In the past couple of months, I have been out in the writing wilds, reviewing multiple manuscripts. I return to you now with disturbing news: someone has absconded with all the dialogue tags.
Or so I thought, when three of the last four manuscripts I reviewed had long passages of dialogue with no attributions. None of those innocuous “he said” “she said” phrases. No bodies in motion in the same paragraph to show who must have said it. Not even the slightly more annoying scene blocking some of us (ahem, are those three fingers pointing back at me?) tend to use, at least in early drafts, for variation. This lack of tags occurred in scenes with two people talking. And three characters. And even five! Yes, I read a scene with five people in a conversation, with no way to discern, from the words on the page, who was saying what.
I got a sinking feeling.
When a trend appears across manuscripts of writers who do not know each other (and therefore probably haven’t come up with a new technique themselves), I smell “advice” emanating from “professionals”. When I asked one of the writers about the lack of tags, she confirmed my fear. She had cut most of the dialogue tags from her manuscript after her writing group (that’s a whole other blog post, isn’t it?) told her she should stop using them. WHAT?!!! I wondered out loud where they had learned this…ok, I’m struggling not to use profanity, so imagine some nicer word for BS. According to my writer, they got the advice from agents. More precisely, from agents ranting on Twitter.
That loud thwack heard ’round the world was my head hitting my desk. Continue reading
Like several others here on the blog, I’ve spent a bit of time recently reading and judging contest entries. Some have been really good and some, like Jilly mentioned in her Give that Girl A Goal post, have suffered from an unfortunate lack of goal-motivation-conflict direction.
Sadly, a few have also suffered from “and here’s a big chunk of backstory”. That’s annoying enough in a full-length book, but deadly in a 50-page contest entry where the author has a short amount of story real-estate to make a strong impression.
It can be hard for a new writer to avoid weighing down their story with all of the details about the characters that they have dreamed up over time, just like it can be a challenge not to include all the fascinating facts that might have been dug up during the research phase of the story. As we were taught at McDaniel (and frankly in most wring craft classes), backstory is best when it is interwoven throughout the story with a light touch. Too much backstory, especially in big chunks, can slow the story down, break the tension, and cause your reader to lose interest.
Swaths of backstory aren’t just the purview of beginning writers, however. I recently read a new mystery story by a previously-unread-by-me author that was just swimming in it. The book was part of a popular series with more than a thousand reviews on Amazon and a 4.5 rating, so I had high expectations. The story got off to an okay start, but after about 75 pages or so, the current action stopped and there was about 100 pages of backstory. While it provided information about the heroine’s past, it was completely unnecessary. The relevant information could have been woven into the story with a few well-placed sentences here and there. Instead, it was a big, not particularly interesting slog of “this happened, and then this happened.” After about 20 pages I started to skim. By the time the story returned to the current action, I had lost interest and pretty much speed-read the rest of the story.
Unfortunate, as I had high hopes that this would be the beginning of an entertaining, new series. Continue reading