Those of you who follow my blog know that I wish I could find a time machine, jump back to about 1970, and pop my younger self up alongside the head and say, “Pay attention!”
This is true of English class.
Now, here’s the weird part. I’ve always wanted to be a writer. But not paying attention in English class, and learning little weird stuff like how to use a comma and so forth is a little like wanting to be chemist and ignoring the part about not mixing Chemical A with Chemical B lest it go boom.
As I continue in my journey to become a better author, I’ve been lucky to run into a few folks along the way who have passed on a lesson or two.
There’s a really bad habit I picked up as an author.
Here’s a classic example:
I nodded. “Yes, that’s absolutely right.”
There’s two problems with that paragraph. One is the world “Absolutely.” I could probably get away with it if that’s how the character talks, but it can be annoying. The nasty -ly word should enhance or strengthen the word “right.” Question becomes, does it? Can you be anymore right than right?
Not from where I sit. Either you’re right, or you’re not.
The other thing wrong there is the first sentence. “I nodded.” The second sentence makes that action redundant. While we might do that in real life, and on occasion we can get away with it in a book, we need to very careful putting it into a story.
Why? There’s several reasons.
First, never, ever give your characters stage direction. Oh, to a point you have to to move things along such as, “Mary turned the door knob.” But does it add anything? Do I have to tell the reader to animate their version of the character by having him or her nod their head. It might event distract from whatever they’ve got to say. Don’t add a physical action that’s not needed.
Nodding is also a sign of agreement. It’s a visual cue that you’re tracking what’s being said. I do that often when I’m listening to a sermon or a lecture. But in this case, who would the the speaker be agreeing with? Themselves?
There’s two places I can think of where I might want to have a character nodding before speaking. One is when they aren’t sure of what they’re talking about, and they’re trying to convince themselves. The other is when they’re lying through their teeth. Often times, someone guilty of a crime will nod when they’re telling you a story. It’s a non-verbal attempt to convince you that what their saying is true. The suspect will be completely unaware they’re even doing it. It’s something a seasoned interviewer can use against the suspect. They just need to watch for it.
The other reason is a little more unforgiving. It becomes a crutch in writing, and this is one thing I’m very guilty of. I have a lot of nodding and shrugging going on. What this became wasn’t action. It became the writing equivalent of clearing my throat before speaking, or in this case typing. That can get annoying and you can turn off an audience if you do it too many times.
Most of the time I was just putting something down so I could write the next sentence. I was doing what some theater people call “vamping.” Doing something to buy time to figure out what to say next.
I plead ‘Mea Culpea” on all charges. So, now I know.
A big shout out and thanks goes to Joy Kidney at https://joynealkidney.com for pointing out that I do this.
So, now I know.