writing tips

The Unlucky 13 Continues: 6, 5

Upside down horseshoe

Welcome back for the next round in the Unlucky 13, where I share the things I hate to see when I read.

While there are worse sins in writing, such as telling instead of showing; uncontrolled head-hopping; or a dull and flat storyline, such a book hopefully either doesn’t make it through the slush pile or has a good editor to weed out the sins.

Those books are generally outside my experience (self-publishing is a-whole-nother story).

I’m talking about the books that make it through that process – either because they’re a great story, or the author has a solid reputation – but contain this next level of sin.

It’s a personal thing, but they’re hurdles nonetheless and they interfere with an otherwise great read.

So, please let me continue…

Table foosball players waiting in line

“We’re just waiting for page 146: Yellow B4 gets to deliver the bad news to the protagonist.”

6.    ‘Don’t ask me, I’m just a placeholder.’

Terry Goodkind is up there on my top ten favourite authors of all time. If you haven’t read the first three in The Sword of Truth series, do so. Now. Forget about the rest of this blog. He is the master of tension and action.

But towards the end of the series, I stopped loving his work. I’ve never finished the series of one of my favourite authors.

And I’ve done this before – I gave up on Robert Jordan at about book five in The Wheel of Time series (if either Egwene or Nynaeve was going to ‘smooth her skirts’ down one more time I was going to have to give up reading forever).

So there must be a reason – maybe authors get bored, or run out of ideas, or, more likely, the deadlines resulting from their success leave little time to get everything done as well as they would like.

Whatever the cause, Goodkind’s background characters became little more than cardboard cutouts.

Let me go back to the scene in Hate Number Seven where Goodkind’s characters needed to step forward every time they spoke.

That scene actually took place with about a dozen characters present, but only four of them were conversing (and shuffling). I don’t remember the specifics now, but they did all have names and costumes, and defined roles to play in the story – probably the supreme general of the fighting forces of good was present, and the warrior husband of Richard’s personal bodyguard Cara, and the odd trusted advisor and key messenger.

But in the scene, none of the ‘other’ characters spoke. None of them were acknowledged past the initial entry into the great hall, and none of them participated in the discussion. So what were they doing while the other four comedians were falling over each other in their rush to be the next to step forward?

My imagination had nothing to work with. They were cardboard cutouts in black and white, there to make up numbers, pencilled into the first draft and neither developed nor discarded. Everything was just Richard and Kahlan this or Cara and Zed that.

So my four bumbling Marx brothers shuffled down the great hall to the grand entrance, taking one step forward at a time, while cardboard cutouts watched them, their eyes following them like a spooky version of museum artworks.

Oh how I wish Leslie Nielson was still alive to act this one out!

Man struggling to maintain the pause in his sprint

Hurry up – I don’t think I can hold this pose much longer.

5.    In defiance of every law of physics, he paused for a moment.

I read it all the time – he or she paused/froze for a moment/instant/second/time.

Using any of these sucks me out of the world you created and turns me into an emotionless observer. Here’s why:

Reading a well-written story is like being immersed in someone else’s life: we live and breathe with these characters and feel their setting as it unfolds on our internal movie reel.

It’s called suspension of disbelief. But a glitch appears when the character pauses in the middle of dialogue or action, and my movie reel has to pause with it, sometimes it even has to rewind.

Do this too often and the projector overheats and breaks down.

If I still haven’t shown you what I mean, try imagining it as a script for a play:

Character strides onto stage, does battle with her. Pause. Protagonist.

Was that a glitch in the matrix? Did everybody pause or just her? And exactly how do you ‘pause for a second’ anyway? Is that like when stop breathing for a second? Don’t we do that between every breath anyway?

Sometimes it feels like what the writer meant to say was ‘please, reader, take all that in, digest it, think about what it all means, and… now you’re ready to continue’. It even seems like the writer is aware of the cadence and flow of the words, and knows we can’t progress without an ebb in the rhythm.

Well with a few more words, there’s a better of way of doing either of these.

Instead of: “Have you…” She paused before continuing. “Have you been seeing anyone else?”

Try: “Have you…” She resisted the urge to fiddle with her hair. “Have you been seeing anyone else?”

My alternative isn’t a great line because I haven’t thought about this scene or mood for longer than it took to write it, but it gets across the pause you want AND conveys the mood: she’s nervous.

And more importantly, that internal movie reel didn’t miss a beat.

This works for any pause-reason.

“Have you…” She screwed up her face the way she did when she was thinking. “Have you been seeing anyone else?”

“Have you…” she said as the life support machine gave its final beep. “Have you been seeing anyone else?”

If you enjoyed reading this article, why not catch up on the ones you’ve already missed:

13: “Insert pithy comment here,” he laughed.
12: How to use adverbs dramatically, enticingly and generally really really well.
11: I felt a feeling.
10: Fun with exclamation marks!
9: “She cried a little, didn’t she?” “Don’t exaggerate. There were only a number of tears.”
8. Continuity issues. Don’t they just get in the.
7. Characters can’t speak without stepping forward.

In the meantime, how about I let our runner finish running away from those bad guys before they catch up?

… and redoubled his speed, wondering how they’d managed to catch up so soon.

Do any of these ring true with you? Or have I spoiled the way you read forever? Let me know – I’d love to hear your own personal hates.


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