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)
Over the course of several articles, we’ve discussed writing advice, from knowing when to listen to it to learning when it can be ignored. We’ve also talked about how to weigh the advice.
In this article we’re going to look at specific advice, see what’s behind it as a means of analyzing it and determining what the original intent might have been.
Because we’re going to look at several advice topics, I won’t go deep into any one topic. And so I suggest that you do some study on your own for each topic and its advice.
One oft-quoted bit of advice is to use only said as a dialogue tag. Opposing advice says to use whatever dialogue tag moves you, to be as creative with dialogue tags as you are with other verbs. Since that topic is big enough to take an article of its own, we looked at dialogue tags in Smiling or Laughing Dialogue.
My thanks to a reader whose comment in the article Weighing the Advice led to most of the topics we’ll cover here. There’s much information available to the writer and the editor in terms of advice and rules, but a discussion of these half dozen or so issues should give you an idea of what to look for behind advice, maybe remind you to actively look behind the stated advice to discover the intent.
We already talked about the intent behind writing advice being as important as the advice itself, especially as an aid to know under which circumstances the advice should be applied. And we concluded that not all advice fits all words or sentences or genres or specific writing dilemmas. Therefore there’s usually much more to be understood about the advice than the surface prohibitions or cautions that get tossed around.
The advice we’re going to look at in this article—
don’t use the word beautiful in fiction
don’t start your story with a dream
don’t use semicolons in fiction
don’t start a novel with a prologue
don’t use parentheses in fiction
use only X number of exclamation marks in novels
I was also going to look at the advice that says to do away with the –ing form of words (or some variation of this advice), but the article became way too long. We’ll explore that bit of advice on its own in a day or two.
I don’t think I’ve ever heard advice or a rule about never using the word beautiful, but I can guess at the rationale behind such advice.
Beautiful is pretty much a nothing word as an adjective. It’s too vague and general to mean much of anything in particular, especially when it’s used alone, without reference to something else or without a setup to prepare the reader to understand how beautiful is being used.
We say something or someone is beautiful, but what does that mean? What are we actually conveying? Are we simply repeating a common phrase, or are we trying to actually describe something? If there are no other words to explain our meaning, are we even conveying information that another person understands?
If we say It’s a beautiful morning, what are we trying to convey? What if these are the words of a character in a book? What is the character getting at? Can the reader see beauty if this is the full extent of the reference?
Not likely. But with some prep from the writer, readers can understand what beautiful means in a given context.
We could be saying—
that the sun is finally shining after five days of unrelenting showers
that rain is finally pouring down after a two-month drought during the height of the rainy season
that Junior just got a phone call from his lawyer telling him that all charges against him had been dropped
that Gina’s pregnancy test was positive (or negative, depending on the circumstances)
that Owen survived the night, and three gunshot wounds, and just opened his eyes at the hospital
On its own, beautiful tells us little. But after a setup, it can take on meaning. And that’s the kind of information that should be passed on as writing advice.
Yet rather than include the explanation for why beautiful is a weak modifier, the advice is reduced to beautiful is a banned modifier, or even more encompassing, never use beautiful in a novel.
But what’s important here is not that you can’t or shouldn’t use beautiful, but gaining the understanding that it’s likely you’d create a more compelling image if you used another adjective, one that implies something truly specific, rather than use the vague and indistinct beautiful. What’s also important is knowing that you can bolster your sentence about a beautiful morning with support, with other words and sentences that provide explanation and context for that word.
A blanket prohibition of beautiful doesn’t make sense. But a suggestion that it may not be the best choice in many circumstances and that you should look for a more accurate word, that’s solid advice.
If Owen’s wife gets notice in the waiting room that her husband is going to recover from multiple gunshot wounds, she may whisper to herself as she clutches her rosary, It’s a beautiful morning. And readers, after going the through the ugliness of the night with her—after being prepped by what has already happened—will know exactly what she means.
A simple sentence, however, used to tell the reader that it’s a beautiful morning, doesn’t convey much on its own. Not to the reader. It comes across as filler or background fuzziness, a sentence readers pass over because it doesn’t do anything. Beautiful doesn’t really describe the morning, not in a tangible way, so readers can’t see the beauty. It also doesn’t induce emotions, not without context or other meaning behind it. So there’s no specific visual and no emotion conjured by the word—therefore, what does the word do? It simply takes up space. Or worse, it blurs what it should instead bring into focus.
While I can see the reasoning behind this advice, that reasoning should be included with advice about using nonspecific adjectives. Beautiful doesn’t need to be banned, but beautiful should be included in a list of vague or imprecise modifiers that might need to be reconsidered in order to bring oomph and clarity to a scene. The advice should deal with choosing the best words for any single moment rather than ban the use of one example of words that can be reduced to fillers and nothingness by the way they’re used.
If someone tells you that you can never use the word beautiful in a novel, blow raspberries at him. If he suggests that you reconsider adjectives that don’t have an impact, that are almost invisible they’re so lightweight or ineffectual, listen.
Dreams and Sleepers
You’ve probably heard the prohibition about ending scenes and chapters with characters falling off to sleep. That’s a good bit of advice to follow unless you don’t mind if your readers nod off with your characters.
If characters can calmly sleep, they aren’t worried, they’re not anticipating anything, and neither are the readers.
Now, characters shaking and hiding under the covers is a different issue. But if your characters can drop off calmly at the end of a scene/chapter with no worries or anxieties, consider rewriting. Except for the final chapter and scene, you don’t want too much calm for characters or readers. You certainly don’t want to lull your readers to sleep.
At the ends of chapters, you want readers feeling compelled to turn the page. You want anticipation to be riding them, even if it’s only at a light level. You want both characters and readers worried about what’s going to happen next.
Does this mean you can’t ever end a scene with characters falling asleep? I can’t bring myself to say you mustn’t ever do it. But why chance knocking your readers into slumber and out of the tension of your story? Do you really want to bring tension in your story to a stop at the end of a chapter when it’s so terribly easy for a reader to put a book down and never pick it back up? After all, if a book is easy to put down, it may be quite difficult to pick back up again.
If a reader stops reading at a point where nothing’s happening—the character is going to sleep—and there’s no tension—the character not only goes to bed but is at ease doing so—a reader has nothing tempting to pull him back to the story. Readers with nothing to anticipate aren’t going to be as keen about jumping back into a story if they left it at a point of no tension or anticipation. Why not end those logical break points with something guaranteed to keep readers turning the page? Yes, most readers have to stop reading at some point before the end of a story, but make them stop at an engrossing moment so they are compelled to come back and read some more.
Beyond prohibitions about ending chapters with sleeping characters, what about a ban about opening a novel with a dream or with characters waking from sleep?
What’s the problem here?
Well, one major problem is a simple one—both have been done and redone and done again.
Starting with a dream or a character waking up is a stale, uninspired story opening. At the very first words and images, you’re declaring that your story is just like hundreds and thousands of other stories.
At a time when you need to be most creative, when you need to entice readers to dive in and get acquainted with your characters and story world, you’ve included a common opening found in zillions of other books.
Why do it? Why penalize yourself on page one? Why put yourself into a hole you have to dig out of?
Readers are with you when they start a new book—they’re willing to invest their time and emotions and suspend their disbelief to step into your story world and try on your characters. You should reward them with a fresh opening, with places and people and events they’ve never encountered before.
Sure, you could open with a character waking in bed, but if you do so, you’re already in the hole.
And yes, I know some of you are thinking, but I don’t mind seeing a character in bed if the scene is well written. But other readers, even if they don’t or can’t verbalize it, feel the dulling effects of a familiar story opening.
They deserve something different.
Your characters also deserve something creative and solely their own.
And just because a character begins his day in bed is no reason to start a story there. Find an unusual place to begin your story, not a common one. Set both characters and readers off balance by beginning with the unfamiliar and different.
As for opening with a dream? That has been done more times than you’d ever imagine. If you doubt me, read an agent’s or acquisition editor’s take on the subject.
You’re also delaying the true opening of your story if a dream (just like a flashback) gets prominence over the current events of your story.
Plus a dream’s events are not real. They have no consequences for your characters. Looked at another way, a dream’s events have just as much consequence for your characters as events in your life would have for them—absolutely none. Events in dreams ultimately mean nothing to the plot of the story. (Exceptions for dreams in paranormals in which dream events may actually come to pass.)
Rather than begin with a fake opening, with fake tension and unreal events, start with your characters in their real world, experiencing what normally happens at the point just before what normally happens is interrupted by a major intrusion. The dream world isn’t real, no matter how exciting you make it. The characters’ real world is what the reader has come to visit.
Also, if readers don’t know they’re reading a dream and think they’re reading the true events of the story, once they discover you tricked them, you’ll create unhappy readers right at the start. And you’ll have destroyed their trust, enough so that it may take a while to regain it. How can they know you’ll play fair with them in the remainder of the story if you didn’t at the top of it?
Often the reason writers open with a dream tease is to lure readers in because the true story opening is boring. But if that’s the case, fix the real opening. Make it compelling. Don’t try to hide behind a faux beginning and story hook.
Don’t play false with readers.
Give them real events happening to real characters in their real world.
And if you plan to submit your manuscript to agents or publishers rather than self-publish, be prepared for negative reactions from agents and editors. Not all would immediately decline a story that opens with a dream, but you need to know that many agents and editors are not fans of such openings. They see them again and again, and the dream opening can not only delay the story’s true opening, but fail to engage readers. Agents and editors are looking for fiction that grabs readers on the first page or so.
You could open with a dream or with a character waking up—as we know, many books and manuscripts do—but why would you? Why open with the common and familiar rather than with the new and unknown? Why not expose readers to something unprecedented right from the start?
Why not start the true action of your story right from page one? Why not begin with something original on that first page? You know the adage about first impressions—your story’s opening is the chance to make an impression. The common and trite won’t make much of a splash.
And lest you think you’ll skip the dream itself and show a character waking in bed and pondering a dream, know that that has been done to death as well. Plus your character isn’t doing anything other than thinking. Is that the hook you’re using to capture your readers, a character lying around thinking? If so, your bait is pretty bland.
Does this behind-the-scenes look at this advice about opening with a dream give you pause? I hope the advice at least makes a bit more sense now.
No semicolons in Fiction?
I’ve addressed the issue of semicolons before (Don’t Fear the Semicolon), but let’s glance at a few key issues.
You can use semicolons in fiction, of course you can. But they are noticeable, so you don’t want to overuse them. Overuse and not use should be the prohibition here. Look for alternative ways to achieve the same objectives semicolons accomplish and use them when they’re appropriate, but don’t run from semicolons altogether.
Both semicolons and colons can give text the feel of nonfiction. You don’t want readers thinking of reports and essays and papers as they’re diving in to a fictional world, so don’t overload a story with unusual punctuation they’d likely only see in other types of writing.
And while I’m not sure whether this is a true problem, I’m guessing it could be one—some readers will be unfamiliar with the semicolon and not understand its purpose. The mere presence of a semicolon could be a source of confusion or it could simply cause a reader to have to reread. And you don’t want readers confused or having to reread simply because they can’t make sense of what you’ve written.
Semicolons have purposes, so use them if necessary. But don’t draw attention to them by using them again and again.
I’ve edited manuscripts whose style demanded semicolons; I suggested adding them where appropriate. But I also made recommendations for rewriting to avoid the necessity for semicolons. There are options that get around the need for semicolons. And rewriting would take care of all reasons a semicolon might be advised against.
I’ve also covered prologues (Pros and Cons of Prologue). Once again the advice is not a question of whether you can use them but whether you should.
Why might you not want to use a prologue?
Some readers don’t read prologues.
They delay the start of the story.
They may be, like an exciting dream, a substitute for a story’s poor opening pages. If the opening is the problem, change it. Make it an arresting one rather than trying to cover it up with something else.
There’s much more information on prologues, their strengths and weaknesses, and I suggest you read up on them. Don’t make an uninformed decision on the use of prologues.
Prologues can work. Some are awesome. Some are awful. Many are unnecessary, an excuse to introduce back story that should instead be woven into the story itself.
If you’re considering a prologue, see if you can maximize the pros and eliminate the cons. Look at the balance. If the pros far outweigh the cons, try a prologue. If the scales tips toward the cons, skip it.
And don’t hesitate to find out what your intended agent or editor thinks of them—it’s likely they’ve blogged about prologues or mentioned them in their submission guidelines if they have strong feelings about them. Check books of writers they represent or publish to see if any have prologues. You could always submit your first 30 or 50 pages without the prologue and talk to your agent about the prologue once you secure representation. If you already have an agent, speak to him or her about prologues.
Parentheses in Fiction
I just read advice about not using parentheses in fiction a few days ago.
While I would never say never use them, I do think this is advice you should consider and follow pretty much all of the time.
Parentheses often contain asides that don’t need any additional attention drawn to them; the inclusion of parentheses is overkill. They are like the writer winking at the reader, asking, Do you get it? They highlight the artificiality of the fiction rather than pull the reader deeper inside the reality of the fiction.
Do you see what I just said, what I just did? Did you catch it, did ya, did ya? Wink, wink, nudge, nudge.
Parentheses can make readers very aware of the writer. And since you’re not part of the story, that’s usually not a good idea.
Yet if holding conversations with the readers is your intention, this would work for your story. But otherwise, commas and dashes may be a better choice. They aren’t as noticeable as parentheses at being something other. The aside is still there, but you’re not pointing or winking at it.
And while using parentheses in first-person narration might seem to be safer than using them in third-person stories, you might want to reconsider using them even then. It’s true that with some first-person stories, the narrator is speaking directly to the reader and therefore little asides can also be directed toward the reader. But since every thought is already the narrator’s and the reader knows this, there’s little reason to visually highlight an aside or parenthetical.
Readers know the thoughts are from the narrator—they don’t need the visual of parentheses to point out the narrator’s snide or catty remarks. The extra punctuation simply serves as an unwanted visual intrusion.
I needed to talk to my brother (the eldest, the accountant). But I didn’t want to do it before I saw my father. (I didn’t want to give away the fact that I’d been speaking to James all along, even though my father had cut him from the family years earlier.)
Why the need to set such thoughts off? Just let the character think them.
I needed to talk to my brother, the accountant. But I wouldn’t do it until after I saw my father. He didn’t need to know I’d been speaking to James steadfastly for the past twelve years, since the day Dad cut him out of the family.
One other consideration is that parentheses can serve to slow the read of a section of text, something you may not wish to happen.
There are a lot of reasons the banning of parentheses in fiction is good advice, although there are times when parentheses could be useful.
Have you heard the advice to not use more than X number of exclamation points in a novel? I definitely lean toward using as few exclamation points as possible.
Punctuation should help you communicate, but for the most part we use words for that in fiction, not symbols or punctuation. Yes, punctuation is part of a story’s foundation, but exclamation points shouldn’t substitute for the exclamations themselves.
Simply adding an exclamation point does not create an exclamation. Not really. An exclamation exists without the punctuation; the exclamation point is simply an accompanying visual.
Reserve exclamation points for dialogue or thoughts, not simple description or the depiction of events through a neutral narrator. That is, let us know that a real character is moved by something, thus the need for an exclamation. Words can’t be exclaimed without an agent behind them.
Keep in mind that too many exclamation marks can make a passage read like the pow! zap! sound-effect cards from the Batman TV show. While one writer may create this effect intentionally for one story, not all writers would or should be trying to create such an effect.
Remember also that too many exclamation marks in a row nullify the effect; if all sentences end in exclamation points, none stand out as anything special.
“Wow, I did it! Mom, I stopped the charging bull! I’m the champion of the world! I’m gonna tell everybody!”
If this speaker continues on in the same vein, the reader will become fatigued by all the shouting and the visual sign of the exclamations. Choose which sentences are true exclamations without imagining that they all are. Make the rare sentence stand out.
It’s likely that you’ll need more exclamation points in children’s books, thus the prohibition against using them was probably developed for YA and adult fiction. If you write children’s fiction, know that you have some leeway.
But can you include exclamation points in adult fiction? Sure. But limit yourself. The best trick I read for managing exclamation points said to write the first draft including as many as you want. Then when you’re ready to read your finished story (from hard copy and after a period of days or weeks of not looking at the story), switch all exclamation points to periods before printing the manuscript. As you read, add exclamation points where they’re truly needed. If you’re liberal with exclamation points as you create, this is a guaranteed way to reduce the number to a manageable amount as your rewrite and edit.
We’ve explored possible rationales behind a few common pieces of writing advice—are these the only possible reasons this advice is circulated among writers and suggested by writing pros? Probably not. The takeaway is to always keep in mind that there are reasons behind most writing advice and that much of the time the reasons are valid, if not always suitable for every writer’s current needs.
When you come across advice, before you accept or reject it, determine its purpose and the rationale behind the advice. See if the circumstances that prompted the advice actually match your circumstances and needs. If not and if you can’t extrapolate related advice that accounts for your specifics, look for other advice that would be a better fit.
The point is to not accept or reject writing advice without first knowing what’s behind it and the effects that can be created by following and by not following the advice.
Advice is good if it fixes a problem. But even good advice can create other problems. So always be alert for the consequences of following any advice.
Don’t accept or reject any advice without at least taking a look at the rationale, at the circumstances for which the advice was created, and at potential consequences. There’s no reason to ignore or accept advice without an understanding of all (most?) its components first.