February 04, 2009

Amateurish Writing - by Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff

Last year I ran an interview with Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff and then posted a series of articles she wrote on amateurish writing. The series was very well received. She has a knack for addressing topics in an interesting and engaging way. So, when I heard that she had written more articles on the same subject, I jumped at the chance to include them here on Constructing Stories. Let me (and Maya) know what you think!

Barney as Narrator
By Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff

More often than I'd like to tell I see manuscripts that read as if they were written for children, regardless of who the target audience is. Partly this is the result of what the writer chooses to tell the reader, partly it's how the writer tells it.

Sample paragraph:

Queen Amelia looked at the new ambassador. He looks familiar, she thought. What she didn't realize was that the new ambassador was a disguised Lord Roberto.

"I am your new ambassador, Majesty," announced Lord Roberto in his disguise.

What’s wrong with this perfectly grammatical set of sentences?

There's nothing grammatically wrong with the paragraph, although "announced Lord Roberto in his disguise" makes it sound as if he's saying the line up his sleeve. But it has other problems:

  • It's juvenile-sounding and awkward.
  • It gives the reader information the point-of-view character doesn't have.
  • It repeats the fact that the Queen has a new ambassador three times, and the fact that it's Lord Roberto in disguise twice.
  • It repeats certain words in the same or different forms: look, ambassador, new, disguise.
  • The dialogue tag ("he announced") tries to inject false excitement into the scene.

In most writing suffering from the "Barney Effect," the characters rarely say anything. They shout, yell, bellow, scream, shriek, squeal, exclaim and cry their dialogue. The writer thinks he's injecting excitement into the prose when, instead, he's creating something that reads like those old Dick and Jane books we had to slog through before we got to read something with a plot.

How do you avoid Barney-isms?

Two simple changes will help a great deal:

  • Don't make your characters shout unless they're trying to attract someone's attention across a crowded room, or scream unless they're absolutely terrified, or cry out unless they're shocked and amazed. Have them simply say things.
  • Don't pause to inform the reader of what the hero doesn't know. (Unless asides to the "audience" are part of the "schtick" of your story.)

Exercise: See if you can make the Sample Paragraph above sound like it belongs in an adult book of fiction. Embellish at will!


J Sherer said...

I really liked this post from Maya. Emotion isn't created from bombastic words all the time. Subtlty is an art, but it's so powerful. Your reader is embedded in the scene. They're putting their own emotions into the scene. As Maya is saying, don't beat them over the head with it.

I find the need to do a post on point of view. Maya hinted at it here, and it's something that I see fairly often. Sticking to a point of view (or switching strategically) is critical to keeping a reader engaged.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting. I never thought of it that way. I like the idea that the writer doesn't have to force emotion or excitement. If the writing is sophisticated, it will create that on its own. The writer should trust the reader more.

Kaath9 said...

Here's one approach to the exercise that I got from an online participant. He elected to go with the humor in the situation:

With his wig and false nose securely in place Lord Roberto approached Queen Amelia. He flourished a leg and said. ‘I am your new ambassador, Majesty.’

Queen Amelia frowned. There was something familiar about the man, she was sure but couldn’t quite put her finger on it.

It was only later that it came to her; he had been wearing one of her wigs…