Short Stories are Not Instruction Manuals

Been reading a lot of student fiction lately and submissions to Philadelphia Stories for the next magazine publication, and there are a couple of hiccups I see sometimes in the work.

One is the impulse to be very specific about which side a person might be using to complete an activity. For example, sentences like this (not from any real manuscripts): "She picked up the fountain pen with her left hand and began writing on the paper while resting her right cheek on her right palm." While I get the impulse here--writer wants to be sure we're very clear on the way the person is poised--it is unintentionally humorous (perhaps she's sitting on her right palm while writing, if you catch my drift) and unnecessary unless the story is actually a Sherlock Holmes-esque mystery involving forged documents by a person who's really right handed. Better just write: "She picked up the fountain pen and began writing." The additional description of her face resting on her hand while she does this...Not sure that it gives us any really substantial information or insight (unless again, we learned in the previous paragraph that she has a bullet hole in her face and needs to staunch the bleeding while completing this note about who has shot her).  What it does do is distract the reader long enough to make her stare off into space to try to figure out exactly which hand is where and in the middle of this, she might be distracted by her cat attacking the yoga mat and get up from the chair, leaving the story to cool on the kitchen table.

Another thing writers can just do away with is the impulse to address the other character in every other line of dialogue. To wit:

Hey, Julie, can you hand me that pencil with your right hand?

Sure, Jennifer, not a problem, Jen. Here it is.

Thanks, Julie.

Any time. Though I am left-handed, you know, Jen.

Think about how frequently or infrequently you use a person's name in conversation. I would say that it happens very little, and the better you know a person, the less you use it. Or you use it only when you really want to get someone's attention, like, Emma! Quit it! Readers are smarter than you think. As long as you have some dialogue attribution (Julie said, Jennifer said), we'll be able to keep people straight and don't need the false ring that comes with constantly being reminded of the names in dialogue.


PinkPanthress said…
This post made me laugh, I never thought of it like that.
I mean, just imagine a Stephen King horror written like that, I wouldn't be creeped out by the gory parts, but rather laugh myself silly! :D

OYG... And the Video, this cat is crazy! *lulz*
Tracie said…
These are some of my own pet peeves! I am so particular in my writing, yet I make enough grammatical errors to make your head spin. Great post!