura decides to start with a nice, big Cabernet Franc. She decides to have a Riesling.

Who is “she” in that last sentence? If you think about it, you’ll probably decide it’s Susie, since we already know what Laura is having. But you don’t want to have your reader have to stop and think to figure out what’s going on.

Our brains automatically assume that the last appropriately-named noun that fits is the one that goes with the pronoun. So in this case, a reader’s first thought is going to be that we’re still talking about Laura.

These are fairly simplistic examples. The real issue comes when you have two characters (usually of the same gender) doing a complex action together. Fight scenes can be the worst offenders of this, with “he drew his sword to fend off his blow” and other such sentences, but pronoun confusion can sneak in anywhere.

So, how to you guard against pronoun confusion? The first step is just to be aware that it exists. Keeping “Is it clear who is doing what” in your head as you write can help a huge amount. It can also help to re-read complex sentences after you write them to make sure all your pronouns are pointing the right way.

Take special care with “it.” It’s especially easy to stick in without properly referencing an appropriate noun. Here’s an example.

Georgie has three pets: a turtle, a cat, and a dog. It is especially friendly.

Which pet do we mean? Who knows?

To fix a sentence that has an improperly used pronoun, you have two options:

  1. Add the noun in in place of the pronoun. (“Laura sighed and put her arm around Susie’s shoulders,” as opposed to “Laura sighed and put her arm around her shoulders.”)
  2. Rewrite the sentence so the pronoun is either not needed or obvious. (“Bob told Jerry that he didn’t like the way he looked at his wife” versus “Bob said, ‘Jerry, you don’t like the way I look at your wife.'”)

How about it, Squiders? Is this something you’ve had issues with? Any other advice for avoiding it?

Common Writing Mistakes: Speech Tags

Happy Friday, squiders! Today we’re going to continue on with our series on common writing mistakes. We’re still in our first section, which is basic grammar/bad writing issues.

Today, we’re going to discuss speech tags. Just to be absolutely clear, speech tags in and of themselves are not a bad thing. You need them in many cases so it’s clear to your reader who’s talking. The problem is that people tend to feel they need to be “creative” with their speech tags, which can lead to issues.

A speech tag is a word to indicate someone is talking, such as “said,” “asked,” or “replied.”

Issue #1: Improbability

The first rule of speech tags is that they have to be something you can do with your mouth. In most cases, you do not speak with your hands, your head, your body, etc. Some of this is a punctuation problem. For example, you do not need a speech tag if the speaking character immediately does another action, but the two sentences cannot be connected.

WRONG: “It’s this way,” he gestured to the right.
RIGHT: “It’s this way.” He gestured to the right.

The second rule of speech tags that it has to be a sound you can make while talking. People often use words like “laughed” or “snorted” as a speech tag. However, people cannot easily laugh and talk in the same breath. People laugh, then talk, or they talk, then laugh. They can try to talk while laughing, but that’s something else altogether.

Issue #2: Distracting Modifiers

This is somewhat related to the filler/crutch words we discussed last week. This is something a lot of beginning authors do before they’ve figured out how to better express what their characters are trying to say, either through a stronger speech tag, the dialogue itself, or by replacing the speech tag with an action. Often, these take the form of an adverb.

Here’s an example: “That’s terrible,” she said sadly.

It’s not the worst sentence known to man, but there are stronger ways to show that the character is sad. Her shoulders could droop. She might look like she’s going to cry. Her voice could be shaky or waver.

Another example: “I hate you!” he said loudly.

Here you could use a better speech tag, such as “yell” or “scream.” You could also have the character do something, such as stomp away or ball his hands into fists.

Issue #3: Too Much Variety

You occasionally come across writing advice that says something along the lines of “Don’t use boring ol’ ‘said’! Here’s 500 other words you can use instead!”

Noooooo. No. Don’t do this. This sort of advice seems to inspire people to use the strangest and “most creative” speech tags they can think of, and to make sure they never repeat one. That’s not the point of the advice. It actually ties into issue #2, where you’re using too many adverbs as modifiers. Sometimes it is better to have someone beg or imply or protest. It’s truer to what you’re trying to convey.

But it is not an excuse to have someone bellow and your next character gloat and the one after that respond and the one after that whisper. The point is not to use a word that may not properly describe what you want just because it’s creative and special. That’s distracting to your reader and obnoxious. The point is to make sure you’re being precise.

And in most cases, you should use said. Most people just say things in most situations. And the nice thing about said is that it disappears into the narrative, so all readers take from “Barney said” is that Barney is the one currently talking.

This advice is also trying to avoid the “Bob said, Julie said, Linda said” issue, which we’ll address in issue #4.

Issue #4: Talking Heads

Have you ever seen a conversation like this?

“Look, I’m not okay with this,” Linda said.
“Do you think I care?” said Bob.
“Well, you should,” Linda said.
“I don’t care either,” said Julie.
“You stay out of this,” Linda said.

Man, all those saids are a mess, aren’t they? Let’s see if this is any better.

“Look, I’m not okay with this,” Linda yelled.
“Do you think I care?” snorted Bob.
“Well, you should,” Linda sniffled.
“I don’t care either,” inserted Julie.
“You stay out of this,” Linda snarled.

It’s not. Unfortunately, that’s what too many people do with the advice from Issue #3, when the problem is actually that what you’ve got a classic example of talking heads.

Talking heads is when your characters are just standing around, apparently doing nothing but talking. It’s boring, and it’s unrealistic. People don’t stand around and do nothing while talking. They fidget. They take sips of their drinks. They move around.

“Look, I’m not okay with this.” Linda stood, her chair tipping.
“Do you think I care?” Bob didn’t bother to look up from the letter he was writing.
“Well, you should.” Linda stalked over to the window, folding her arms across her chest.
“I don’t care either,” said Julie, sitting up straighter.
“You stay out of this.” Linda looked away from the rain just long enough to glare at the younger woman.

That’s not an amazing example, but it’s getting better. It’s fine to have a couple lines of dialogue where the characters don’t do anything else, but beyond that it gets boring. It can also help to help internal thoughts or feelings mixed in, depending on what your point of view is.

Well, squiders, did I leave anything out? Other issues with speech tags that you’ve noticed?