Authors: Please Avoid Dialogue Indirection
Guest Post by Ron Fritsch
I make this plea more as a reader than a writer, although I’m both. I love reading novels and shorter stories that make me think. Genre and literary fiction can both get the job done.
I also like to review fiction I honestly feel deserves a thoughtful description and a five-star rating. So almost every day finds me downloading excerpts from Amazon, hoping to discover something to read, enjoy, and praise, especially if the writer is just starting out or otherwise unknown.
Reading those excerpts, I’ve discovered the one error far too many aspiring authors make to ensure I won’t read on. It happens when even a careful reader can’t tell who’s speaking. I call this syndrome “dialogue indirection.”
Here’s what I’m talking about:
“Jim looked at John, smirking.
“‘You’re not as clever as you think you are.’
This sort of thing forces the reader to guess who smirked, who made the remark, and who laughed. So the reader has to reread, several times maybe, what came before those three sentences, as well as the sentences themselves, in order to attempt to figure it out.
It ought to be obvious a writer shouldn’t put a reader in such a position. Far too many writers, though, don’t understand this. They know who did and said what. But they forget they’re not writing for themselves but for readers—who might very well decide they don’t give a damn and delete the sample from their Kindle or iPad right then and there.
My three too typical sentences include, of course, two violations of the rule of grammar regarding antecedents of pronouns. The Chicago Manual of Style, which I attempt to follow in my writing, reasonably states in section 5.27: “An antecedent may be explicit or implicit, but it must be clear.”
I’d say that should be the first rule for all writing, whatever one may think about splitting infinitives and ending sentences with prepositions: “it must be clear.”
“Jim, smirking, looked at John.
“‘You’re not as clever as you think you are.’ John said.
“‘You’re not as clever as you think you are,’ Jim said.
Two entirely different stories. The writer must make it clear which story it is.
If the writer doesn’t? Well, frankly, my dear, I won’t give a damn.