Writing Crimes and How to Avoid Them (Volume I)

Today’s post makes an important assumption: That you’re writing with the intention to get your stories published. How you get published isn’t at issue, just that you want to write for an audience wider than yourself and your immediate circle of friends and family. Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s get started.

If you want to keep editors and slush pile readers happy, you’ll have to learn to spot the writing crimes below in your own work.

The Case of the Wooden Ear

Fiction’s lifeblood, the stuff that animates it (or re-animates it if you’re into that kind of thing) is dialogue. Compelling speaking parts are core to good stories. For a master-class in dialogue I strongly recommend that you get your hands on some of Elmore Leonard’s writing. Seriously, if you haven’t, you should. Like right now.

Rejection-letter attracting fiction often falls flat at the dialogue hurdle. Maybe you’ve constructed a sweet neo-postmodern steampunk world that kicks ass as a setting, but if your characters all speak like they’ve just graduated from Stuck-up-and-Embarrassed-about-it Junior High, you’re in trouble.

Crafting believable dialogue is tough. But here’s one piece of advice that will make it easier: Characters should say things we wish we had said. What does that mean? Remember Elmore Leonard? His dialogue is a great example of this notion. Leonard’s characters don’t speak like anybody in real life. And that’s very important indeed.

Good dialogue does not mimic natural speech. Regular chit-chat is boring and pedestrian. It’s filled with too many “Ums” and “Ahs” and overstocked with superfluous details, social niceties, and fluff.

An example. Say our protagonist (let’s call her Jane) is meeting another character (Bob, who is secretly in league with the main villain) for a drink at the local. Jane’s determined to confront Bob about his double dealing. Here’s what regular speech might sound like:

            “Hi Bob. How’s it going? Um, I haven’t seen you in a while. You well?”

Bob looked up from his beer and said, “Oh, hi Jane. I wasn’t sure when you were coming, so I ordered a beer already. What can I get you?”

Jane thought for a while. “Um, I’ll just have a soda thanks. So… What have you been up to?”

“Not much. A little bit of this and a little bit of that, you know..”

Jane shifted uncomfortably in her chair and said, “Listen, I have to talk to you about hanging around Big Lou. Um. You know that he’s really got it in for us. And ah, I don’t think that’s okay.”

Bob shook his head slowly and then took a long sip of beer.

“Heck Jane, I don’t know what to say…”

Still awake? Sorry, I drifted off a bit. This is what normal speech sounds like. If your dialogue sounds just like regular folks talking, editors will almost certainly reach for that rejection letter they’ve been saving Just For You.

Confronting a traitor should be a dramatic, tension-infused scene. Fluffy dialogue only deflates it. Here’s something closer to what we might want:

            Jane sat down and waved away the waiter.

Before Bob could say anything, she said, “So Bob, I ever tell you about my uncle Richard? No? Yeah, well he died last year. Upstate.”

“What do you mean, Jane? I don’t—“

“He spent most of his life in solitary, Bob. Terrible thing, solitary. Makes a man wish he’d made some different choices in his life. Like maybe not selling out his buddies to the highest bidder. My uncle, he got put away for treason, Bob. Treason.”

Jane reached across the table, took hold of the beer Bob had been nursing, and took a slow, deliberate pull on the bottle.

“What’s your uncle got to do with me?” Bob looked at his stolen beer like it was the only thing holding the table together.

Jane smiled, but her eyes didn’t. “I always wondered if my uncle ever regretted his decision, you know? I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately.”

The example above is by no means perfect. But it definitely honors the scene more than the previous piece. Although it uses more words, it’s leaner somehow. The fluff of everyday speech is gone, and the reader is pulled into a more cinematic scene.

Good dialogue does more than just getting the words out. It also reveals character. In the first example, we don’t really learn anything about Jane. Maybe that she’s nervous, but that’s about it. In the second example, we learn a great deal. We learn that she’s got a family secret involving treachery. We learn that she can, when her buttons are pushed, go to an intimidating, slightly scary place (this would be great if, up to now, the reader has been led to believe that Jane is pure-to-the-bone). Her repetition of Bob’s name, her stealing his beer, these are all details that flesh out Jane’s character more than the Ums and Ahs of the previous example ever could.

The best antidote to wooden dialogue in my experience is reading authors and watching movies known for cracking dialogue. I know it’s tough work, but bite the bullet.

Here are some suggestions to get you started:

Books: Get Shorty, Out of Sight, Valdez is Coming (Elmore Leonard); No Country for Old Men (Cormac McCarthy); It (Stephen King); Dirk Gently’s Holstic Detective Agency (Douglas Adams); Of Mice and Men (John Steinbeck); Farewell, My Lovely (Raymond Chandler).

Film: Pulp Fiction, Snatch, Flushed Away, Glengarry Glenross, In the Line of Fire, Jackie Brown, Heat.

The Case of WTF?

Want to collect a lot of rejection letters? Why not start your next story like this:

Bren walked slowly across the Skerdin-polished pebbles toward the Frack-infused Woblit. She had waited for this moment for most of her short life. After all, Joblins like her didn’t last very long in the Principality. The Woblit was newborn, so Bren knew she had the advantage. Surely, the Wizards of the Way wouldn’t have lied about that?

No. Like really, no. So, you’ve crafted a meticulous alternative world complete with maps, city guides and a list of all sixty gods worshiped by the locals. Well done. Congrats. But there’s just one snag. We, the readers, don’t care. Seriously. We couldn’t care less about your world. We’re just not that into it. Sorry. What matters is the story that takes place inside that world. Even Tolkien, who often included way, way too much detail, knew when to leave things out. That’s why The Silmarillion exists.

Sometimes, when a writer has created an alternate reality, she forgets that nobody else has shared her journey of creation. She forgets that the reader needs to feel connected to the story from the first sentence. Don’t forget that. Yes, world-building is important, especially in genres like fantasy and sci-fi. But don’t forsake the reader. Unless you’re a fan of the form rejection letter that is.

The Case of the Basket Case

We’d like our readers to identify with our characters. We want them to laugh, cry, and occasionally vomit alongside out protagonists. These are noble motivations. But how to get there?

One pathway to avoid is something like this:

Jo looked at the street urchin with a mixture of horror and fascination. He could feel a deep, bottomless cauldron of emotion within him. Why should life be so unfair? Why, damn it, Why? He reached into his pocket for a coin. Suddenly, anger washed over him. Not just anger at not having more than a few cents to give, but anger at the System. The Man. He realized that he was, in his own way, part of that System. He was the Man. Screaming in frustration and with tears welling in his eyes, he hurled the coins at the miserable child, vowing to be the kind of change he’d like to see in the world.

There’s something like telling the reader too much about the internal life of your characters. If they’re constantly laughing, giggling, weeping, and nauseated by the things going on around them, unintentional hilarity ensues. Also, readers stop caring. It’s all just a little too much to take in. Characters who are this “in touch” come across as lunatics, barely able to keep their emotions in check.

Emotion is best illustrated through dialogue and action. Until you show the visceral reality, readers won’t be interested. And neither will the editor.

The Case of the Soliloquist

Sometimes, we want readers to know what our characters are thinking, especially when important story elements are involved. We’d like readers to understand our characters’ passions, their motivations, even their backstories. A tempting shortcut is the soliloquy.

Unfortunately, protagonists seem particularly vulnerable to this writing crime:

            Walter drove on into the night, the lonely road his only companion.

“I know the secret lab must be here somewhere! But where?” he mused.

Just then, as if conveniently put there to move the story’s plot along, Walter spotted a dirt track.

“I almost missed that dirt track! Wow, it’s like my destiny is to find Professor Slime’s secret laboratory. Of course he will resist, no doubt using his neutrino laser of ultimate destruction against me, but so what? I didn’t spend good money on this las-armor hidden beneath my jersey for nothing.”

The track wound ever upward, and through gritted teeth, but to nobody in particular, Walter said, “I’m coming for you Slime, I’m coming for you!”

The Soliloquist is a close relative of the Basket Case. Both characters come across as unintentionally insane or at least a little unhinged.

Please avoid the temptation of turning your protagonist into a mouthpiece for the plot. Yes, people sometimes talk to themselves, but excessive musing and soliloquy might be indicative of mental illness. If you must dump information, employ some brief and to-the-point exposition, or even better, illustrate your protagonist’s motivation through action and conversations with people other than themselves:

Walter tried to stop the ship of a car from fishtailing off the narrow dirt track. He hated the car. He hated driving the thing. He hated his life.

Night became day as a laser blast cut through the windshield and hit him dead center.

He slammed on the brakes, and in a maneuver too complicated to describe right now, opened his door and rolled out the car, gun at the ready. He tore off the smoking husk that was once high-end las-armor.

If I get out of here alive, he thought, I’m buying that cute armorer a drink. Maybe two.

“Slime, you bastard! Don’t you know that laser cannons are banned by the Geneva Convention?” Walter said.

“Ha! Keep talking you fool! It makes you easier to kill,” said Slime from somewhere in the darkness.

“Uh-oh,” Walter had time to say before catching Slime’s next shot squarely in the face.

Well, that’s it. As always, this post’s caveats are general guidelines rather than timeless carvings on the edifice of writerly wisdom. You’ll probably find a few genius authors who’ve broken some of these rules and gotten away with it. But not many.

You’ve been warned. Now go write something amazing.

Marcel Harper writes speculative fiction, weird stories and horror from the comfortable redoubt of his secret basement laboratory. As a day-job, he dabbles in psychological science, teaches writing skills, and pretends to be a content strategist. He also likes beer. A lot.

He's published both academic and popular articles on cognitive science and social perception. His short fiction has recently appeared in Jersey Devil Press. He's currently working on his first novel which will probably be banned by the League of Decency shortly after publication.