By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund
As novelists we need to dramatize our writing. Fiction is NOT the same as boring real life. Fiction is larger than life. Think about friends or family who are especially good at retelling an ordinary event. They have the ability to make us hang on to every word or make us laugh louder. Those kinds of story-tellers usually embellish their stories or make them more intense or funnier than perhaps what really happened.
But that's what good story-telling is about–taking the ordinary and making it entertaining. Fiction writers spin words to make readers laugh, cry, gasp, smile, and bite their nails.
However, as I was recently listening to a novel through Audible, I realized that sometimes authors can OVER-dramatize. To the point of distraction. To the point that the writing quality begins to suffer.
As I listened to this particular book, I wrote down some of the ways I thought this author was over-doing it (and realized that sometimes I'm guilty of using some of these techniques too!). (Sidenote: That's why we authors should read voraciously! The reading helps us grow in our own writing abilities either by helping us pick up good techniques or see issues to avoid.)
Here are six ways we writers are sometimes guilty of going overboard in our dramatization:
1. Over-doing emotional reactions:
Over-dramatizing emotions can happen on two levels. The first is on a micro-level. This happens when we are continually slipping in phrases like "my heart swelled to the point of bursting" or "her stomach fluttered like a thousand butterflies." Not only are such usages cliché, which we want to avoid, but we want express deep emotions sparingly so that they don't lose their impact.
The second way we can over-do emotional reactions is on a macro-level. We can do that when we keep bringing up an emotional reaction during a scene or across multiple scenes. For example, in the book I was listening to, the main character had just lost her parents. Yes, that's sad. But for the first few chapters, the author kept having the character crying, sobbing, and used phrases like "tears poured down her cheeks." I didn't feel more sympathetic toward the character. Instead I started to get annoyed.
2. Over-doing descriptions:
Writers can over-describe by adding in setting details that have no purpose or giving too many details that read like a catalog description.
Another way writers can over-describe is by mentioning the same description too many times, like "he had beautiful hazel eyes" and a short while later refer to his "gleaming eyes had an effect on me."
Saying something once is usually enough, especially if in short succession. There may be points later in the story where we can refresh the reader on a description. But we have to be careful about continually describing the same things.
3. Over-doing a scene:
Over-writing a scene happens when we drag a scene on for too long. Usually we only need a play-by-play of a scene when we want each detail to count for something later in the book (for example we're foreshadowing). Otherwise, if our character is saying good-bye to her friends, we don't need to drag out the scene for too long, add in every detail, and have her think numerous times how bleak her life is going to be without her friends . We have to decide what are the most important and impactful moments to include and then stop there.
4. Over-doing action beats connected to dialogue:
We have to be wary of adding in too many action beats (the small motions or actions that come before or after dialogue). It's all too easy to have our characters smiling and grinning every few lines. Or sighing. Or rolling their eyes. Or having thudding hearts.
If we're running in to the trouble of having repetitive action beats, we may need to look for more unique and varied beats. Or we may not have enough going on in the scene around them to lend to a more natural outflow of the dialogue (so that we can limit our beats).
5. Over-doing repetitive words:
We all have pet words that begin to crop up too many times in our story words like "gaze" or "smirk" or "race." While self-editing, I usually do a search for my pet words and either cut some or replace them with synonyms. A good editor can also help us spot those.
In addition, we have to be careful about over-using less common words. For example, if we use "amble" several times in the same chapter or even across several chapters, the repetition will be more glaring to readers than if we over-used a common word like "walk."
6. Over-doing unanswered questions:
I'm a proponent of using unanswered questions as a plot technique. I think dangling those unanswered questions in front of readers is a great way to keep them turning the pages. However, we need to be careful about leaving too many questions for too long which will only begin to irritate the reader.
In a literal sense, I find it especially annoying when the character has questions and asks the people around her and they continue to make excuses for why they can't answer the questions. Such dragging out begins to feel like author intrusion especially when there's no good reason given why the person can't answer the questions.
On a deeper story level, an author can leave out information (hence placing questions in the reader's mind about what really happened). But again an author has to begin to satisfy the reader's curiosity, perhaps in stages, without leaving too much to the end. Or again the reader may become frustrated.
Those are just a few of the ways we can over-dramatize. Are there others that I missed? In what other ways have you seen authors go over-the-top?