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Bitchy writing complaint

People on a writing-related email list were asked to give their pet peeves about writing styles. While most of the answers have been amusing and valid (in my view), one person brought up what he called "the puppeteer syndrome," wherein the writer moves the character's body parts as a frequent device. A couple others chimed in to agree. The examples they gave were things like these:

She threw her arms around him.
She dropped her eyes.
He rolled his head along her shoulder.
He took her head in his hands.
He lifted his arms and put his hands behind his head.

Um...are those so terrible? Not to be a dunce, but: what are we supposed to say when people raise their arms, their eyes; let their heads fall back, etc.? I'm feeling defensive, since I do write things like "dropped her gaze," "threw her arms around him," "tore his eyes away," etc. I don't think I OVER-do it--I can see how that would be distracting!--but to use verbs like "put" or "moved" would be so boring. ("She put her arms around him"--gee, she sounds excited.)

Besides, I've actually been complimented for having a "cinematic" style--i.e., I describe how people are moving, so you can see their gestures and interpret their feelings through those, rather than using the lazier option of just narrating their thoughts.

"Why was he acting this way?, she wondered. Should she follow him? Should she stay? Should she even attempt to speak to him? Oh, why were men so confusing?"

--That could be said much better by having her take a step toward him, stop, put her hand on a chair, shut her mouth, and turn away again. But maybe that's just me...

Ever the puppetmaster,


( 19 comments — Leave a comment )
Aug. 13th, 2004 09:08 am (UTC)
See, I think those individual sentences in your list's example are fine. I like knowing what people are doing, and I think a strong visual sense is not a liability in writing. However, if they all appeared in sequence like that, then it would be too much. Also, I'd wonder if he let go of her head before putting his hands behind his own, or if he just tore it off. I spend far too much time in over-described sex scenes (Laurell K. Hamilton, I'm talking to you) trying to track whose what is where and doubting that it's anatomically feasible. If it reads like a tinysex log, it's generally not great writing. Also, authors who use ONE HABITUAL GESTURE
Aug. 13th, 2004 09:10 am (UTC)
Uhh, I was trying to turn my caps lock off and somehow submitted that comment. I am a dork.

I was saying, authors who pick one habitual gesture and have their character do it fifty times in a book are annoying, too. But I'm too embarrassed to expound anymore. I'll come back when I learn to use my keyboard.
Aug. 13th, 2004 10:04 am (UTC)
Hehe...don't worry about it. It's much better than the time I flipped over my mouse to clean it, and accidentally sent a blank email to 200 people.

Anyway--absolutely, I hate it when an author decides "What character X does is tug her earring when she's vexed," and then has her do it every scene she's in. Get a new schtick, already.

And yeah, you're right: listing movements like a blow-by-blow sequence of choreography isn't inspiring either. They should have specified overdoing it, rather than just saying "I hate when people make their characters' limbs move!"
Aug. 14th, 2004 12:05 am (UTC)
I flipped over my mouse to clean it, and accidentally sent a blank email to 200 people.

Okay, I know it has nothing to do with the thread, but y'all have just made my night.

Could be worse, though. You *could* have sent a very private and suggestive email, meant for a boyfriend, to a TV-fandom mailing list of nearly 1,000 people, by clicking the wrong "nickname" in your email address book. (And no, thank heaven, I didn't do this, but I was on the mailing list in question and enjoyed the subsequent hilarity.)

Thanks for the laugh--I really needed it!
Aug. 16th, 2004 08:57 pm (UTC)
Hehehe! OK, yeah, that'd be a lot worse. I dread I'll do something like that one day. Maybe send a slash link to my boss or something. *shudder*
Aug. 13th, 2004 09:19 am (UTC)
I think that person is nitpicking. Sure it can be distracting when it's overdone; that applies to all types of writing really. But how else are you supposed to describe the physical actions of characters? Maybe I just don't have a good enough imagination :)
Aug. 13th, 2004 10:05 am (UTC)
Exactly. At some point we really will need to mention what they actually, physically, are doing, or else we'd be writing esoteric poetry.

But then, these are romance novelists, and they're big on interior monologue. Eck. :)
Aug. 13th, 2004 09:38 am (UTC)
yes & no
I agree that it's a bit of nit-picking, but that's usually what a pet peeve is. I think most writing styles are a matter of balance. Anything can be over done. Or underdone.

And your examples at the end are both fine, but actually quite different. I don't think the "action" method is better than the "voice in the head" method. They both give information that the other doesn't. The first example doesn't tell us that she is probably nervous rather than angry; the second example doesn't tell us what she is nervous about, what she is thinking, or whether she is just indecisive. Granted, those are both just snippets and there would be clues in the rest of the passage. It depends on what you, the author, want us to know. But my point is either can work.
Aug. 13th, 2004 10:07 am (UTC)
Re: yes & no
Yeah, I suppose it's no use getting on anyone's case for a "pet peeve," since we all have them. As you say, anything can be overdone or underdone.

I didn't really think that passage through. :) But I presume the context and characterization up to that point would make it clear which way she felt. If not, something needs to be fixed a lot earlier than this scene.
Aug. 13th, 2004 10:08 am (UTC)
Re: yes & no
But I presume the context and characterization up to that point would make it clear which way she felt. If not, something needs to be fixed a lot earlier than this scene.

true that.
Aug. 13th, 2004 09:53 am (UTC)
I tend to favor "cinematic" details; however, I also notice that often times people use them without purpose - "When he looked up at her, brown eyes draped under lashes, she unconciously felt her hand pull to her mouth. Her fingers covered a slight smile as she silently pondered what it would be like to kiss him. Her mouth twitched against his phantom lips.

'Oh damn! I am sorry I uspet you so,' he said, his voice softer than fresh linen.

She shook her head and turned away, her shoulders quaking with childish giggles. Suddenly his hands were resting placidly on her neck. 'I didn't mean to make you cry. I never knew that calling off my wedding would upset my best friend so much.'

She covered her face with her hands, hoping that he wouldn't see the absolute pleasure in her eyes."

That scene, crap to begin with, is overwrought with physical details. People often use such "tricks" to try to fool the reader into thinking a work is better than its theme allows.

But, I am also a picky editor who often takes out such details when I feel they scream pointless filler or "you are trying way too hard, Kim."
Aug. 13th, 2004 10:09 am (UTC)
*giggles at "softer than fresh linen"*
Good advertising copy. :)

Indeed, it's important to develop a good filter when editing one's own stuff (or anyone else's for that matter). The unnecessary details tend to jump out at you after a little practice, and they can be either physical descriptions or interior monologue. I guess bad writing is like porn: hard to describe in exact terms, but you know it when you see it. Which is why I found it overly simplistic for them to say they didn't like it when writers move their characters' limbs. I mean, honestly. We'll have to at some point!
Aug. 13th, 2004 10:16 am (UTC)
Three words: Show, don't tell. ;)

Your post reminded me of Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series, where women are constantly crossing their arms beneath their breasts. XD
Aug. 13th, 2004 10:24 am (UTC)
Agh! Yes! And tugging their #&*^%@ braid!! :)

(I gave up on Jordan after 8 or 9 books. Gah. Words, words, words.)
Aug. 13th, 2004 11:42 am (UTC)
Sometimes such tactics can be kinda silly: "Her eyes wandered around the room." Oh dear, better go catch them! In that case, it would be better say "her gaze", which, unlike eyes, can wander.

There used to be a website for a group of gals calling themselves the Wicked X Witches, and they'd tear apart sub-par XF fanfic in nasty and spiteful ways. I loved them. But one of their biggest complaints was when people used this kind of language to describe actions of body parts or inanimate objects. To the point where I thought, "Geeze, how *are* you supposed to express that?"

Meh. To each their own, eh?
Aug. 13th, 2004 04:25 pm (UTC)
Hehe - yeah, I see your point in the "eyes/gaze" thing. But if you use the word "gaze" too many times, as with most words, it starts grating on the nerves. Thus I like to vary it with "eyes." Besides, since when were we not allowed to use figurative language? Must everything we write be literally true? :)
Aug. 13th, 2004 01:40 pm (UTC)
I really think they meant if all of those were posted right in a row. Which actually wouldn't be bad if they weren't all simple sentences, which makes it read very stop-start. But anyway.
Aug. 13th, 2004 04:26 pm (UTC)
Yes - I was just having a Morning of Irritability. :) They're right; it would be a bad piece of writing to put all those things in a row!
Aug. 13th, 2004 09:35 pm (UTC)
But being a puppetmaster is good! I know my eanglish teachers are constantly telling me to explains what the characters are doing.

When I think about it, I get rather annoyed with stories that have too much dialougue and not enough information as to what the characters are doing as they are speaking to one another.

I guess it's different for everyone (Though some of us are more picky)
( 19 comments — Leave a comment )