Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Writerly Crankiness

A student has sent me a rewrite in the mail, and I have re-critiqued it. Despite its merits (which were actually many), it contained one of my pet peeves of English prose, which got me thinking about the rest of them. Here they are:

"... he thought to himself." Unless you are a telepath, there is no other possibility.

"An expression of .... on his face." Where else would an expression be? Omit "on his face."

".... asked James." If there are more than two people in the scene, this is fine. Otherwise, I probably know it's James's turn to talk, and if his speech ends with a question mark, I already know he's asking something.

"Jumping up, he answered the door." Unless your guy is an amazing acrobat, he's not jumping up at the same time he's answering the door. They're sequential actions. Write "He jumped up and answered the door" or "He jumped to answer the door."

"Distraught, I ran my hand through my short red curls." This is first person. Not even a narcissist thinks of his short red curls while distraught; this is a blatant attempt to shoe-horn in description where it does not belong. Even in close third person, this is a point-of-view shift, from inside to outside, that jars. In fact, the whole sentence is bad. Show me he's distraught.

"He was born in Paris, France." This only works in the dialogue or thoughts of a character you wish us to perceive as either dim or pedantic. In narrative, don't tell readers that Paris is in France -- it's insulting that you assume they don't know that already. If you're writing about Paris, Texas, however, that's a different matter.

"She was five-foot-seven, one hundred thirty pounds, with long brown hair and blue eyes." Again, unless you're trying to convey something about the character making this observation -- that he is or was a cop, that he is incapable of seeing other than prosaically -- this description is not only boring but irrelevant. Tell me something about her with more juicy relevance to her character: she's five-foot-seven and weighs eighty-eight pounds, or her long hair is pink with green stripes, or one of those blue eyes is black from having been slugged hard.

"If I was an acrobat..." If I were an acrobat. The subjunctive tense is not yet obsolete.

And please forgive the crankiness of this post.

7 comments:

Brian said...

That last one always bugs me, it grates to hear someone say that.

Mike Flynn said...

Were that it were so. Latin is so much more precise. How about:

The plane flew him to Paris.

Unless the plane is an AI, it was the pilot who flew him.

OTOH

He smiled with his lips.

need not be redundant, if you want to get across the phoniness of his smile.

Orion said...

The subjunctive mood is not quite obsolete, but it is fast on its way to becoming a strictly literary verb form in the United States.

My observation is that it is still used in speech by people over the age of forty or so. It is passively understood, but not active employed, by the under-forty crowd. Today's parents are not teaching it to their children, and so it is well along the road to extinction. I expect that it will hobble along for a couple more generations on paper before it disappears as completely as "thou" did.

Kendall said...

Great list! The first one made me laugh.

Mark said...

In re physical descriptions being unnecessary verbiage: So true. I don't outright quit reading a novel often, but this is one thing that has lead me to do so.

One of my faves is Heinlein's Starship Troopers. In the book there are references to Johnny Rico being Philipino (Tagalog speaker, boyhood in Manila, etc.) but RAH kept it in the background to avoid bogging down the pace with needless detail. I thought it was hilarious that aryan Caspar Van Dien played Rico in the movie, but the action movie doesn't have much to do with the book anyway.

sdn said...

i actually did have to correct "he could have choked on his own vomit" once.

see also: spinal tap.

Mike Flynn said...

Of course it's much edgier to have a character choke on someone else's vomit