Writing Tics That Bug Me
While reading, I’m willing to overlook many minor flaws if what I’m reading is interesting enough. But lately, I’ve come across the following issues so often, they’re beginning to feel like a shiv in my eye every time I encounter them. I’m not talking about blatant grammatical errors (also painful) but writing quirks that take me out of the story. Do any of these annoy you or am I just being bitchy?
- Unnecessary dialogue tags. The best writers know how to keep tags invisible and let dialogue speak for itself. It’s distracting when every line of dialogue is marked with adverbs or adverbial phrases. Examples from books I recently read: “he demanded angrily,” “she whispered mysteriously,” “he said inanely,” and “she announced confidently.” In all these instances, it was clear the characters were angry, mysterious, inane and confident, based on what they said. I think all those verbs were superfluous, too; “he/she said” should suffice if the dialogue is strong enough. I like it when a writer is so good, he/she omits the tags altogether because it’s clear who’s saying what and how. (Charlie Huston is a master at this.)
- Characters addressing each other too much in conversation. Paraphrased example from a recent novel: “Are you sure, Charles?” “Yes, I am, Jan.” “Be careful, Charles.” “Jan, don’t worry. I’ll call you, Jan.” Every conversation in the book was like this, which made me scratch my own nails on a chalkboard to relieve frustration. I’ve often talked to someone at a party or on a plane for hours and realized later I never got that person’s name because we just don’t address each other that much in real-life conversations.
- Overuse of “that.” As in, “I don’t think that he knows that I’m in love with him, but he might soon realize that I am the best friend that he’s ever had.” None of those “that”s is necessary. I don’t think that it’s needed ninety percent of the time that it’s used.
- Expository dialogue. Conversation between two sisters: “Have you talked to our grumpy, seventy-year-old dad lately?” “Well, now that he’s moved to the country and his cancer is gone due to his chemo last year, he’s in a better mood.” “How’s Troy?” “You mean my handsome, workaholic attorney husband who somehow managed to plan a surprise 40th birthday party for me last month? He’s great.” “Wow, I wish I had your glamorous life, with your perfect husband, two kids and New York City apartment overlooking Central Park.” Make it stop or I’ll throw myself out that apartment window.
- Omission of one of the five “W”s to indicate tough-guy ‘tude. Examples: “The hell you mean?” “The f*ck you think you are?” “The hell didn’t you say so?” Years ago, some writer decided cops and goombahs are too tough to use the five Ws. It didn’t bother me when I occasionally came across it but nowadays, the rampant use of this gimmick as a shortcut to denote surly characters has made it tiresome. The hell did this happen?
What tics tick you off?