Since we’re lucky enough to have Ariel in the studio once again, we’ve decided to take a deep dive into common wordcraft mistakes. There’s no plot or character analysis here, just the words and punctuation on the page. Mostly, it’s how those words and punctuation marks are used poorly. We discuss rhyming names, the prevalence of exclamation points, and POVs that make no sense. Also, what happens when you name something without describing it. Spoilers: it confuses the reader.
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Opening and closing theme: The Princess Who Saved Herself by Jonathan Coulton. Used with permission.
Generously transcribed by A Perspiring Writer. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle. [opening song]
Chris: This is the Mythcreants podcast. I’m Chris, and with me is…
Chris: And our special guest, returning for a third time…
Ariel: It’s Ariel! [Chris laughs]
Chris: So, this time, we’re gonna say things that are annoying over and over and over again. That sounds great, right? That’s what we all wanna hear?
Oren: Absolutely. [laughter]
Chris: So, we’re going to talk about- basically overused wordcraft devices, things that, at a sentence level, are just done too much. Too much. Who wants to start?
Oren: Well, first of all, can I launch a protest as a dev editor? I feel attacked by this subject, and I don’t even like to acknowledge that sentences exist, as part of my editing. It’s like, if it’s not at- to the chapter level, I find it religiously offensive. [laughter]
Chris: You say that, but I know you give sentence-level feedback to your clients. [laughs]
Oren: Yeah, but I’ll deny it in court. [Chris laughs] Alright, well, one of my beefs- I’m not positive this counts as a wordcraft device, but I just really don’t like rhyming names.
Oren: I’m not going to say a character should never have a rhyming name, but I think in general, it’s not a good idea. Cause it’s funny, like, when a character has a rhyming name, I can’t not giggle when I hear it. And that just kind of ruins a lot of moods, if the mood is supposed to be serious.
And I could see, maybe a really clever author giving a character who’s super grimdark and badass a rhyming name as a way of giving them a hard time, I could see that being cool, but for the most part- especially when it feels like, I’m not even sure if the author knows these characters have rhyming names?
I don’t know if the author ever said these names out loud. Goblin Emperor had that problem for me a lot. Like, one of the character’s names is ‘Aubelon Drazeron.’ And I’m like, did you- is that supposed to rhyme? [laughter] Do you know that that rhymes? I’m legit not sure.
Chris: That’s a good point, obviously rhyming names is very- very light feeling, and kinda silly feeling. Some stories, it might be fine, but in most stories, that would kind of break the mood.
Oren: Yeah, and I feel sort of the same way about alliterative names, as a rule. They can work, like Jessica Jones is obviously a very dark story on Netflix, and it has a character with an alliterative name, but that’s largely because it was grandfathered in.
Chris: Although, I would say Jessica Jones, as alliterative names go, don’t feel that bad to me. Cause those are both- it’s not like that those are an unusual first name or a last name.
Oren: Yeah, that’s true.
Chris: They’re pretty common, so that gives it a sort of mundaneness that I think can counter the alliteration, in that case. What do you think about novel names, Ariel? Too much?
Ariel: I mean, as long as you don’t have a bunch of characters with very similar names; I think that’s a bigger problem, right?
Oren: Or character with names that- this is a thing that comes up a lot, that I’ve noticed, is names that don’t look the same on the page but sound the same when you say them. Like, I had a character who- again, back to Goblin Emperor; there was a character whose name started with a ‘c’, and a character whose name started with a ‘t’.
So, they don’t look the same on the page, but when you read them, they both started with a ‘tzeh’ sound. And so, I was like, ‘wait, which character- which ‘tzeh’ character is this?’
Chris: That would be a problem. I want to talk about something, that I know Ariel gets annoyed with sometimes, is single sentence paragraphs. Which, for the most part, I actually do often like them, but that does not mean that they cannot be overused.
Ariel: Yeah, I definitely think they’re overused. [laughs]
Chris: And I think the best example- so, I have a- you can read it in my critique of I Am Number Four, the end of the first chapter- okay, I’m going to read it for you; these are all- each one of these lines is a paragraph:
“In the beginning we were a group of nine. Three are gone, dead. There are six of us left. They are hunting us, and they won’t stop until they’ve killed us all. I am Number Four. I know that I am next.” [laughs] So-
Oren: So grimdark.
Chris: -those are all one paragraph. And they’re all in a row. Six single line paragraphs. Right in a row. At the end of the first chapter. And it just feels so melodramatic.
Oren: I think you mean it feels amazing. [Chris laughs] Cause the one-line paragraph is used for emphasis, right? It’s used to make one line of description really pop. So, if you do it with all of your paragraphs, they will all pop really well. I think that’s how it works. Pretty sure.
Chris: It’s definitely not based on contrast. [laughs]
Ariel: But which is worse; having six one-sentence paragraphs, or combining them into one paragraph, but ending each of them with an exclamation point?[Chris laughs]
Oren: Oh gosh. [laughs]
Chris: Okay, the exclamation point is worse. I will concede that one.
Ariel: Like, you can have one exclamation point in there. But you have to choose it carefully.
Chris: I think that the exclamation point thing, there are just some writers that are used to using exclamation points everywhere. I know there- I’ve seen some people who write letters like that. They just- that’s just how they write. Which, most people don’t write that way. But definitely, it’s also because, ‘I want everything to be super dramatic, and I don’t know how to make it dramatic, cause I don’t have the experience; but maybe if I just put exclamation points and everything…’
Oren: Well, the key- what you do there is, if you have too many exclamation marks- or exclamation points, so the contrast is coming through, for the ones that you really want to be extra exciting, you put extra exclamation points. [Chris and Ariel groan] Just put more of them.
I definitely feel like there are some authors who are just kind of a nerd to the exclamation mark. They- for whatever reason, they’ve seen it so many times; it’s like people who eat a lot of hot peppers, and so they just think, ‘oh, this is just the basic level of heat. There’s basically nothing here. I’m going to add a few more ghost chilis just to spice things up a bit.’
And then they’re like- they wonder why all their friends are dead. [Ariel laughs]
Chris: I think it also underestimates how menacing the period can be. Some interesting discussion I’ve seen is, with the changing patterns of writing from people chatting a lot online, how it’s become common for people to leave out periods, and instead, every sentence is its own line in the chat interface, right?
So, a line break is what they use to punctuate a sentence, when you’re just doing online chat. And if you put down a period, it means you’re like, mad. [laughs] Or really serious.
Oren: So, this is super arbitrary to just, what my gut reaction is, but I feel like, if someone types ‘thank you, period mark,’ that’s fine, but if they type ‘thanks, period,’ then I might be like, ‘are they mad at me? Are they being sarcastic with that thanks? If they didn’t put an exclamation on it, are they actually thankful? What’s happening?’
Chris: Right. And it’s not like everybody would read that way in a novel; we’re very context-sensitive about our communication. But that occurred because the period also already has a certain amount of weight to it. So, if you do a lot of one-word sentences, and you punctuate with a period, it has a menacing feel.
And so, a lot of times, the exclamation point has a certain amount of boingy-ness, and excitement, that the quiet menace of the period is oftentimes just a better fit. [laughs] Alright, let’s get another one. Oren?
Oren: Well, I’m back on the names thing, but like, as a rule, when you can have simpler pronunciation, go for it. There are some things that- you need more difficult pronunciation for English-speakers, right? Because English-speakers sometimes have trouble with names that are not English.
And the solution to that is not to ban all names that English people have trouble pronouncing, but if you can, keep the phonetics simple. When you’re making up words, and when you’re making up names, if you don’t have a reason to make the name or made-up word more difficult for an English-speaker to pronounce, then don’t.
I still- my mind is completely blown that Rowling though we were gonna pronounce ‘Voldemort’ with a silent ‘t’.
Ariel: And that one, she didn’t explain in time, right? We went four books before we knew how to pronounce ‘Hermione.’
Oren: But like, Hermione is at least an actual name. It’s a real name that exists, even if it’s not very common. It’s probably more common now, but when it was being- when Harry Potter was being written, Hermione was a fairly archaic name, but it still existed. Whereas Voldemort is completely made up, so the idea that it was supposed to have a silent French ‘t’ is like, literally nobody was going to get that.
Chris: Especially since he’s not French.
Oren: He’s not. [laughter] If he was French, maybe. I would give it that. But I would also expect significantly more baguettes.
Chris: Yeah, being fussy about how your character’s names are pronounced seems like a losing battle to me in the first place. [laughs]
Oren: I mean, with the Voldemort thing, that’s really more of just a joke, because it’s not like any of us had trouble pronouncing ‘Voldemort’. We all basically said it the same way. I am a little more annoyed with things like ‘daemon’ from His Dark Materials. Where, it’s apparently supposed to be ‘demon’, and it’s like, ‘no, I’m sorry, we’re not computer scientists, and don’t know how that word is pronounced.’
Ariel: Oh, I saw the movie before I read the books.
Oren: That’ll do it. Or if you listen to the audiobook first. But for most of us who read the book, we’re like, ‘there’s an extra ‘a’ in there. Clearly, it should be pronounced differently, cause if he meant ‘demon’, he would just say that.’ [laughter]
Ariel: Well, no, cause that would have certain connotations. Come on.
Oren: It wouldn’t, though. Because, I don’t-
Chris: I think it still does. If you call it ‘demon’, it still has the same connotations. [Ariel laughs] I think the people who read the work and saw the word visually and thought of it as ‘daemon’ have a pretty high resistance to calling it anything else, because of all the connotations that come with the word ‘demon’.
It’s just, they felt like something unique and different, not what we think of as a demon.
Oren: I will face the author and walk backwards into hell before I pronounce it ‘demon’. [Chris laughs]
Chris: So, for me, there’s a- I would kind of lump them together; parenthesis is probably the biggest one. The overuse of parenthesis. But em-dashes- and em-dashes can be used very similarly to a parenthesis; where you have one on either side, and you have a phrase that’s being isolated.
Footnotes. It’s when a phrase is even longer, and you can’t even put it in a paragraph anymore, so you have a little number, or like an asterisk, and something else. These are all ways for a writer to avoid actually making tough decisions about what words to put in their paragraph.
Where they’ll like, ‘okay, I’ve got a flow of sentence in one- sentences in one leads cleanly to the next, but then I want this other thought to be in here. And it’s really hard to figure out where to put it in this paragraph, and I don’t have to make a hard choice about whether or not it’s worth saying at all, so I’m just going to insert it using a parenthesis or an em-dash or-’ you know.
I usually- a lot of things in writing are called lazy. And I don’t usually do that, I think a lot of things that are called lazy are just- people weren’t thinking about that, and that’s not really the same thing- lack of awareness isn’t really the same thing as laziness. They’re correlated, but I do think that the parenthesis is kinda lazy. [laughs]
And not to say that there’s never a time for the parenthesis, there certainly is, or the em-dash, or footnotes. We use asterisks on the site. They definitely can have that problem, these little asterisks, which- by the way, if you’re wondering, you hover over them, and you see extra text.
Oren: Although, I will point out that, with our asterisks, we are pretty careful to make it so that you don’t need to hover over the asterisk to know anything. Like, those are usually in-jokes. So, if someone wanted to read one of our articles to someone else, they would just skip the asterisks.
Just, don’t read those, they’re not important. Whereas authors put important stuff in footnotes, and it’s the worst, and I hate it. And if I never see another footnote in a work of fiction again, it will be too soon. [laughter]
Chris: I do think that they can be a sign of laziness, and- again, it’s not that there’s never any appropriate situation for parenthesis or em-dashes, but there’s definitely- I’ve seen a lot of writers who use them much too often. And they are- basically, it feels like they are constantly interrupting themselves, and you can’t just smoothly read through the text anymore, because you constantly have to stop, absorb a thought that doesn’t actually fit smoothly into its context, and then move back on, start- restart where you left off again.
It’s just really- with too many, it really breaks things down and interrupts the experience. I spend a lot of my time- when we have guest writers, a lot of times, I’m telling them to cut all of their parenthesis out, and that kind of thing, quite a lot.
Ariel: So, I’m gonna disagree with you a little bit.
Chris: Okay. Let’s hear it.
Ariel: Fiction is a different story. Nonfiction and audiobooks, absolutely, cut as much as you can, so that the reader can take things in in small chunks. But fiction, oh, I love me some em-dashes. They are just, they’re so delicious, and I can’t help but put in just so, so many em-dashes.
Because it will improve a sentence just, so vastly. They’re probably my favorite punctuation, and I think that they’re entirely underutilized in fiction.
Chris: My example of the em-dash is Twilight, actually. So, Stephenie Meyer has a habit of using a lot of em-dashes, and I’d be curious to know how you’re using them. But she does use them a lot like parenthesis, where she will interrupt herself to add a little aside in the em-dash that kind of breaks the flow of thought.
And she- she does it a lot. And it seems like too much. Do you- do you know what I’m talking about? Is that the kind of thing that you- that you like to do? Not familiar?
Ariel: It depends. Yeah, I can’t imagine- It’s been a while since I read Twilight.
Chris: Can you- what kind of sentences do you improve by putting in em-dashes?
Ariel: Sentences that have long lists are almost always improved by putting the list inside an em-dash.
Chris: Is it kind of like a colon? And it’s, you know, ‘here are the things’.
Ariel: It can be.
Chris: Kind of, okay, can be.
Ariel: Can be. I mean, all of the stuff inside the em-dash is meant to be enrichment; it can be, you know, ‘I was talking about this thing, but actually, here’s this other angle on the same thing’. It’s- em-dashes are meant- their purpose is to say ‘Yes, I’m going to interrupt this for a second’. That’s what they do.
Chris: Okay- so, you know that they’re interrupting, though. So, here’s the question, how many em-dashes is too many?
Ariel: You are allowed one set of em-dashes in a sentence. You can’t have more than that; stop trying it, authors. [Chris and Oren laugh] But, I feel like you could easily fit two sets of em-dashes inside a paragraph, depending on the length of the paragraph. I try not to have two sentences in a row that rely on em-dashes.
Chris: [laughing] Okay.
Oren: This is what I was talking about earlier, we have different spice tolerances here. [laughter] Some people, they gotta have that em-dash spice.
Chris: I do think that there is always going to be a good opportunity in writing to change up the rhythm of your sentences a little bit, and kind of call things out. And there’s definitely places where I would- that can be either a semicolon or an em-dash. Where you have- basically two independent clauses, but they’re really closely related. And so, they kind of belong close together. Do you know what I’m talking about, Ariel?
Ariel: And part of that is, it’s unusual to put a semicolon inside dialogue, so you’ll find an em-dash in its place. That sort of thing.
Chris: And so- kind of setting things off, and I also think that using the em-dash sort of calls attention to it? In the same way? It’s not exactly like the single-sentence paragraph, but it’s- [laughs] -it’s taking a phrase and kinda pointing it out? And so, it can be used for emphasis. I, personally, just get- everybody has the things where it’s like, ‘okay, it’s now becoming annoying to read all this text because something is consistently happening to interrupt my experience’.
And for me, when something is just an outright interruption, where you’re just breaking the flow of thought to inject another thing that doesn’t fit, and you’re doing it a lot, to me that interrupts the experience. I know, sometimes it’s subjective, where the size- we’ve talked previously about the length of sentences.
And there’s- I think for most readers, short sentences are just more readable and easier to digest, and if you have tons of really long sentences, it’s too much and becomes harder to read. But I do know somebody who was a super fast reader and thinks that short sentences just slow her down.
Oren: Yeah, I’ve got places to be. Stop putting periods- [Chris and Ariel laugh]
Ariel: Stop putting ellipses in! Just, all that faltering speech. All that stuttering.
Oren: What about, setting off- instead of using em-dashes, you could set off the other text by putting it in a different color? [Chris and Ariel laugh]
Chris: Oh no, stop. [Oren laughs] No.
Ariel: Maybe all caps? All small caps?
Oren: I mean, my patron saint Terry Pratchett did that with Death, so I am obligated to defend that choice, legally speaking. [laughter]
Chris: So, the thing about the ellipsis- that can also be overused, besides the fact that it’s just, like, ‘we have tons of characters and dialogue who are constantly- don’t seem to be able to finish their sentences.’ Too natural. Too real. Stop. [Oren laughs] Is that it can also be used for dramatic effect. And anything that can be used for dramatic effect, as we’ve talked about earlier, is likely to be overused.
Oren: For more drama. That’s just what it means.
Chris: Cause the ellipsis can also- those three dots can also mean ‘dun-dun-dun!’ [laughs] In some cases. Or it’s like, a dramatic pause.
Ariel: If you’re ever tempted to just leave an ellipsis at the end of a chapter, just go ahead and take it out. Just take it out.
Chris: Oh, the perfect example of this is in Eragon. So, I did a critique of Eragon, and the villain, at the beginning of this- I think it’s the prologue- tells his minions to do something, and then it’s ‘…or die.’
Oren: Or die.
Chris: Or die! Just, it’s like a random command, they’re just working, it’s like he went into the office, and your boss is like, ‘oh, hey, can you file that report by 3 o’clock today; that would be really nice… or die.’ [laughs] And that’s clearly the use of an ellipsis to try to- to dramatize, and it just- it comes off very silly.
Oren: Yeah, instead of dramatizing, it was more like traumatizing.
Chris: Ohhhhh, no.
Oren: So, while we’re on the subject of Eragon, there- Eragon is an example of a thing that I think counts as wordcraft, is the over-description of something that’s not actually- that doesn’t merit that much description. Because it makes the thing- in Eragon, it’s the helmet that this Elf is wearing.
Just the lavish description of this helmet, without any description about what the rest of the Elf’s outfit looks like, at best that helmet’s very important, and this is a ham-fisted way of letting me know that it’s important. And at worst, it’s just wasted description. It’s like, ‘why? Why that helmet? It just makes me think that it’s important when it’s not.’ It also creates a weird impression that the Elf is naked with a giant helmet.
And Fifty Shades does this, too. In Fifty Shades, when Anna first meets Abusive Man, he’s wearing a tie, and the book- the description has a strange amount of focus on this tie. Which is why, like, Chris made the joke in her critique that this is actually a love story of Anna and this tie. That they were going to run off together and live happily ever after.
It’s not, but just the weird amount of focus on the tie makes it sound that way.
Chris: Well, in this case, there’s also just a grammatical error that makes it so that the things that she actually meant to be describing Christian Grey himself, instead technically are descriptions of the tie. So, the tie has copper curls. [laughs] Yeah, so that’s- that’s a good one.
But another good example of this weird focus- cause again, readers use the amount of description for various things to judge their importance in the story. And so- and I think this might be another case of the writer thinking about their story as like, a movie? And thinking about like, what shot?
So, a really good example is in The Awakening, which I critiqued this year, and there’s a beginning section where the writer’s just talking about a weird thing happening, and of course, a creepily silent forest, which a lot of people like to open with. And, if you had a movie, you might focus on a few little details, and so, he focuses on this squirrel that’s in this forest, and the squirrel’s reaction to the weird thing in the forest.
But like, as a written work, it’s a very strange focus on this squirrel, which as far as I know is just a normal squirrel, but it really had me wondering whether this was like, a wizard transformed into a squirrel that was actually an important character? Cause he gets into the squirrel’s head and what it’s experiencing. [laughs]
And it’s just- normally, in writing you would like- concrete details are important, they really do help illustrate a scene. But instead of just having one squirrel and talking for several paragraphs about that squirrel, you would have, ‘oh, the squirrel ran back into its hole,’ and then you would go back to the, the birds stopped chirping, and then you would have an assortment of details to give you a bigger idea of the forest as a whole, instead of just being like, the squirrel.
Oren: And then something ate the squirrel. Because nature is hard and deadly. Red in tooth and claw. Uh, one of my favorites is- that I’ve noticed recently, is in a close narration, the book will describe a thing that, we know its name, but we don’t know what it looks like or what it is. Like, ‘the Death Hound leapt onto the path ahead and growled.’
And it’s like, okay, the character doesn’t know what the Death Hound actually looks like. She’s never seen it; she’s only ever heard about it. So how does she know this is the Death Hound? How do I know- what does the Death Hound look like? When they describe that sort of thing, in my head I imagine the path, with a grey, ruffly dog-shaped blob on it. Until I get some description.
And it just- it feels very weird, and I’ve seen that a fair amount, especially in novels that I edit.
Chris: Yeah, it’s like, you may have a nice worldbuilding document where you’ve like, ‘okay, this is the Death Hound, this is what it is,’ but if the reader doesn’t know what the Death Hound is, you can’t just call it ‘the Death Hound’. Especially if the character doesn’t know what it is, right?
Oren: And even if you describe it a couple paragraphs later, it’s too late by then. The opportunity has been lost.
Chris: Ariel, do you have another overused device?
Ariel: Well, I take issue- so, continuing on the example of the Death Hound, something I see a lot is that writers will both show and tell. They’ll show the fangs and the claws, and then they’ll end with ‘it’s a really scary thing.’ [laughter] I think we know that, right?
Oren: It’s like, is it though? Let me make up- I’ll make up my own mind on that, thank you very much.
Ariel: So, I think writers are just getting the ‘show, not tell’ mantra, right? And then forget that they’re doing both?
Chris: Or it’s like, maybe it’s one of those items that’s out of habit.
Chris: They think that that’s just how you write, or something?
Oren: And another way that could happen, is they’re like, ‘okay, I need to show what this monster is,’ so they describe it in detail, and then they’re like, ‘I also need the reader to know how the character reacted to it, but I already did a lot of work on description, so I’m going to get a little lazy here and write like, ‘it was terrifying,’’ and that’s supposed to signify how the character feels about it, but that doesn’t really tell us anything about the character’s reaction. It’s just telling us that it’s terrifying.
As opposed to something like, ‘the character took a trembling step backwards,’ or something. That shows us that they’re afraid.
Chris: I do see a lot of people who are talking about this pattern that happens a lot in works, it’s a common problem, that they attribute it to lack of confidence on the writer’s part. Where they wrote- it happens so much with dialogue, it’s like, they write a nice line of dialogue that communicates the mood perfectly on its own- which, the words of your dialogue should, if at all possible.
And then they tell you the character snarled or something, or the character grumbled. But it’s clear that they’re kind of like, angry. Or the character was- said it sarcastically. It’s clear that it’s sarcastic. We don’t need to say those things over again. That, they’re just not feeling confident that their prose will do the job.
And I don’t know- I try not to get too much into the mindset of writers who don’t always know why they’re doing what they’re doing, but that is, at least, a common explanation for this pattern.
Oren: That makes sense to me. I’ve got one more, if y’all don’t mind hearing about it.
Oren: So, one thing that I’ve noticed, in this first- this came up in The Blade Itself, which I did a critique of a while back; is, again, a close narration describing things in the wrong order. In this particular case, it was- the main character is hanging off of a cliff, and the book takes a moment to describe what the surrounding mountains look like, and the forest, and the river.
And then, it describes that the main character has- his enemy that he’s been fighting is hanging off of his foot. Pulling him down. And it’s like, ‘wait, what? Why didn’t you describe that first? That’s clearly the most important thing happening right now.’ So, it can be a judgement call of like, what is the most important, but in general, if it’s something that is threatening the protagonist or is something that they want, then that should come first.
Same thing happened in Spell for Chameleon, where the main character spends paragraphs thinking about these woods and how woodsy they are. And then, suddenly, there’s this super-hot lady beside him. And the descriptions of her are hella problematic in a lot of ways, but just the fact that she wasn’t described first makes me feel like she just appeared out of thin air.
Ariel: As women tend to do. [Chris laughs]
Oren: Right, as they do- it’s another one of those invisible women, and I just don’t believe that- cause we find out pretty quickly that she is both like, the hottest. There is no one hotter. In really misogynist terms, but that’s happening. And that he’s way into her, and he took her out here specifically for like, some hot makeouts.
And I just don’t believe that he would stop thinking about her for five paragraphs to think about trees. I just don’t buy it. [Chris laughs]
Alright, so we are definitely at the end of our time. So, thank you, Ariel, for joining us. It was very good to have you.
Ariel: Always good to be here.
Oren: And those of you at home, if anything we said piqued your interest, you can leave a comment on the website at Mythcreants.com.[closing song]
Chris: This has been the Mythcreants podcast. Opening and closing theme, The Princess Who Saved Herself by Jonathan Coulton.
P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?