Wednesday, July 02, 2008

What the--? A rant.

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.

11 comments:

Pete said...

During my last comb-through of my novel in progress, I noticed far too many instances of "in fact", "of course" and other extraneous asides. Most of them are now purged.

Anonymous said...

Put me down for characters making mental notes.

Sara Paretsky said...

That previous anonymous is me--somehow my name didn't take.

Sara

Cameron Hughes said...

First person novels where the protagonist narrates exposition on everything that's happened in the last few books for a page or two.

Barbara D'Amato said...

pete--yes, when I first started using word processing, the thing I liked most was search. I could find and get rid of all the "of courses" and so on.

Thanks Sara and Cameron. Mental notes and last-book stuff are pet peeves of mine, too. They will go in the list I'm making up.

Maryann Mercer said...

I am not a fan of the word 'though' at the end of every other sentence.
as in "...but she was really honest though." It just annoys me. I'm also not fond of the overuse of 'ing' words at the beginning of sentences "Winding her watch, she..." instead of "she wound her watch and..." It makes me crazy when I re-read my own pages and see several paragraphs in a row like that.
And cameron, I agree, especially when the series is a long running one. When the author does that, the reader doesn't have to go back and buy the other books. :o)

Dana King said...

That. A good word, useful in its place, but I think that too may writers that use it tend to use it incorrectly, which shows that they either don't know when to use it, or that it has become some verbal punctuation that everyone that doesn't pay attention to things that are important feels compelled to use.

And that's that.

Cameron Hughes said...

Oh, and lack of contractions in sentences. You sound like a robot when characters say Do Not instead of Don't in sentences. I love his writing, but Michael Connelly is guilty of this

Barbara D'Amato said...

Maryann--you're so right. I see "though" a lot, too. And too many ing-phrases at the beginnings of sentences tell me the writer is self-conscous about the act of writing.

dana-- what a great paragraph about "that." I love it.

cameron--yes, lack of contractions in dialogue takes me right out of the story. It's writer-talk.

Thank you all. These will go in my collection.

Diane said...

My pet peeve is lengthy dialogs in which I lose track of which speaker is which and have to backtrack a page or two to reorient myself. You don't want to overdo the "he said"/"she said" but you also shouldn't underdo it!

Dana King said...

Cameron,
I agree completely with your comment in general, and Michael Connelly in particular. He writes great stories, but his failure to use contractions in speech takes me out of the moment, and reminds me I'm reading, instead of being lost in the dialog. I just read John D. MacDonald's FREE FALL IN CRIMSON; same problem.