Overkill


by Kim Bowman on Mondays with Kay Springsteen

My friend, writing partner and fellow editor, Kim Bowman, is here for another visit, showing you how NOT to overkill your manuscript.

Overkill

We all want to be the next Tolstoy, Dickens, and/or Hemingway. As a result, at times, we try too hard. WAY too hard. Often times going overboard with dialog tags, punctuation, description, etc. as a way to ensure that the reader understands. And yes, I’m just as guilty as the next person. But if you overdo it, you’ll lose your voice in the excessive expressions.

To help illustrate the point I’m trying to make, I want to concentrate on one of my personal pet peeves when I edit a manuscript. Overuse of the exclamation point.

 AAUUGGGHHH!!!!!  Whew. Okay, I feel better now that I got that off my chest.

There is a time and a place for exclamation points, but if you’re excessive, it distracts from your story. So, what’s too much? Here’s an easy way to figure it out.

You’re moving along, writing your story. The scene’s intense, your emotions and adrenaline are on overdrive. Every instance of dialog – WHAM! Exclamation point! Every other sentence – WHAM! Exclamation point! You story is filled with them!!!!

My advice – add them. Put them everywhere in the scene! Double them!! Triple them!!! Make a whole line of them!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Write the whole scene that way and leave it. Come back to it later, once your emotions have settled down. When you do, take out every single one of those pesky little critters – ALL OF THEM.

Relax.

Take a deep breath.

Read the scene out loud.

As you do, ask yourself two questions:

  1. Will the reader “get” the intensity, the emotion, without the exclamation points?
  2. If not, what can I do to show the reader rather than telling them with exclamations?

I guarantee you’ll find you probably only need one or two exclamation points to emphasize a particular point. The rest…not necessary. Check out my example sentence:

Example A

“Get out!” Owen roared.

Example B

Owen grabbed Jakub by the throat and slammed him against the bedroom wall. “Get out.”

To be honest, both these examples are fine when looked at individually and not read as part of a scene. But imagine if you wrote a whole passage that was similar in tone to Example A and it looked something like this.

“You’re a monster!” Zanna screamed.

“Me! I don’t think so! You’ll sacrifice anything to get what you want!” Jakub shouted.

“Get out!” Owen roared.

“As you wish!” Jakub exclaimed and then he rammed his hand into Owen’s chest.

“Let him go!” Zanna cried as she jumped on Jakub’s back.

What do you think? It’s okay, but it’s fast, a little too fast, and you don’t have time to feel one character’s sentiments before the story moves on to the next. I also find myself asking what exactly the character feels – anger, fear, sadness. It’s hard to tell. The exclamation points do little to convey the emotion the person is feeling. Now let’s look at the passage as it appears in my book.

“You’re a monster,” Zanna said, her voice full of hatred.

“Me? I don’t think so. You’re the one willing to sacrifice innocent people in order to keep one man alive.” Jakub strolled over and stuck his index finger under her chin turning her face toward his. “Look at those haughty eyes. Ms. Seoul has no

intention of staying out of it. She will sacrifice anything to get what she wants.”

Owen grabbed Jakub by the throat and slammed him against the bedroom wall. “Get out!”

“As you wish. There’s just one more thing before I go.”Jakub rammed his hand into Owen’s chest.

Owen crashed to the floor, writhing and screaming in excruciating pain, his hands clenching and unclenching at his side. He twisted and trembled in agony, but made no move to fight back. Zanna realized he intended to let the lycan kill him.

“Let him go!” Zanna jumped on Jakub’s back. She pulled his brown hair and pummeled him with her fists. She sunk her teeth into his right ear as she clawed and scratched at his face. He yelled in protest, but still refused to release Owen.

The above passage is how one shines as a writer. Developing the story and letting it evolve into a balanced product is how to make sure your voice comes through loud and clear. And I’m in no way implying my scene is perfect. But it conveys what I’m trying to get across far better than a bunch of exclamation points or fancy tags.  Did you notice I only used one tag and it was said? Do you think the scene needed them?

I’m not telling you that the only punctuation you should us is a period or a comma. I’m also not telling you that you should only use said or ask as dialog tags. If you did, your writing would be boring and flat. What I am telling you is that although you should feel free to use all the tags, punctuation marks, etc. you want you also need to keep in mind that sometimes less is more.

Kim is a full time mom, an editor and the author of Wayward Soul.

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6 responses to “Overkill

  1. BWAHAHAHAHA!!!!!! Guilty as charged!!!!!!!!!!! Boy, this feels really great!!!!!!!!!!!

    Now that that’s out of my system, I can just say… good post.

    – S.G. Rogers

  2. Great post. Too many exclamation points annoy me when I’m reading, especially those used for inner thoughts (“He’s so handsome!” “His smile made my knees tremble!”) They make the sentiments seem overwrought and ridiculous.

  3. I don’t think I use them enough or at all

  4. I was guilty but hopefully have kicked the habit. I enjoyed your examples.

  5. Great post. It really helps to see the contrast between the two very different views of the same conversation.

  6. Definitely guilty of this one! Lol. I think it’s got worse with (for me at any rate) having online conversations,twitter, facebook,IM. I am aware of my problem now though. Thanks for a great and very helpful post.

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