Be Wary of Those Who Think They’re Normal
This isn’t a post about ‘being the true you,’ although I’m sure you are a wonderful weirdo and you should let your freak flag fly. It’s also not a complaint about being normal either. I can have some pretty pedestrian tastes, and there’s a good deal of benefits from thinking like other people even as an author, such as being able to communicate on a basic level.
Instead, I’m examining the spike of annoyance and fear when I read most writing rules, the reasons that they bother me so much even when I don’t have to apply them, even when I know better. Why do they aggravate me so much? Because I don’t like being told what to do? True. Because of my ego? Obviously. But there’s more to it than that, I could tell even through my confirmation-biased eyes.
I recently read a post about improving dialogue tags that I absolutely hated.
It was in part the attitude:
“Everyone thinks they’re good at dialogue.”
“PLEASE learn to punctuate properly.”
It was in part the inaccuracy of the over simplification:
“Dialogue is never in complete sentences.”
But mostly it was the repeated advice that seems to keep getting the top of the pile which I find not only not all that useful, but at times causes more problems than it solves.
It’s like if there was a fantasy novel that was universally accepted as terrible by those who actually read it, but people new to the genre liked to namedrop it as a source on how to write fantasy simply because they’ve heard of it and never bothered to check for themselves.
Most of these issues are a symptom of the problem, the need to make complete sentences a manifestation of the unintended stilted and impersonal tone. There are typically multiple ways to quickly smooth it over, but typically speaking, one isn’t going to do the trick, and there’s really still a bigger problem at hand; people with overly formal writing are often either writing off of misinformation (the belief that it’s supposed to be formal), or they’re struggling to really get into the heads of their character. In which case, worrying about the meta components will not help them change that.
The misinformation typically comes from someone who staunchly states, “This is the way that it’s supposed to be!” thinking that the peons will obey, their writing will be temporarily improved and they’ll begin to see when it’s okay and when it’s not naturally.
But typically, that’s not what happens. Instead, you get those who don’t like being told what to do and write the whole thing off. Most times, people can smell bullshit, but until they’ve “learned the rules to learn to break them,” they can’t separate out truth in mixed company. Teenagers especially are likely to say, “That doesn’t make any sense,” and then you lose your credibility because you did actually lie to them in your exaggeration.
People speak in full sentences all of the time. More often, I say, than fragments.
Then you got the opposite personality, those who listen to what you say because they want to do things right. I meet with people often who struggle with critically evaluating information, separating the idea from the source, understanding context. They have this choppy, mechanical writing that lacks heart because they have struggled to do what they’re told in the way that it was said, not the way that it was meant.
Because the way that it’s meant isn’t discussed. We shout, “DON’T EVER DO THAT,” instead of going into detail, “Synonyms for said are more likely to detract attention from the dialogue, especially if they’re not congruent with what the reader is already picturing. Sort of like trying to pay attention to what a person is saying while they’re doing something weird with their hands. If the point is that how they are speaking is something the listener is thinking about, then using an alternative dialogue tag makes sense, but most of the time a dialogue tag is only to direct who’s speaking and said keeps it out of the way.” This diatribe is the important part, the why being far more useful than the do. It’s not that we need to know the exceptions to the rules, but rather we need to understand why there are exceptions to the rules, and why one woman’s belief that “she laughed” tags are just “NO” completely contradict another’s opinion on the best means to imply sarcasm.
I commented on the blog, expressing my concerns for a list of do’s and don’ts that were actually more superficially stylistic instead of universal without personal commentary on the author’s reasons. I added these are not the top things people should be concerning themselves with if they want to improve dialogue, they’re something to play around with after asking the hard questions. They are small solutions that don’t delve into the problem.
A gentlemen responded by saying, “The important thing to remember is that people don’t read or write as they speak.”
Now the interesting thing is my first thought about this jumped to a comment made to me a long time ago: “I hate how people suggest to listen to real conversation. Real conversation isn’t like fictional dialogue at all. People expect it to be polished, and you’re not going to include the stumbling of ers and ums or misspoken words or it’ll sound idiotic.”
I wasn’t sure if the blog commenter came down on the side that dialogue was supposed to be realistic or that it very much wasn’t. I sidestepped the issue by confronting the magnitude of his statement; I don’t believe that is important to remember when struggling with dialogue. I think it is problematic to worry about when there’s bigger fish to fry.
No matter which side he came down on though, I knew that he believed there was a correct answer.
“How realistic dialogue is is a stylistic decision,” I said.
As in, there is no such thing as unstylistic dialogue. Even, or especially, words taken directly from a transcript will be a notable choice in the author’s voice. Every piece of dialogue you’ve ever read has a style to it, so a writer should focus on making decisions that work for their intentions, not what is “normal.”
The commenter responded as you’d expect: “Style is something to play around with when you’ve gained more experience.”
No. Style is something that you’re going to be playing around with even if you don’t want to. Even writing in a non-invasive way is a distinct choice. Unrealistic dialogue is not inherently failing while realistic dialogue isn’t inherently successful.
Though blind to it, the blog was preaching a style. Decisions about appropriate dialogue tags and sentence fragments is a style. A style that is not going to consistently create good writing because it is, in fact, a choice, the less important, less concrete factor in what makes for good speech.
I explained to him my above beliefs about writing rules. He mentioned that the blog was for new writers and I said that was exactly why it scares me so much. Adding in contractions and playing around with sentence fragments is useful and I have definitely seen writers who these were good quick tips for, but again, the reason they’re not already doing it is relevant. You can’t tell me that someone who has meaty, meaningful, and human dialogue never realized that “it is” all the time sounds funny. By discussing the real issue, they’re going to unconsciously apply many of these little tips in an organic way as well as many more intangible ideas that will improve the heart of it, not just shine it up.
You can teach a man to fish, or you can teach him how to take a good photo to make it look like the fish is bigger.
The commenter agreed with me, but said that “I think that we’re just imagining different scales of what ‘new’ means.”
Actually, I don’t think the blog was effective for any level of writer. You have your beginners who are hearing the information for the first time who haven’t developed the experience or opinions to supplement badly worded advice. Or you have people with some practice in critical thinking, but I’d say, anecdotally, it’s unlikely that someone who knows how to easily parse out the gray from the black-and-white, doesn’t already have some knowledge about the ever prevalent complaints on dialogue tags and complete sentences. Even a natural critical thinker needs to have a basic grasp of the history of a subjective opinion to objectively analyze the credibility of it. With beginners, discussion is important because understanding the real issue needs to come before finding solutions to it—the cynical questioning has to happen at some point, and it’s difficult, morale-wise, for writers who have learned how to write something “good enough” to then start taking risks and deal with the giant horrible mess that entails.
Those with some experience in the area need to hear the discussion too because they either need to better understand how and when to apply it or need to be persuaded to give something they’ve been stubborn about a shot. And experts, well, they need to hear about the differences of opinions and question their own assumptions, otherwise they too will think their style is the norm and be stuck in their own box.
But mostly, HE was the exact kind of person that I was worried for.
He included his Amazon page, which linked to a series of what looked like self-published short stories (around 30 pages). He told me, however, he worked as an editor. What he actually said, “When I edit for people, they’re already pretty good and I just need to add in a few contractions and ums,” gave me pause.
I knew instantaneously without even a background check he meant he had freelanced for a small publisher.
If you haven’t read about it before, this is exactly what people need to be wary of when signing up with small time publishers. With the height of print-on-demand and ebooks, publishers have very low start-up costs and so you have a lot of inexperienced individuals with a computer becoming a publisher.
A big reason to do your research on any company is that I’ve heard time and time again from fellow authors horror stories about poor editors. These small companies shoot out a Facebook ad, pick up freelancers for far cheaper than what professionals can reasonably work for and toss your manuscript to an unvetted editor.
Typically, (though not necessarily) in trad. publishing, the acquiring editor is your editor. They said, “I love this book!” They went to the board and defended buying it. They fought for you. The blog commenter mentioned how he would get manuscripts that the publisher believes in, but aren’t very well written. Having an uninvested editor assigned typically doesn’t yield in great results.
Inexperienced editors are more likely to be bullies, using no diplomacy and forgoing communication in order to show off their knowledge. They’re more likely to try and rewrite it in their voice. They don’t always know what problems to look for. And, most importantly, they depend on cheap tricks instead of getting to the meat of the issue. These are things you learn not to do the more you work with other writers, but many of these freelancers haven’t really been writing or editing long enough to understand the problems caused by these tactics.
I assume the publisher he edits for is the same he writes for, and I found a series of poorly crafted covers and typo-ridden summaries. Most importantly, when I read the sample pages on the commenter’s books, I found a snippet of his dialogue, and he was a victim of exactly what I was talking about.
The overabundance of “…” and sentence fragments made it difficult to really identify the emotion of the discussion, and it at first it was hard to say if it was good dialogue if he cut back on the style. I mean, I logically comprehended the tone the author wanted the reader to hear, but I certainly didn’t feel it, and I wasn't clear if it was casual or cautious. The back and forth seemed reasonable, but the dialogue was more or less perfunctory without a lot of subtext. How do the characters feel about each other? Friendly? Professional? Acquaintances? Is Steve excited or upset Nick just got a promotion? How do either of them feel about the subject they’re discussing? Is Steven asking because he’s curious or trying to start a conversation or what? Is Nick nervous? Unsurprised? Trying to play it cool?
“Dunno why he couldn’t have asked you… just wanted a senior officer, I s’pose.”
Dismissal of strange behavior is hard to do correctly because when we do miss a red flag, we don’t really pay that much attention to what was going through our minds while ignoring it. We might remember seeing it, but not our actual conclusion that caused us to ignore it. I’d say that the character’s decision to verbalize the thought to immediately accept the first guess is odd, more beneficial to the writer (he draws notice to something important that he doesn’t want the character to be wrapped up in) than it makes sense for the character. In fact, all of the details included seem far more author-motivated. This is extra true considering I know the writer’s opinion on “proper” dialogue.
I should be able to tell if the character’s honestly weirded out and trying to shake it off—that’s a pretty extreme emotion for it not to come through a little bit, or if he’s grown callous to nutcases constantly calling the station—in which case I don’t believe he’d spend so much time explaining to the audience that the guy is foreign if it’s something he didn’t want to waste time being worried about.
I’d say the dialogue would be vastly improved by thinking about the characters’ motivations and making them more opinionated or emotional, cutting way back on the “conversational transgressions,” as the writer called them. Instead of focusing on conveying information to the audience, the speech needs feeling. Is this guy dismissive because he’s tired? Is he dismissive because he’s trying to not look like a pansy? Because he doesn’t want to have to worry about it? Because he’s used to it? Because he genuinely didn’t think much about it? How did this phone call actually make Nick feel?
More to the point, if I received an edit by someone who had just “added some contractions and ums” to my dialogue, I’d severely question his credibility. If I had paid for it? Even as just a line editor, we’d have a problem. I can’t think of a context in which someone doesn’t use contractions and it’s not either a product of a bigger issue or an intentional decision. A good editor, teacher, or critique partner will verbalize the heart of the matter or give reasons why the decision was not a successful one.
What fascinates me most about this conversation is that our disagreement on writing philosophies could easily be seen in the work. I know that seems like it’s obvious, but that doesn’t always happen. People don’t always take their own advice, and typically if someone believes something unhelpful, it’s because they haven’t tried it.
My belief is that good dialogue does not come from what dialogue tags you use, what punctuation you use, or what sentence fragments you use, but rather emotion, pacing, opinions, and motivation, while this writer believes good dialogue comes from idiosyncrasies and participating in realistic vernacular. You can drastically see how the style affects us:
“Maybe it’s a dud,” Iris shrugged.
The witch threw herself around. “It can’t be a dud! It should at least malfunction!”
Iris pulled the muffin apart.
“What did you do?” Ankica demanded.
The girl opened her mouth, unable to respond immediately. “I didn’t do anything!”
With a slap, the witch knocked the pastry from her hands. “You ate something! You drank something! You exercised!”
“I did not do anything that I haven’t done since you and I met. My life is a bleeding example of predictability,” she spat. “Now don’t touch my muffin.”
This is a sample taken from the manuscript that has been best received by my peers. Out of the 15 novels I’ve written, it was the first to get people asking me to read it. It is one of the few pieces that within three pages, I had multiple parties chagrined they didn’t have the rest. The beginning hooks my critique partners, beta-readers, and agents/editors I’ve workshopped with despite still being only on the second draft. I have received compliments on the characters and their likability from people who do not compliment me often. And, most importantly, I myself like it. While I worked on it, I would get distracted each morning by reading it, spending hours absorbed until I found my stopping place.
In other words, even if the style isn’t appealing to you, it has worked.
But what’s most relevant? After this discussion, I searched for this section knowing it to be my most effective piece of dialogue. Initially, I didn’t even realize just how much I “broke” the rules stated in the blog. I just knew this was the best received exchange that I had and I hadn’t paid a lot of attention to any of these things people were claiming was important when I wrote it. But I didn’t realize it completely ignored everything.
I did not think about ‘said.’ I did not refrain from using exclamation points, nor did I make an effort to put them in out of spite. I did not have sentence fragments or worry about colloquialisms. I imagined the scene, I envisioned the characters’ emotional state, and I put down what I saw, and I wrote something that made people more invested in this argument than any I had written before. It’s success has nothing to do with my refusal to abide by the rules, it’s that I genuinely didn’t think about them. I applied them organically, which in this circumstance, was a lot.
It’s a style, and it’s one that I know people will have criticisms on, genuinely, and that’s fair enough. I say it’s my philosophy for a reason, and I don’t believe everyone reading this is going to like it. But the point is, I didn’t learn how to properly adhere to a style I don’t like and then specifically chose moments it was okay to do what I wanted; I tackled it from a deeper level and focused on my goals rather than artificially mimicking what I thought to be realistic ticks.
The girls’ argument is funny because of their differences of opinion. Periods would make Ankica’s rage more intimidating and more serious. The subtext intrigues people because of their moods, their reactions, their obvious history together. That mood is conveyed non-invasively via punctuation, descriptive tags, and only a few gestures. Rewrite the scene without these things, it could potentially still be successful, but it would be very different. Over time, I may find that yes, there are too many diverse dialogue tags, or that the exclamation points don’t read to others as they read to me. But, by thinking about the overall results and not the little meta-concerns, I crafted a better foundation, and it is much easier to tweak the surface, getting rid of distracting tags, than it is to root around in a polished, flawed narrative.
I never found an example of dialogue the original blogger had written, but I truly am curious to see if and how much she implements her own advice and how it turns out. It’s not that I don’t think writing in sentence fragments and having contractions and being sparse with exclamation points isn’t helpful, it’s that they are powerful tools that prematurely worrying about won’t actually help people looking for advice. If you want to write well, start thinking critically, experiment, and don’t chain yourself to a restrictive style because someone hates alternative options. Hear them out of course, but let’s stop ordering each other around like good literature begins and ends with Hemingway. Just as many people hate him as love him.
Don’t waste your time perfecting a voice you don’t like just so you can “have the right” to develop what you actually want to be doing. Learning how to write realistically first doesn’t mean you’ll be writing in a way that works for everyone, and it isn’t necessarily an effective foundation for the path you want to go.
People who think that the way they write is normal, that their tastes are universal, and that masters successfully break the rules because they sat down and critically evaluated the acceptability to do so are typically people with limited horizons. Someone who doesn’t acknowledge alternative opinions exist is often not the person you should be trusting.
Be wary of people who think their way is the default. Encourage them to experiment with you, because the rule advocates are typically the ones who need a hard push in breaking them.
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