So it’s that time of the week again. Today’s article is a follow-on to last week’s Common Mistakes made by First-Time Writers. The previous story focused on the beginning of your novel and your characters. Today’s will be about exposition and dialogue. Unfortunately, there is even more ground to cover on these two topics, so I’ll just get stuck right in to it.
The Power of Prose
In the previous sections of this article, I used George RR Martin as an example of a great hook. I could have, as easily, said the same of his characters, as he steers away from stereotypes, his villains aren’t pure evil, and his good guys aren’t pure goodness. Even Ned Stark, the pinnacle of good, had flaws, such as Jon Snow’s existence. Whether he was born from a lie (ie not really his son) or born from a night of infidelity, that makes Stark still a liar. So if Martin is great at beginnings and characters, that naturally makes him great at prose. In a way, he’s an example of good and bad when it comes to exposition and description. I’ll explain why.
At the beginning of Game of Thrones, he focuses on his characters first and then the setting. This balance is perfect and notable given it is a fantasy series. World-building is important, but equally important is to provide a balance with the action of the story. Your audience wants to read the action over long flowery descriptions of the castle and the landscape. Martin introduced a world that, if you explained it out loud, it would sound ridiculous, but it becomes believable. A world where summers span for years and winters for decades? And it’s like medieval times but there are dragons, magic, zombies, and worgs? Sounds ridiculous! But really, it’s absolutely brilliant, and if not for the TV series, there would be an entire audience who wouldn’t think otherwise.
So what do first time writers do that make agents cringe? Everything opposite to this. One of the major issues in description is using too many adjectives and spending too much time explaining. As with beginnings and the hook, the audience just wants to get to the action, and if that means they skip over entire paragraphs explaining the landscape, they will. The use of words with the -ly suffix also are hated, as they generally follow a dialogue tag, or overemphasise a word you have already placed in the sentence. Like the redundant, “She hurriedly rushed through the crowd.”
Later in the series of Song of Ice and Fire, Martin seems to have spent a bit too much time with the detail. There is less emphasis on the action, and more time is wasted explaining the minute details of how and why. It gets a little long-winded in parts, and this is something that often happens with first-time writers. As a full time author, Martin is given some allowances. He’s established his world and characters, so it can be forgiven. But too much detail can ruin a good story. This comes from a need to describe all of the minor details that you worked out in your head or from research. A fair amount of research goes into some story types, and there’s this inherent desire to tell everything you’ve found. But it needs to have relevance to your story. Readers can tell if you’re trying too hard, and it wreaks of immaturity in your writing. The details can remain in your story, but it must not break the action. A sagging midsection can kill just as much as a cheesy start or boring ending.
“Let’s have a chat”
Last but definitely not least is dialogue. This is just as much about character as it is the actual dialogue. Your characters can have all the great backstory in the world, but if their talking doesn’t match, then it’s all for naught. And if all of your characters sound the same, then it’s even harder to relate to them as individuals.
One of the major issues with new writers is writing believable dialogue. A general rule I have always made when I think about dialogue is that grammar does not have to count depending on your character. Sure, if your main character is a literary major, he/she will require perfect grammar, but the majority of characters will talk like we all normally do. What that also means is that if your dialogue doesn’t include contractions, then you’re doing it wrong. People do not naturally say do not. It’s don’t, won’t, gonna, wanna. Make it believable.
Believable dialogue also includes people talking over each other. Punctuation is important here. … means the character has tapered off. – means the character was cut off. A good way to check your dialogue is to simply record yourself as you read the dialogue out loud, and then replay it. If it doesn’t sound like an actual conversation you could have or have heard, then rewrite it.
Believable dialogue also includes long speeches. Unless your character is delivering a speech for a graduation or in front of a large audience, long speeches don’t exist. In police procedurals or mysteries, this tends to be something that occurs. It’s hard to imagine anyone allowing a person to speak for a whole page without breaks. Or that the person speaking wouldn’t see the drool coming from the edges of the mouths of those listening to them drone on.
Lastly, let’s talk about speech tags now. This is an area I get wrong as well, and it was a real eye opener for me. The staples are said and asked. A general consensus on this is that most readers just skip the said/asked tags. They are only markers to show who said what. A lot of writers forget to place the tags on full stop, and that just confuses the audience. It is still important to have them there, but you can generally get away with it being placed once beside the names if it’s only two people talking. (It still has to be believable, so actions between the dialogue are important.) You can use called and replied, but that is more telling instead of showing. If you need feeling to be expressed, do it in the way dialogue is delivered or in the prose around it. “I know!” she growled – would be better if you wrote – She slammed her fist on the table, “I know!” Also notable is the a lot of writers (myself included) use italics to emphasise a word that is being spoken with inflection. This is a practice that is unnecessary if you show rather than tell. More on that in the next article.
The list goes on. See also Punctuation, spelling, grammar, uneven pacing, cliches, repeating the same words throughout (as done in this article), and predictable plots. If ever you stop caring or feel unfocused, walk away from the story and find a way to get your focus back. If for any reason you cannot find your focus or a desire to write anymore on the story, just stop completely. If your heart isn’t in it, then it will reflect on the pages.
Most importantly, though, if you are certain you’ve written the next #1 bestseller, then invest some money to get that edited, because no amount of self-editing guarantees a perfect manuscript. In fact, I bet you can even find mistakes in printed books. Everyone makes mistakes, so don’t beat yourself up if you find one of everyone of these happening in your book. That just means you get to have fun writing it in a new perspective!