Friday, January 17, 2014

Writin' Lessonz - Part I: Question and Answer Time

If you listen to advice most authors give, 95% of the world's suckiest books suck because the author was an idiot about dialog attribution. Half of this suckage is for using adverbs, like "Die in a fire," Esmerelda said smoulderingly, and the other - and by far the more correctable - half was for being an idiot and using words other than 'said.'

Not flashy words like "Get your damn hands off me, Pumperholden!" I gnashed (vexedly) - though doing so is the writing equivalent of stuffing a piglet in a blender and setting it to 'liquify' - but far more innocuous seeming words like "What the hell is this frog doing here, Johnson?" asked Richard.

"We get," cry these writers, "that they are asking a question. That's what is denoted by the presence of the interrogative typographic marking!" You know, one of these bad boys: ?

Indeed. Why number any but the first chapter in a book? Your idiotic readers ought to know it's the fifteenth chapter because there's been fourteen of the bastards since the first one.

But still, let's see if these guys and gals are right. In order of decreasing offensiveness to this common writer caveat, let's explore the effect of using less and less blatant means of expressing question and answer phrases, starting with the supposed suckiest:

"Excuse me," I asked nervously, staring the clerk in the eye, "but do you have my room key?"
"Room key?" responded the clerk tartly. "What do I look like, a desk clerk?"

This is the point where a common reader would fling the book into a metal bucket, pour kerosene on it, and light it on fire. Then, the reader would grab a dining room chair, jump up on it, and turn off his smoke alarm. And, I dunno, open a few windows. But definitely stop reading.

Because, writers tell us knowingly, writing things like that is worse than having your intestinal bacteria replaced by having a hose stuffed up your nose and down your throat and being pumped full of someone else's shit (an actual medical practice, believe it or not).

Okay, let's progress to the median level: level 2. This is less offensive to the seasoned writer, but still purported to be pretty damn stinky.

"Do you have my room ready?" I said. 
"Yes," said the clerk.

Oh god! Oh yes! Oh god yes! Is this a block of prose or an Herbal Essences commercial? Because I think I may have just soiled my shorts. This is so crisp. This is so fresh. This is so much less offensive to my sensitive artist's eye than that schlock a few paragraphs above. I need a moment to recover.

(Breathes heavily into a paper bag.)

Okay, I'm back. Thanks for sticking with me through that transcendent moment.

This type of dialog, compared to that above, makes your average reader lower the book, raise his eyes to the ceiling, and silently mouth the word 'YES!'

According to our beautiful writer friends, however, this snapping scene can be improved. I know: How the Hell are you going to do that?!?!, you ask with a double interrobang. (Hey, you're very worked up. I understand.) Well, I'll endeavor to show you.

This is the level 3. The pinnacle of conversational exchange. The optimal way to have your characters ask and find out infos according to the writer gods who line the hallowed halls of the Celestial Realm of Story. Note, ye mortal:

"Room ready?"
"Room? Oh, right. Yeah."
The clerk handed over my keys.

Oh, sweet rapture. My pants just tied themselves into a bow. I am tap dancing on the ceiling right now. Don't mind me, but I think I may have just broken the laws of space and time to inwardly express my fundamental appreciation of this extremely superior means of expression.

So, we can now plainly see, those know-it-all writer folk are absolutely right. I mean, when it comes right down to it, what is the good of expressing perfectly obvious questions, I ask you?

Oh, wait: sorry. I just mean 'What's the point of expressing perfectly obvious questions?'

No! Still wrong! One more try.

Expressing questions? Why bother?


  1. your writing is extremely writerly.

  2. I make sure the reader knows who is talking and just let them say whatever is it they say. It works for me. Whether it works for my audience is for them to decide.
    My particular punishment for dialogue of the suckingly bad kind is to line my cats' litter trays with the pages and then give them something particularly rich to eat.

  3. I found this post to be hilarious! As a newer writer I was doing a lot wrong, and probably still am. I love some books in which the author uses lots of adjectives and adverbs, as well as fancy dialogue tags. In other books it doesn't work- so I think it could be a matter of preference. Still, after learning how much everyone hates the things you mentioned- I have been trying to make improvements.

    Thanks for posting this and making me laugh.

  4. Another title of this could be "3 ways Hemingway ruined literature."