Sunday, April 7, 2013

Look at Me!!!!!!

A friend asked me to look over her realtor’s listing of her house. The EXCITING copy I read offered exclamation point after exclamation point! New listing! Priced to sell! Cute! Quaint! Comfy! Just what you’re looking for!

Perhaps. But I’d rather be shown the reasons why it’s just what I’m looking for. Specify that, and you can omit all the in-your-face manipulation, which won’t convince me, anyhow. Exclamation points, caps, and even some instances of italics are like SHOUTING IN THE READER’S FACE! And, as the always understated F. Scott Fitzgerald put it, “An exclamation mark is like laughing at your own joke.” How funny can that be?

Exclamation points are symptomatic of a larger problem. How much do you trust your reader? How much do you trust your own words? If you mistakenly believe you feel that trust, or hope that grinding your teeth hard enough will make it so, all is lost! You’ll state. You’ll tell. You’ll bludgeon. You’ll smear your scenes with abstractions.

Don’t reduce emotion to vague abstractions like “anguish,” “terror,” or “ardor.”
Don’t tell us what to think. You won’t convince us, just annoy us.
Don’t think that describing character emotions helps readers feel them. That’s just another way of saying “Quaint! Comfy! Just what you’re looking for!”

Do imply. The best clues are the ones readers just barely absorb.
Do offer imagery. If we can see, hear, taste, smell, or touch it, that’s when readers experience the scene right along with the characters.
Do understate. The more tragic and dramatic the emotion, then the more quietly you should whisper when conveying it.

If you don’t trust your readers and your novel, the best way to address that is to revise until you feel good about what you’ve written. Real evidence on the page helps you relinquish control to offer readers the inference they prefer. Yes, this involves the risk that they might miss something you long to share.  But it’s always better not to make your point than to pummel readers with it.

Tip: Unless there’s a fire (!) or someone needs help (!), not a bad idea to pretend that exclamation points and other intrusive gimmicks don’t even exist.

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