If you visit writing blogs and forums a lot, you’ve heard all about point of view confusion, info dumps, passive voice, and all the other novice moves. What you probably haven’t heard is that these are actually just a part of your toolbox. If you make a passive voice info dump read well and you surround it with context that makes it work, then you can use it. If you can head hop with a good reason and not lose your reader, there’s nothing wrong with it.
But there are so many other kinds of problems in fiction. Here’s what I hate seeing when I’m reading stories on a critique site. (That’s AbsoluteWrite, by the way. It’s a damn fine website with an excellent community of writers.)
- Floating dialogue at the start of a story
What’s it look like?
Characters talking without any indication of setting or action. There might not even be speaker tags!
“I’m going to pull this trigger.”
“It won’t change what I did.”
“No. But I will.”
Why is this bad?
One or two lines isn’t going to break a story. But half a page full of unattributed dialogue, right at the start, makes me think of characters floating in a white void. The dialogue can be interesting, but I don’t care about either character yet. Even a screenplay gives the reader names or descriptions and a few brief words about setting. You don’t need to wax eloquent on the room’s period furniture. You just need to remove the feeling that the reader doesn’t know who’s talking, where they’re talking, and when they live.
Let some of what you know about your story splash outside the dialogue. The example I wrote could be in a dungeon or in a falling airplane. Those settings vastly change the way the reader is going to take what was said. Likewise, the first speaker could be a scientist or a terrorist, and showing this outside the dialogue will dramatically change how it’s read.
Put the same dialogue on three different pages, and give different details to each set. See how radical the change is yourself. And whatever you do, don’t use one of these pages to kickstart a new project. I hate competition.
- Similar sentence structures
What’s it look like?
This is deceptively hard to find when you’re the author and the sentences are your babies, but it usually involves complex sentences. English has 10 or 11 sentence patterns, depending on which grammarian you’re poking, and learning these is a good way to start identifying the problem.
Looking into the abyss, Milo steadied himself and put his hand on his gun. Dipping sweat, sweat mixed with blood, he put his foot over the darkness and pressed down.
I wrote the example to be obvious. And it seems like an obvious mistake to avoid, but I’ve edited short stories and novels that go for pages and only use one or two sentence structures. Which is fine for some narrative styles, but it becomes increasingly difficult to do well as sentences grow more complex.
Why is it bad?
There’s a thin line between rhythm and boring. We avoid reusing the same word twice in the same paragraph, or starting paragraphs with the same words, because it shows an apparent lack of creativity to readers, and a lack of revision skills to editors. Likewise with redundant sentence structures. The last thing you want is for any reader to put your story down because of something in your prose.
Absolutely nothing, while you’re writing. Get to the goddamn end of the story, first. Don’t revise a story until you have three or four of them to work on. Get far away from your writing before you fuss with it; it helps the problem of not being able to see redundant structures.
Fix this in revision. Word processor tricks, such as changing the the font, double spacing, etc, will defamiliarize the story and make it easier to spot errors. When you spot a redundant structure, start slicing and gluing. If you know the sentence patterns in English, you’ll recognize, for example, a gerund stuck to a pattern 7 (Subject + Transitive Verb + Direct Object) sentence, and you’ll know that you can take the gerund and do something clever with it. Milo looked into the abyss and steadied himself. He was dripping sweat–sweat mixed with blood. With one hand on his gun, he stepped over the darkness.
And no, the example wasn’t supposed to make much sense. I think Milo’s about to fall and go splat. Oh well. Dead protagonist. Best kind.
- The wrong tone in dialogue
What’s it look like?
“Cease!” the mother yelled at the screaming child. “I’ll cut you!”
“I aspire to love you,” the terrorist said, as he lit his body-bomb. “It’s party time!”
I have no idea why this happens, but I see it often enough to point it out here. I suspect that I do it, too. For one reason or another, perhaps an errant edit or a strange mood, the dialogue really, really, really doesn’t match what a person would believably say in a situation. Remember, we don’t get actors to interpret the dialogue to the reader. They’re not going to hear the same thing you do when they read your dialogue.
Why is it bad?
The right context can make any dialogue good. This is ultimately a matter of judgement. Maybe you can conceive of a crazy, drugged-out mother who’d yell that to her kid, and maybe the terrorist is The Joker from a 60’s Batman comic. But more than likely, your WIP has a character talking like someone other than who you meant them to be.
And the reader is going to pick up on that.
Read your work out loud as you revise, and do so with a good idea of who your characters are. There’s a shocking amount of wiggle room here, since you’re ultimately God of your story. Remember, dialogue doesn’t have to be perfect.
It just has to be believable.