Write well. Write often. Edit wisely.
2015 Writing Advice Series
Listen or Ignore (Part 1)
Weighing the Advice (Part 2)
Behind the Advice (Part 3)
What About -ing Words (Part 4)
I touched on bad writing advice in a recent article, and the comments got me thinking about other advice, both good and bad, and had me reading other blog articles about writing advice.
Wow. There’s a whole lot of writing advice out there. And there’s advice contrary to all that advice. And then there’s advice that warns you about all the other advice.
What’s a writer to do?
I suggest you read advice knowing that you’ll find the opposite advice just around the corner. I also suggest that as you read, you determine what the advice giver is really saying and why. Pithy little one-liners make for eye-catching quotes or they fit bullet points, but often a single line of advice is woefully insufficient. Sometimes, many times—most times?—the motivation behind the pithy advice, the catalyst for it, is the key to understanding the advice.
This is one reason my articles tend to be quite long. I’m not content to give one-liners that can be misconstrued or that pretend to fit all circumstances at all times; I try to cover multiple possibilities. Much writing advice is situation specific, so what is almost always true or fitting is still not always fitting for every circumstance. Maybe the advice doesn’t fit a genre or a style or a particular writer’s problem area. Maybe the advice wasn’t intended for a particular situation. And maybe understanding these truths would go a long way toward clarifying advice.
A second reason my articles are quite long is that I try to anticipate the buts—but what about the . . . but my situation is different . . . but what if you’ve got a . . .
Dig into the intention behind a piece of advice. See if there’s something besides the obvious that could prove useful, something that would make sense of odd or seemingly contradictory advice.
While we’re talking advice, keep in mind that there’s a big difference between general advice, given to all writers, and specific advice shared with one writer about a particular story or even a specific scene, paragraph, sentence or word.
Show, don’t tell may be great advice for the new writer who has produced not a novel but a 300-page report on a character’s actions or interests. A report that takes dialogue out of the setting and simply recaps what was said. A report that highlights summary and ignores scenes.
If the entire manuscript reads like this example, this writer should heed the advice to show more and tell less—
Sam went to the store, then Sam visited his barber. In the afternoon he went by his mother’s house. Sam was a happy man, simple but solid. He loved dogs, his mother, but not his wife. He was average in height, weight, and coloring. He was less than average in intelligence. Sam also loved licorice, the first snowfall, the Red Sox. He didn’t like having to go to work every day.
Sam always said please, he always said thank you, and he never forgot to tip.
On the Wednesday Sam visited his mother—an anomaly since he never visited midweek—he told her he’d quit his job. He also told her he was moving across the country. She was upset, as could be expected. Sam was her only son. When Sam left, she cried.
This recap of the events of Sam’s life is more like a news report and less like a movie or even a highlight reel. The writer who substitutes this report in place of real-time scenes needs to show more, needs to include events with characters playing out in real time and in a setting that can be seen or felt or heard (allowances for truly unusual settings that maybe can’t be touched). This writer needs to recap less.
Yet not every writer has a problem with this same issue.
Tell more and show less might be the perfect advice for the writer who turns every simple action/movement/event into a scene, infusing them with details, emotion, and importance when instead he should have simply straight-out relayed one detail about a character or event, or included a summary rather than a full-blown scene.
Let’s look at an example of when showing is too much.
Bob jogged out to his car with enthusiasm. He smiled, remembering the day he’d seen it on the lot. He’d wanted a Mustang since he’d been ten. Fell in love with the sporty car when the kid across the street rumbled home with one in 1968.
Bob reached out, unlocked the driver’s door, then pulled it open. He slipped into the buttery-smooth bucket seat, placed his feet into the footwell, and gently closed the door. No slammin’ for this baby, he thought. He pumped the gas pedal, put the key in the ignition, and turned it. Yeah, that was the sound he loved. The radio was already tuned to his favorite station, but he pushed the second button from the left, wanting the local talk station. He fiddled with the dial until the announcer’s voice came in clearly, no fuzzy static marring his suave tones.
Reaching a hand to the rear-view mirror, Bob glanced at his image. He brushed a hand over his hair—it wouldn’t do to show up looking like he’d just rolled out of bed, even though he had, only three minutes earlier, just rolled out of bed.
When the car’s roar muted to a rumbling purr, he put it in reverse and backed . . .
Yeah, not fun to read, is it? And what’s especially bad about this particular scene is that Bob is a detective called to the site of a triple murder. Why are we getting treated to any info about his car and him getting into it?
A few suitable transitions from his home to the crime scene that don’t go into all the detail of the example above?
Bob raced to the alley behind the Dunstan Hotel.
Bob brushed his teeth with one hand while he steered himself downtown with the other.
When he pulled in behind the patrol car, Bob . . .
Showing and telling are both good and both necessary. But both showing and telling can be used at the wrong time or to the wrong degree given the other elements of the scene and story. Writers should learn how to show as well as how to tell and learn when one might be the better choice over the other.
From this one example, you can easily see how writing advice (show, don’t tell), especially the unexplained or the unexplored, will not serve every writer in every situation. And while sometimes one piece of advice might fit a writer in almost all things, sometimes the advice is simply situational. A writer who has successfully shown through scenes and told through summary and narrative may still need to show more of a particular event, may be advised to write a scene of dialogue rather than report only the highlights. This is not saying that the writer needs to do this with every dialogue summary, just the one. So this advice would be very specific to one moment in a story, not to the full story. To one scene and not to the writer’s choices as a whole.
Advice about not overusing certain words—just, that, is there, are there—may be what most new writers need to hear, may even be the perfect refresher for experienced writers, but some writers may not need such advice.
And while much advice is geared to the beginning writer, some who’ve written for years can still do with a solid refresher. Maybe an experienced writer never learned some cool little trick that would make the writing of a first draft easier or his dialogue more vibrant or his descriptions more vivid. Maybe a writer doesn’t fully understand subtext or foreshadowing or character motivation.
Writing advice can be useful for the writer at any level of experience and skill.
Rules about using and not using said for a dialogue tag will be debated for years.
While there is leeway for the use of creative dialogue tags, especially in certain genres, the consensus is that said is almost invisible. It’s not truly invisible, that’s definitely true. For an example of this, I always suggest that writers read Robert B. Parker’s Spenser books. I don’t know if Parker repeated said so often as a style decision, for the rhythm, or if he forgot he’d just used the word—or maybe he overlearned the rules about said or was thumbing his nose at a writing teacher or critic. Who knows why, but he used said a whole lot. And in my opinion, he used it often when no dialogue tag was needed at all.
Again, he may have had a reason for what he did. But said is not invisible in some of his books.
That doesn’t mean that Parker should have substituted other words for his tags. In this case simply reducing the number of tags might have been the best choice. (An example of multiple solutions to one problem.)
Used judiciously and occasionally, said functions more like a punctuation mark than a descriptive word. Like a period, it becomes a nearly invisible trail marker in a sentence. We tend not to read periods, at least consciously. But we follow them. That is, they slide right by, doing their work, without the reader having to consciously think I’ve reached the end of the sentence now.
A good dialogue tag does the same thing; it simply does its work, which is to identify the speaker. Readers don’t have to pause at the tag to appreciate how the spoken words are spoken. As the period does, a dialogue tag using said keeps the reader humming along.
Unusual dialogue tags, on the other hand, are more like commas, especially oddly placed commas but sometimes normal commas as well.
While the period is virtually invisible, commas and the lack of them stand out. A comma in the wrong place and a missing comma can both cause the reader to stutter. They’re not nearly as invisible as are periods, though in some situations it’s true that we hardly notice them. In other circumstances, however, they do stand out. This is why using commas correctly is so very important. When readers don’t find one where they expect it, they can be thrown off; the rhythm of their read may actually change. The same is true when readers find a comma where they don’t expect it.
One goal writers can take on is to make the comma as invisible as the period. You do want to be sure it’s noticed when it’s used in an unusual but necessary way, but you don’t want it to jump out and say I’m here, pause now please or why don’t you stop what you’re doing to see what I’m doing sitting here in this odd place where I have no business sitting.
All this is a very long way for me to suggest that your dialogue tags should function more like a period than a comma. They should be a part of the foundation of a sentence that’s unnoticed and not the flashy part of the sentence—aboveground—that seeks attention.
Creative or exaggerated or impossible dialogue tags are definitely attention magnets. They make readers notice. They may make readers slow down or pause. It’s as if they’re saying, Ha. I made you look.
As with every other bit of writing advice, however, there are exceptions. If a writer’s style highlights dialogue tags, then that writer can certainly feature dialogue tags in his stories in a way that works for those stories. And as I’ve already mentioned, some genres allow for creative tags. But for most writers most of the time, dialogue tags should not play a prominent eye-catching role.
And there’s nothing wrong with that.
I never hear writers arguing for a larger role for periods; they simply serve their support function and let the other writing elements perform theirs. The same should be true for dialogue tags. They should serve their intended purpose of identifying the speaker—which they’re quite good at doing—and leave other writing tasks to other writing elements that do a better job of them. Let action beats and the spoken words of dialogue convey emotion and other details. Use simple dialogue tags—he/she/I said, asked—to quickly identify the speaker so the reader can move right along, appreciating what was said and instantly knowing who said it.
Dialogue tags that stay in the background allow the dialogue itself to assume the foreground.
Yes, I understand that words other than said and asked can serve as dialogue tags. But I also understand that some verbs used as tags are ludicrous and can destroy every smidgen of believability a writer painstakingly planted inside his fiction.
People don’t laugh dialogue, not even fictional people. We simply can’t convey I told you it was impossible to pick up jellyfish without getting stung while laughing. Ha ha ha doesn’t sound anything like impossible to pick up jellyfish.
We also don’t gargle, giggle, smile, chuckle, chortle, or grunt long strings of speech. Yes, characters do these things. But the spoken word does not. If you need to convey that a character garbled or giggled through his speech, simply say so.
While it’s typically a sign of good writing for one item, perhaps a sentence, to accomplish multiple purposes—advance plot, reveal character, raise the conflict level, and induce emotion in the reader—some writing components have more specialized tasks. The period has its place and so does the dialogue tag. And the dialogue tag’s purpose is to identify the speaker.
It can be called on for other purposes and it can be used creatively—of course it can—but use it for its strengths and use the other writing elements for theirs. In this way you’re building a story on the strongest foundation.
I could touch on other advice—as I mentioned, there’s so, so much out there. But once again what was going to be a short article turned into a long one, so I’ll begin the wrap-up here.
Never and Always
You’re probably safe with guessing that any advice that says to never or always do something is incomplete. I won’t say that such advice is always wrong, though it’s tempting to dismiss all-or-nothing advice (and yes, I get that I’m playing both sides with such a comment). But it’s likely that there’s a hidden kernel that gave birth to the all-or-nothing advice that is true, at least under certain conditions.
So it’s not that you must
never use anything but said for a dialogue tag
always use said in every line of dialogue
never use that
never use the passive voice in fiction
never include a prologue
always introduce your main character by page two
And it’s not that you must follow every witty bit of writing advice willy-nilly, as if such advice fits every circumstance you’ll ever deal with as a writer; it’s not logical to think that all advice fits all writers and all writing projects at all times even though much advice fits many writers and many situations much of the time.
The point is that good writing advice has merit and should be considered.
But what’s good advice, and how’s a writer to know what’s good and what isn’t?
Good advice is counsel and instruction that works in the situations and for the purposes it’s intended for. It’s advice that’s worked for many writers over many years.
It’s advice intended to help a writer create fascinating characters, plots, and fictional worlds that readers want to lose themselves with. Good advice isn’t the newest fad, one guaranteed to make a writer feel good about his crappy writing while telling him it’s okay to throw away the very components that make a piece of fiction good as recognized by familiar or generally accepted measures.
Good fiction is entertaining, enthralling, haunting, compelling, unforgettable, and understandable. If it’s not all of these things, it’s at least some of them. It’s certainly not the rambling musings of a writer who ignores advice on how to plot or how to reveal characters, how to write believable dialogue, how to use setting details to enrich a story’s background, or how to write grammatically so readers can follow the characters through the setting and plot events.
Allow me to suggest that it’s a good idea to check out the intention behind any bit of writing advice. If the intended purpose fits your circumstances, then see what following the advice will do for your writing project. If the purpose behind the advice won’t get at your problem or issue, look for other tips or advice that will help with your need. But don’t then dismiss the first advice as being wrong or useless. It’s likely that it fits another writer’s or another manuscript’s or even another scene’s needs perfectly.
That is, don’t decide that one piece of writing advice is bad simply because it’s not the advice you need at the moment. And don’t decide that all advice is worthless simply because several instances of advice did nothing to help you. Maybe you’re looking at the wrong kinds of advice (perhaps searching for answers in grammar and syntax when it’s a refresher in plotting that you need). Maybe you’re not looking deep enough. Maybe your needs are more complex than one piece of advice can address, and your story requires a multi-advice approach.
And maybe you’re not pushing hard enough to make the changes that would ensure success with the advice you’re given because you don’t want to make the changes.
I don’t mean to sound as if I’m battering you. If you feel that I’m on your case, could you maybe just imagine I’m lighting a fire under you instead? But you know it’s true—sometimes we simply don’t want to do the work that’s needed to fix the problem. And this may be especially true if we’ve spent months or years writing a novel manuscript only to discover it needs major restructuring or rewriting. Or maybe even harder to face, we discover that we are the problem, that we need major training to be able to make the changes that need changing.
Still, no matter what your attitude toward changes, I do want you to consider the underpinnings of writing advice, the purposes and intents of that advice, before you either accept it or reject it.
Writing problems aren’t always solved easily, and complex stories can’t be put together with a snap of the writer’s fingers, à la Samantha Stephens. The steps to fix a problem in our writing can take more than 30 minutes, more than a quick check of the Internet and the changing of a couple of words. Deep fixes may well take weeks. We can’t always understand all the intricacies of a writing element or a bit of advice after reading one chapter in a how-to book and practicing with one writing exercise. Sometimes our learning and the polishing of skills takes months.
Sometimes we don’t develop the needed skills until we write another manuscript.
Writing fiction is a craft. It takes practice and the learning of skills and yes, it takes training, which means following advice from others. A craft is a set of skills and a love passed from one artist to another.
Don’t be surprised that you can’t learn everything in a month or two or even in a year or two. Don’t be surprised that you can’t learn everything from books. And don’t be surprised that you can’t learn only by trial and error on your own, with no solicitation of advice from writers who’ve gone through it all before you.
Get yourself a mentor if that works for you. Get involved in a professional program of study or devise one for yourself. Allow yourself a couple of years to learn the craft of writing, just as an apprentice of the Middle Ages learned his craft.
Seek out advice and if that advice doesn’t work for your needs, seek out more advice. Peer deep into the advice to get to the core. Ask what the advice is actually trying to accomplish and why. Ask when such advice should be followed and also about the conditions under which it wouldn’t apply.
And consider not listening to advice that includes the word never or always.
Of course, even to that bit of advice there are exceptions. I think the following are safe bits of advice, even with their nevers and always.
Never bore the reader
Never publish a first draft
Always assume you can learn more