As young writers, we absorb a lot of advice and techniques. Most of us lack the experience to separate the wheat from the chaff. This can lead to lingering bad habits that may have felt right at the time but should be retired before our next round of revisions.
Once you break your bad habits you’ll start seeing them everywhere! Here are the ones sticking out for me lately:
Fancy dialogue tags
Most of us learn at some point to vary our dialogue tags. We may even spice up the word “said” with an adverb afterward — she said sarcastically.
Ironically, “said” is the best choice 99 percent of the time. It blends in and allows your prose to flow smoothly between dialogue and description. This keeps your reader immersed in the fictive dream.
Remember the tricky cliche show, don’t tell here. You shouldn’t need to say “exclaimed” or “whispered” or “intoned.” You’re articulating the nature of the speech elsewhere. Cramming that exposition into fancy dialogue tags feels clunky and distracting.
Excessive descriptions of eyes
Many writers talk about eyes to heighten drama or intrigue. Unfortunately, all that eye-related exposition has become overplayed.
Only call attention to the color or nature of a character’s eyes if your point-of-view character has a reason to notice them. Occasionally we meet a person with objectively fascinating eyes. More often we notice other aspects of their appearance first. Have you ever forgotten a friend’s or family member’s eye color? We don’t make special note of it every time we see someone. Be judicious with your descriptions of eye shape and color, especially for characters who’ve known each other a long time.
Inappropriate exposition through dialogue
Stuffing exposition into your dialogue breaks point of view and makes the dialogue feel unnatural. Only include information the speaker would logically need to convey to the listener.
For example, I would never say to my husband, “Can you ask your brother Brian if he got the Christmas cards we mailed to him and his family?” Most of us make efficient use of spoken words. We get frustrated with people habitually remind us of backstory we already know. My husband and I have significant context for any conversation about our relatives. All I’d need to say would be, “Can you ask Brian if they got our Christmas cards?”
If you need to fill the reader in on background knowledge your main characters take for granted, consider using a newcomer character. Find someone as ignorant as your readers. This character will ask the right questions at the right times, prompting your characters to say everything they’d never need to explain to one another.
Adjectives or descriptions that accidentally break POV
Around the same time we learn about fancy dialogue tags, we learn to sprinkle nice adjectives in front of our nouns and set the mood with rich setting descriptions. This can make for good writing, but it’s not good wholesale advice.
Maintain awareness of your point-of-view character and what they would notice at any given moment. Choose descriptors judiciously. Everything your narrator observes tells us something about them. Including too much information, or information that doesn’t make sense for the moment, will distract the reader.
Gratuitous commentary on characters’ physical appearance
I’m currently re-reading a series of books I enjoyed many years ago and noticing a lot of cringe-worthy references to people’s physiques. It’s especially problematic because the author uses physical appearance as a shorthand to describe character and perceived worth.
These descriptions, like any in your book, reveal something about your protagonist’s character and values. Consider carefully whether this is how you’d like to portray them (and possibly yourself).
Not only that, excessive focus on physical characteristics can weaken point of view. I don’t move through the world making comprehensive inventories of people’s personal appearance. I find it awkward to read characters who do. Only include mention of a person’s physical appearance if it’s relevant: that is, something your point-of-view character would’ve noticed at that moment.
There you have it. Five bad habits you can break with your next revision!