Wednesday, June 22, 2011

How to be a Good Writer, Part 6

A good writer knows the rules, folks. It’s just that simple. In the interest of serving my fellow man through the broadcast of useful knowledge, I’ve decided that this week will focus on a rule you probably don’t know about. Well, several, in fact. It’s all interrelated. Like Deliverance.

Here’s a rule that’s not in the style guide I have, but one I cannot overstress the importance of nevertheless: Never ever use exclamation marks in your narrative. If you find yourself doing this, you’re probably ignorant of another rule: the cardinal sin of telling and not showing. In other words, you’re using the narrative to communicate the story, when you should be using dialogue to do it. If your story is being told, there’s little dialogue because it’s all narrative. If it’s being shown, it has lots of dialogue, like a movie. But this week's writerly bit is about exclamation marks, so here's an example of when not to use them.

The car came around the corner so quickly that it came up on two wheels!

Okay, there are lots of problems with this bit, not the least of which is that when I look at it I want to add OMG to the end of it, or some other texting-based rot. Have I mentioned how I feel about smartphones? Anyway another problem is that the word came is in there twice. That’s another thing to watch out for, and don’t just right click>synonyms to fix it. Rewrite it with your brain, not Word tools. The above example is an amateurish sentence made far worse by the exclamation mark. If you're adding excitement or tension with punctuation, you've got problems. A writer's spice rack includes not just punctuation but also words, whole phrases...and the insight required to make good use of all of them. It's safe to say that exclamation marks are only for dialogue or something not strictly narrative, like when a character notices a sign that says:

Don’t pee in our pool!

The narrator isn’t saying it, and neither is the character. It’s speaking from inside the world of the book; therefore the flamboyant punctuation is apropos.

Let me give you an example of a far better way to communicate urgency and danger in the bit about the car:

“Slow down,” Jimmy said.
John sped up, however, though the corner was fast approaching.
“Dude, slow down!”
“Shut up,” John said, “I know what I’m doing.” As he yanked the wheel, the car skidded off the shoulder and grabbed, popping it up on two wheels.

Okay that’s a pretty basic version, but I think you get the idea. I’ll leave it to you to decide if the exclamation mark killed everyone or not.