Friday, June 30, 2006

Five of a Writer's Deadliest Enemies

by Gary A. Braunbeck

Many of you who read my posts asked for more essays on the business and technical aspects of writing, so I've decided to offer a handful of basic -- what I hope are common sense -- suggestions on how to fine-tune your writing by avoiding certain mistakes that can sink your story in a hurry.

1: "Its" and "It's"

The first one -- and, man, am I getting sick of seeing this one -- has to do with "its" and "it's".

Look at those two words, will you?

I'm going to over-emphasize this, just to get it through your heads:


They do not mean the same thing.

"Its" is a possessive, as in, "Its components are too complex."

"It's" is a contraction, as in, "It's not my problem if its components are too complex."

This is not something that is up for debate.

If I seem grumpy about this, it's (meaning, "it is") because, in two recent manuscripts sent to me to read for a possible blurb, the friggin' proofreader corrected the author's use of "its" (when it was used correctly) for "it's."

Once more, with feeling:


"Its" and "It's" are not the same. Stop doing it. It makes you look ignorant.

2: Profanity

First of all, unless you're writing Christian Young Adult (and even that's up for debate), it would be unrealistic to write a novel or short story wherein one of the characters didn't swear at some point; our lives have become much more fast-paced and frustrating, and a result of that frustration is that people swear more now than they did, say, back in the days of Booth Tarkington's Magnificent Ambersons.

However (you knew that was coming, didn't you?), there is a difference between the way people swear in real life and how they should swear in fiction. I know a guy who would have a full one-third -- if not half -- his vocabulary hacked off at the knees if he were unable to say f**k. I've passed strangers' conversations wherein I picked up at least nine different profanities before they were out of earshot.

I remember one instance, while reading Skipp & Spector's The Light At The End, where in a single line of dialogue, one character used eleven profanities -- including all of the Biggies -- in one sentence; it was rather impressive ... but it was also way too much. Yeah, I have no doubt that there are people out there in the real world who do speak like that, but (and here comes the tip), if you over-use profanity in your dialogue, you rob it of its most important function: profanity is simply violence without action; it should be employed in fiction to either foreshadow or replace violence. If you follow this suggested guideline, you'll not only use less of it your writing, but what you do use will be so well-placed that it will have ten times the impact of an endless string of curses.

Example: in my novel In Silent Graves, there is a sequence where the main character (who's just lost his wife and newborn child) enconters two guys on a city bus who are swearing and cursing and spewing the most unbelievable filth (Andrew Dice Clay wouldn't say some of the things these two guys do); their language is upsetting a young woman who's sitting nearby the main character, and as the intensity of the profanity and filth builds, so does the main character's frustration and anger. It's the only time in the book that profanity of this level is used, and that was a deliberate choice on my part: I wanted it to be as shocking to the reader as it is to the main character, and I wanted it to build along with his anger. Everyone who's read the novel has mentioned this sequence as being very effective, and
inwardly I cheer; I wanted it to be effective, I wanted their language to be shocking, because the increased intensity of the filth that comes out of their mouths foreshadows the violence that ends this sequence.

So: remember that profanity is simply violence without action, and that it should be employed only to foreshadow or replace violence; you'll find that you use less of it, and that what you do use will be all the more effective.

3: Exclamation Points

Admittedly, this one is a personal quibble. However: The exclamation point belongs in dialogue and only in dialogue.

Whenever I encounter an exclamation point used outside of dialogue, I am suddenly pulled from the spell of the story (assuming that it was cast in the first place) and made painfully aware of the writer's intent. It's the writer telling me, the reader, that this! Is! Supposed! To! Be! Exciting! Or! Shocking! Or! Revelatory! It automatically tells me that the writer doesn't trust my intelligence and instincts as a reader enough to let me figure out for myself that something is supposed to shock or stun or scare me.

Consider the following examples, all of them lifted from recent horror stories I've read:

He realized that he hadn't locked the door behind him!
And now they were going to kill her!
They weren't alone in the house!
He was lost!

You get the idea. To say it's melodramatic would be to succumb to gross understatement. The use of the exclamation point outside of dialogue is, to my mind, a lazy cop-out all too frequently embraced by horror writers (and we've all done it, myself included). Think I'm overstating my point? Then try this simple exercise: Pick any of the above-quoted lines, and when you reach the exclamation point, imagine that it's been replaced by the first four notes of the Dragnet theme. Go ahead, I'll wait.

Makes its use seem absurd, doesn't it?

They weren't alone in the house Dum-Da-Dum-Dum.

Keep that in mind the next time you're tempted to use an exclamation point somewhere other than in dialogue.

4: Italics

Like profanity, italics are most effective when used sparingly. From my point of view, italics should only be used to:
  • place emphasis on a particular word or phrase;
  • indicate a foreign word or phrase;
  • cite the name of a book, film, television or radio program, or musical work (as in the name of a symphony or a specific album, such as Mahler's 1st, The Who's Tommy, Warren Zevon's Bad Luck Streak In Dancing School, etc.);
  • to insert a brief flashback - be it a sequence of events or a snippet of recalled conversation - within the body of the current narrative; and,
  • to set apart the contents of a letter, excerpted lines from a poem, or a snippet of song lyrics (which could arguably be accomplished with the use of block quotes instead, making this last "rule" more of a stylistic choice on the part of the writer).

(Parenthetical pause here: when citing the name of a song or a story, quotation marks are what's required, as in: Simon and Garfunkel's "Bridge Over Troubled Water" or Stephen King's "Sometimes They Come Back". The title of the album or collection in which the piece is included would be italicized, as in: Simon and Garnfunkel's Greatest Hits and Night Shift. The differences are subtle, but profound, and not necessarily as easy to discern as one might at first think.)

Remember the Dragnet-theme warning I suggested when it came to using exclamation points? Well I've got a similar warning cue to employ when it comes to italics: imagine that whatever is italicized is being either whispered or Shouted Through A Bullhorn (however circumstances dictate); it's a matter of extremes, like it or not.

An italicized letter or quoted poem? A whisper.

A panicked warning (as in: "Look out!")? A shout through a bullhorn. (And bear in mind that when you combine italics with all caps -- "LOOK OUT!" -- it's overkill; the circumstances under which something like the above is italicized give the words or passage an immediacy that presenting them in all capital letters only diminishes; it's hitting the reader over the head with your intent: DEAR GOD, THIS IS REALLY, REALLY IMPORTANT AND I'M GOING TO MAKE DAMN SURE YOU KNOW IT!. Overkill. Don't do that, please. (If you've been paying close attention, you'll know that there's a spot in theis very essay where I overkilled with italics; I did that on purpose, to be annoying, just to help me hammer home the point when you arrived here.)

There is another -- and less directly acknowledged -- reason that it's a good idea to use italics sparingly: like it or not, a prolonged passage of italics quickly tires the eyes while reading. It's that simple.

As a writer, whenever I come to a passage that I know is going to have to be italicized (such as a letter or brief flashback), I apply the same rule to my own work that I do to anything that I might choose to read: no more than 3 pages. That is all that my eyes can take as a reader, so I assume that's my readers' limits, as well. After 3 pages, it just gets annoying; and the last thing you want is for a reader to become more aware of how you're presenting something than of its content.

So: a whisper or shouted through a bullhorn, no more than 3 pages, and you just might find that italics can be a useful ally.

5: Sibilant City

Read this and see if you can spot what's wrong:

"Get out now!" he hissed.

Figured it out yet?

In order for someone to "hiss" something when they speak, there has to be at least one sibilant present.

Too many writers are doing this, and it must stop.

"Stop it!" she hissed. That works because there is a sibilant present. Otherwise, it ain't hissing, folks.

To recap: It's a question of sibilants being present in speech before its hissing can happen. (Subtle, ain't I?)

Gary A. Braunbeck is the author of 14 books and over 150 short stories. If you enjoyed this article, take a look at his book Fear in a Handful of Dust: Horror as a Way of Life.