The writer had sat down at his computer, frowning slightly, and set about typing, when suddenly a thought occurred to him.
“Have you ever noticed,” he said, out loud, “that in someone’s early writing, there’s a tendency to expound facts or descriptions in dialogue? Here I am, in my chair and frowning slightly, and had just set about typing, when this thought occurred to me even here. I wonder why it is that some writers do that? Do such writers have editors? And do they ever listen to normal conversation?”
But have you ever read something with this kind of dialogue, and it actually got published?
Do not ever, ever, ever “TTM” information
As you know if you’ve read installments one and two in this little series, I’ve read at least one actual novel that flagrantly shoved exposition into dialogue. In fact, for a while I didn’t know what term to give exposition-in-dialogue, so I called it TTM, after the book. It’s a verb, like this:
v. T·T·Med, T·T·M·ing, T·T·Ms
1. To give flagrant plot exposition or description in dialogue, real or fictitious. I already know where this is and what we’re doing; you don’t need to TTM it.
2. To cause one’s readers to slap dark red marks into their foreheads.
3. To make already-vellum-thin characters sound like dorks. “Look!” Larry brought the binoculars to his eyes. “Troop carriers are littered all over the thirty-mile safety zone. […] The vehicles are upside down and turned over.”
Other than this particular book, I have not read other stories that commit this, ahhh, unique writing method so directly. And without reading the TTMing in The Third Millennium, I wonder if I would have ever become aware of the problem. So again, that book became a blessing in disguise: I learned something that, as a writer, I might have otherwise fallen into even more.
However, this could make things a bit annoying to a reader. Being aware of the risks of TTMing information, a writer may overcorrect and make things less clear. It’s a tricky balance, and in the best books I’ve read, the writer conveys a description in narrative with enough details to draw the picture in a reader’s mind, without drawing any undue attention to the writing style — or worse, placing the description in unnecessary dialogue. (I’ve heard radio dramas that, without narrators, reworked a novel’s narrative descriptions and not once TTMed the information.)
Yet it’s also occurred to me that a fiction author can info-dump without dialogue. Maybe you’ve seen this in books — a point at which the writer spent far too many words describing a place, or a backstory, that made you need to go back and start over.
This seems a particular risk inherent to fantasy and science fiction: there’s so much that is unfamiliar, and which a writer may feel compelled to over-describe. An author may get quite wrapped up in his or her own created-world, believing that every part of it must be described, even if it doesn’t pertain to the plot. Or he may not want to let all the supporting material about creatures, culture, description or history go to waste. (Yes, J.R.R. Tolkien got away with showing things that didn’t further the plot of The Lord of the Rings. But that’s J.R.R. Tolkien, isn’t it?)
Care for your world: don’t recycle
Other books, even if they avoid unnecessary descriptions in narrative or dialogue, still fall into another trap: overusing the same words.
I’ve been picking on The Third Millennium a lot. So let me try something less controversial — picking on none other than Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.
I’d read this novel a few years ago, but recently I was re-reading it aloud with my wife, Lacy, and we began to discover something: J.K. Rowling was using the word slightly, and using it a lot. And almost every time it seemed more than slightly unnecessary. As we took turns reading the book, we actually began dropping it from narrative descriptions and characters’ dialogue.
Yes, this probably isn’t nearly as annoying if you’re reading silently. But to this day, since we finished re-reading Order some months ago, I’m reluctant to use the word slightly.
Worse, perhaps, is the humbling — and sometimes humiliating — fact that all fiction writers, I’m sure (I hope!) find ourselves using the same words in their own writing. Just now I pulled up an old spreadsheet I put together in summer 2005 for a project, labeled Words to watch for. Seems I was proofreading over a few weeks and grew increasingly annoyed at the terms and phrases I kept seeing — including well and what as dialogue interjections, various conjugations of look, references to to the right of and to the left of, mentions of someone pausing, and (argh, it makes me cringe even now) characters constantly standing up or sitting down, for no reason.
This is when Microsoft Word’s find-and-replace function can be a Godsend.
But for readers of bad books, or even good books with bad parts, we have no choice but to put up with the author’s slips (and that is how I categorize Rowling, of course, knowing her skills). Yet it’s also encouraging to know things could be worse. To support this, again I reference TTM:
[T]o my deep consternation, there was one consternated word that just kept consternatingly popping up out of the pages of the consternated book, like a trap door spider—the consternatingly overused word “consternation”, consternatingly speaking. Every character apparently knows this word and it frequently appears in nearly everyone’s dialogue, along with other unnecessary “big” words that should appear in the narrative more than the characters’ dialogue. It actually consternatingly got to the consternated point that whenever the word “consternation”—or any of its consternatingly related forms—would appear, I would consternatingly cringe.
(Next week: Jumpin’ genres! Notable visionary-fiction fails, often unique to Christian writers, and how we might avoid them.)