I was reading a general-audience history book last week, and found myself shouting at the book every time the author described the smell of the air or the glint in someone’s eyes. You weren’t there, man! Don’t pretend you were there! At one point, he described everything some guy passed on this one walk in 1920s Chicago, and at first I thought, well, maybe this guy kept a really intense diary. But then the guy in question was shot dead.
Do not give me details that do nothing to forward the plot, aren’t indicative of character, and are not beautifully written. Example from a book I was reading: two tense people pull up to a police station. Then: “He unbuckled his seatbelt.” The book doesn’t seem more “real” by bland writing flat details of living. Then: “He opened the door.”
No! Now I’m vaguely wondering whether seatbelts are part of the plot (answer is no) and worried that all these details (which would be in the stage directions, I guess, if this were a play) are going to continue. He raised the sandwich to his mouth. He took a bite. I shut the book.
Descriptions of eye color. Unless someone has an especially unusual eye color, I cannot tell you the color of anyone’s eyes except my family members and that is because my kids want to know why they didn’t get green eyes like me. I tried y’all.
It really grinds me when an author (a published author!) resorts to the old info dump trick ... unable to find an artful way to get in a physical description of a character, the first-person narrator instead glances in a mirror where she sees "a woman too thin for classic beauty but with a generous and expressive mouth and unruly dark hair carelessly tied back in a low ponytail ..." Please, have another character instead speak up and say, "You know, you really are too thin for classic beauty ..." As if.
Although I’ve seen it in the work of excellent writers, I always raise both eyebrows when a writer describes a character as “lifting a brow.” My riding instructor is the only person I know who can lift one brow independently of the other. She does this frequently to stress the importance of independent aids in riding and to suggest how far I am from teaching one part of my body to move independently of the rest.
I am enjoying this thread, she thought absentmindedly.
Heavy-handed tip offs. I read a friend's first novel (I wanted it so bad to be good, but it just wasn't) and before his spy heroine is going to meet her Nazi handler (she's a double agent), he makes sure we know she sticks a hat pin in her hair as she leaves the restaurant. Guess what she stabs the villainous SS officer in the neck with? My friend was so proud of that murder scene, sure it came as a complete surprise to the reader. I didn't have the heart to use it as an example of hamhandedness. The time to mention hatpins was when she was shopping for a new hat in chapter two, and thinking about the man she's in love with, distractedly pricks her own scalp. By Chapter 34, that would be long forgotten, but the writer can't be accused of introducing something completely out of thin air, which was his fear.
I did give him one bit or macro-advice, but it didn't stick (a-hem): Don't answer questions the reader isn't asking.
this one is probably common knowledge at this point but "[x] let out a breath they didn't know they were holding." not as common in literary fiction as in commercial/romance but it crops up occasionally and makes me crazy!
Great thread! In no particular order: When characters do stupid and/or illogical things to advance the plot. When one phone call would solve absolutely everything. When first person narrators don’t reveal crucial information when they would most definitely be thinking it at the time.
The precise sentence, '[character] shook [his/her] head as if to clear it.'
Shows up in different books in different genres and I have no idea what it's supposed to signify.
This goes into the bigger problem that a lot of these gesture-based pet peeves speak to (which I don't claim to have solved), ie, that a writer wants to break up the dialogue for pacing/rhythm purposes and resorts to blocking/stage directions, when the answer to 'what should go in this space' is usually 'something besides blocking or stage directions'
For me, it’s head jumping. Do we really need eight POV characters to tell this story? Can you please let me get attached to one before you leap to an entirely new person/continent/century and my empathy has to start growing all over again? Drives me bonkers.
- References to characters "swallowing" before speaking, eg: "Bob swallowed. 'I think you need to leave,' he said."
- When characters speak in too-articulate paragraphs in ways that no one actually talks, though I'll give this one a pass if the dialogue is interesting enough
[quickly checks book manuscript for donut smells]
You have put your finger on one of my big ones. Also cadence is important to me. I love Louise Penny but the consistency and predictability of her sentence cadence has stopped me from continuing to read her stuff.
How many times do I have to eventually realize that the blood-curdling scream I hear is actually coming from me?
A pet peeve I only recently realized is teenage characters who sound like adults. This feels unfairly judge-y, because I'm sure writing in a teenage voice is difficult, but in my current read a 17-year-old's internal dialogue says something like "it was frustrating, like scratching your rental car on the way to return it." What do 17-year-olds know about rental cars?!
I love this question (I actually wrote a post about my literary red flags recently and it was deeply fun to air out my grievances: https://wendyrobinson.substack.com/p/literary-red-flags). I have a special distaste for authors who use the phrase "ground out" as in "What are you doing?", Bob ground out in irritation.
No! This is how you end up with expensive dental work! Save your characters molars!