Friday, August 16, 2013

On Forbidden Words

This article from Chuck Palahniuk's blog, is making the rounds in writers' circles:

It reminds me of some of the publishing houses I've worked for. One said no colons or slashes or parentheses in the work. One hates dialogue tags. One isn't a fan of adverbs.

Personally, I think removing all of ANYTHING from a manuscript is a bad idea.
Adverbs, ellipses, exclamation points, dialogue tags, was, they all have their place. Everything has its time and place.  (Except interrobangs. That piece of punctuation needs to die in a fire, or at least be restricted by law to the diaries of those under 16)  These places are not every place.

Some of the things I see in manuscripts:

1) An overabundance of ellipses. Trailing off or hesitating happens. Especially in actual conversation. But to quote Larry Niven, "Everyone Talks First Draft." Finish the sentence. Show us the pause.

"I'm not sure...let me think...Yes, the night of the twenty-fourth."
This is fine, once or twice. Adding lots of hesitation or pregnant pauses into your dialogue ends up making your character sound like a bad William Shatner impersonation.
"I'm not sure..." He trailed off and looked out the window. "Stop badgering me and let me think!" A long silence while he studied the moonlight on the waves. "Yes, the night of the twenty-fourth."

1a) Dialogue Morse Code.
"Are you sure-" he began.
"Of course!" she snapped. "Well, maybe..."
"What the-" Their friend's protest was cut off by a great rumbling from behind them.

All dots and dashes and incomplete sentences. Realistic? yes. Annoying? Oh yes.  See the Niven quote. Finish the sentences.

"Are you sure it's this way?" He hoisted his torch and looked dubiously down the passage.
"Of course!" she snapped as she consulted the map. "Well, maybe not."
"What the-" Their friend's protest was cut off by a great rumbling from behind them.

2) Was. Being verbs have their place.
"The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel." The opening line of William Gibson's Neuromancer is one of the all time greats. As is 1984's "It was a cold bright day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen." (more great SF openings here.)
But "was" is a weak verb to hang a whole sentence on, much of the time. Using vibrant verbs helps color the writing.  I suggest checking to see how often you use "was" in your writing and see if some can be transposed out for something more exciting.

Also "was verbing."  Learn the difference between progressive verbs and passive voice.  If you can add the words "By zombies" after the verb, you have passive voice.

"Mistakes were made (by zombies)" is the classic example of passive voice.
"He was going to the store when he saw the alien," is a progressive verb. He is taking one action when something alters it.

 "The rain was falling." is a state of being. This should be altered to a more active verb. "The rain dribbled down in intermittent spurts that always landed just as he had to get out the car." is better. "The steady gray rain obscured the view more than ten feet in any direction." is good, too.

3) Adverb abuse. Adverbs have their place. It's simply not every place. Consider them as pepper and sprinkle in with a light hand.
3a) Adjective abuse. This is most commonly done by piling on two or three descriptors before the word, and then adding a couple afterward. More than two is probably pushing it.  "They pushed through the rank, unwholesome weeds toward the leaning decayed spire of the decrepit church which thrust against the sky like a finger broken and reset badly which now clawed at the leering, orange, gibbous moon."

4) Exclamation Point Herding. Exclamation points are tricky things. Too many make the reader feel shouted out. But you need them when someone is shouting. Here at Inkstained, we suggest no more than two per page, and limit them to dialogue. This is a flexible guideline.

5) Dialogue tags. These are the bane of my existence. Please, please, PLEASE know what your dialogue tag means and don't just yank it out of the thesaurus. Remember Stephen King: "Any word you have to find in a Thesaurus is the wrong word. No exceptions." Quip has its place. But unless you are Quentin Crisp, Oscar Wilde or Buffy the Vampire Slayer, you should approach this word as though it is nitroglycerin. Do not try to hiss a sentence with no sibilants. It's a matter of using the right word for the job.

"Let's go!" he shouted, fending off the swarm. is all right.  "Let's go!" He raised his shield between himself and the swarm while their wizard mumbled the last words of the fireball. is better.

6) Creative punctuation.  Dialogue is punctuated like this:
"Let's go," he said.
Not like this:
"Let's go." He said.
"Let's go", he said
"Let's go". He said.
This is the only non-negotiable rule. Punctuate the thing properly!
Periods, quotation marks and commas should be the most common items. Question marks and exclamation points should stay in the dialogue bits. Approach em-dashes, parentheses, ellipses, colons, and semi-colons with care.

7) Present tense or second person (or both). Don't do it. Really, just don't. It sounds like a Choose Your Own Adventure book. This is the only thing on the list that will get an automatic reject.

I'm not saying don't use the things I've talked about above, barring the last two. We have no forbidden words here. No forbidden punctuation.

I'm saying use the most effective word for the job.
Sometimes that word is "was" or "believed" or "knew."
Sometimes a colon or slash is the right punctuation.
Sometimes it isn't.
Know the difference.

No comments:

Post a Comment