Craft

“Break the Rules,” she said.

Image by Brent Payne via Creative Commons

Image by Brent Payne via Creative Commons

I was talking to a friend yesterday about the rules of writing. Specifically, the rule regarding dialogue and “s/he said”. Apparently, writers are no longer supposed to use adverbs here, we’re supposed to stick firmly to “s/he said”, perhaps the occasional “asked”. Apparently readers don’t want any clues as to how the speaker is speaking.

This isn’t a rule I’ve made up, it’s one I’ve seen repeated many times. For example:

Points 3 and 4 here: Elmore Leonard’s Rules

Point 4 here: Stephen King’s Rules

Point 1 on this list: Common Writing Mistakes

My friend baulked at this. “That’s ridiculous!” she said. (Do you see what I did there?) Now maybe she and I are freaks, relics of a bygone era when writers wrote descriptively and readers lapped up their prose. When I read I don’t especially want to use my imagination all that much, actually. I want the writer to transport me to another place, I want escapism. I want them to paint a world so vivid I can’t help but go with them. I want to be shown what a character looks like, how they interact with the world around them, and yes, how they speak.

When a protagonist says “I need you”, does she whisper seductively, or scream in panic? “Said” is bland, flat, emotionless. “Said” saps the energy out of dialogue utterly. Dear writers, if you’re anything like me, and I know you are, you’ve imagined that scene so many times and so clearly that it feels like a real memory. You know how she said it, you feel how fast her heart is pounding, whatever the reason, so take me there with you. Let me feel it too.

Apparently readers today just want fast paced, no frills, no imagination. Maybe it’s assumed they want to do all of the imagining for themselves, but then, wouldn’t they all be writers? I write to express my creativity. I read to let go and jump in. But I don’t buy it. I don’t think all readers have such short attention spans that they can’t handle the odd “he snapped”. I think that assuming so is detrimental to readers and writers everywhere. But even if attention span is an issue, surely it’s quicker to show the reader how a person is speaking, rather than leaving them wondering and having to pause for a moment to figure it out for themselves. Readers, what do you think? Think of your favourite book from when you were growing up. I bet it had a few whispers, screams, croaks and so on. Did you mind then? Do you mind now? Do you want your literature to read like someone’s Twitter feed?

I take no pleasure in this, as he is one of my all time favourite authors, but one of those lists I linked to up there was written by the legend, Stephen King. I have in front of me one of his epic tomes, The Stand. In the first few pages people speak “sourly”, “mildly”, and get this “weightily from the depths of his ninth-grade education”. These descriptions show us who these characters are. If they merely “said” what they had to say we would be missing these clues into their personalities and backgrounds.

I think what the experts mean when they say “just use said”, is “don’t overdo it”. Use “said” most of the time and then colour the occasional piece of dialogue with some description to keep the reader with you. They can fill in some of the blanks, but don’t leave them plodding along behind you on a string of “he said”, “she said”s. Take them into the world you’re creating, invite them in with some easy to digest descriptions and clues.

She said.

I love to hear from you, so tell me what you think in the comments below. Do you like some description with your dialogue as a reader? What rules do you follow as a writer and which do you throw out?

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Shock and Awe

Shock 2The title of this post refers to the dubious US military tactic of imposing “this overwhelming level of Shock and Awe against an adversary on an immediate or sufficiently timely basis to paralyze its will to carry on”, in other words, bomb the shit out of the enemy until they’re too scared to fight. Nice.

Well, in a way, and to a lesser extent, really good horror and action fiction do this too. The audience is constantly afraid for the wellbeing of the heroes, never sure who is going to survive and who isn’t, and character losses feel almost as devastating as if they were real friends. The balance has to be right though, there has to be hope too, a reason to keep reading or watching. We don’t want to paralyse our audience and have them give up on our stories because they are too bleak.

I’m writing this in the wake of the mid-season finale of The Walking Dead, season 5. Don’t worry, no spoilers. This is my absolute favourite show on TV at the moment, but I have to confess, I nearly gave up on it in season 3. It was just too depressing, with not quite enough hope. I stuck with it though, and I’m glad I did. Season 5 has been similar and before the latest episode I was willing for something to go right for our protagonists for once. But the show is predictably grim, and I had little hope of things turning out well. The post credits sequence of the latest episode gave me what I felt was lacking in series 3… hope, a reason to keep watching, despite how devastated I felt as the credits rolled.

I strive for that level of connection with my readers, to move them. Echoes of the Past is undoubtedly a dark series, my characters go through hell, and hopefully take the reader with them. I want my readers to feel as though no character is safe from harm, they are fallible people with weaknesses, and live lives that are truly dangerous. When they go into battle against mighty demons, I want my readers to be afraid that someone might not come out of it alive.

Perhaps the master, or demon, of this sort of writing is George R. R. Martin. When you read A Song of Ice and Fire you know that even the mightiest hero is not safe, not immune to the force of the plot. This is a risk, of course, leading readers to form attachments to characters and then mercilessly killing them off, often in quite senseless ways. Readers, or viewers, may never forgive you, but for the ones that do, or who stick with your story regardless, it makes for true immersion and a wonderful experience.

If I can one day stir my readers to reactions like those watching or reading GRRM’s infamous “Red Wedding” scene for the first time, I will be a very happy author 😉

I love to hear from you. What book, film or TV show has the sort of hold on you that you have literally cried at a pivotal moment in the story?

If you’d like to see if my writing measures up, then grab your free copy of the first book in the Echoes of the Past series here.

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Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing

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This is a slightly random post from me, some thoughts about writing opinions vs fact.

When we feel passionate about something, it can sometimes be difficult to tell fact from opinion. I remember an English class from when I was about fifteen. Our teacher gave us a list of statements and we had to sort out the facts from opinions. One of the statements was “Foxhunting is barbaric.” Now, much as I may agree with the sentiment, I knew then that this was an opinion dressed as fact. One of my classmates, however, was adamant that this statement was pure fact, with no emotional bias. She refused to be swayed and a rather awkward stalemate occurred between her and the teacher. I don’t remember what happened next, I guess he changed the subject and the discussion moved on.

I often remember this event when I am writing. I write fiction now, but I have written scientific and opinion articles in the past and both require different approaches. In an opinion piece, a writer needs to be aware that what they are writing is their opinion and be careful to ensure that this is clear. I too often see articles in leading publications that are not entirely clear on this. So-called journalists write what is clearly set up as an opinion piece, however, they report their opinion or experiences as if these are universal and very often make statements that fly in the face of scientific evidence.

Even more disturbing, is when I see “experts” state matters of opinion as if they are facts. A recent example of this was the rather controversial case of Dr Christian Jessen, who commented within an article for Closer Magazine and reiterated in a statement on their website that “If a child is being breast fed until eight, this may make them overly dependent on their mother.” I have no wish to get into a debate on this subject on this blog, that’s a subject for my parenting blog 😉 however, I did want to highlight that this is a perfect example of his opinion being touted as if it were scientific fact. The actual fact is that research demonstrates that the opposite is actually true and that “attachment parenting”, which includes full term breastfeeding, actually fosters greater independence in children than “conventional” parenting does (Mercer, 2005).

When a qualified health professional expresses their opinion it has the potential to influence a great many people who will trust their judgement. Anyone writing for the public must be sure that they are aware of this and ensure that their opinions are stated clearly as just that and that any facts they may wish to convey are accurate. This is the wolf in sheep’s clothing, as per the title of this post, opinion disguised as fact can be dangerous.

This goes for informal discussions too. It is all too easy for unnecessary conflict to arise when someone expresses their opinion as if it is a fact. But as I stated at the start, when we feel passionate it can be difficult to see that our opinion is not fact. It can take quite a lot of strength to see and admit that something we hold to be absolutely true, may actually be up for debate. I may be as guilty of this as others on some occasions 😉

Happy writing, peeps.

Reference:

Mercer, J., (2005), Understanding Attachment: Parenting, Child Care, and Emotional Development, Greenwood Press.