by Barbara D'Amato
Nobody says “What the--?” unless they’re trying to be funny. If you walk into your home and find that somebody has burgled it, then petulantly scattered taco sauce on your rug, you don’t say “What the--?” You may say “What the hell?” or something even saltier.
My guess is that “What the—“ came into the language several decades ago from the comic books. My older boy went through a stage of saying it, to be funny, when he was a pre-teen. He had been reading a whole lot of Mad Magazine. But I frequently see it written perfectly seriously in crime novels. It isn’t convincing. It isn’t the way real people talk, and it’s lazy writing.
Another example of using comic book talk is “The diamond! Where is it?” People don’t talk that way. They say, “Where’s the bloody diamond?” If the hero is being carried off into the sunset by a giant firebird, does the girlfriend say, “The code ring! Drop it,” or “Drop the ring!” But this construction is being used in fiction a lot.
I’m also seeing “Well” used unconvincingly. One character says to another, “I went to the store and – well—I forgot the milk.”
And then there’s this dialogue:
“Hi, Mary. How are you?”
“Just fine, John You?”
“Oh, not bad, Mary. I can’t complain.”
I can complain, however. This too is lazy writing. The author is trying – on the cheap -- to remind the reader who these people are without going to all the work of characterizing them by what they say or how they say it. Or even a dollop of description.
It gets worse. Like this:
“I’ve been thinking, John. Ever since we were married eighteen months ago in Grand Rapids Michigan, on that lovely Saturday afternoon, your mother has been trying to drive us apart.”
“That’s not quite fair, Mary. Since she broke her leg last week falling over your hula hoop, she’s been a bit testy.”
The author is trying to avoid telling the reader what’s going on and must believe that dialogue like this is showing not telling. Telling would be a whole lot better.
I guess the thing that bothers me as a reader about this kind of thing is that I can’t see through it to the story. It screams “Heeeere’s writing!”
If you’ve got similar pet peeves, send them in. I’m making a collection.