‘Hi, Fran! How are you?’ I said.
‘Fine, thanks. How are you?’
‘Pretty good, thanks. Want to come to the movies with me tonight?’
‘Sure, what’s on?’
‘A rerun of Jurassic Park.’
‘Oh, great! I love that movie. What time?’
‘Six o’clock, at the Strand.’
‘OK. Can you pick me up? I don’t have a car.’
‘Sure, I’ll pick you up at 5.30. See you then.’
This is a conversation you might have in real life. Sounds authentic, right? Yeah, but … does a reader really need to ‘hear’ all the small talk? No! It slows the pace right down to a crawl. This is a trap many inexperienced authors fall into. Try this:
‘Hi, Fran,’ I said. ‘Want to come to the movies with me tonight? They’re showing a rerun of Jurassic Park. Pick you up at 5.30?’
‘Sure! I love that movie.’
[Or maybe you could just have the characters going to the movie without the preparatory conversation?]
Occasionally small talk might have a place in a novel – if, for example, you want to make a point of a character’s fondness for idle chit-chat – but, in general, pleasantries are best kept to a minimum. As a test, do a global search and see how many times you’ve written ‘How are you?’, ‘Thanks’ or ‘Bye!’
Yes, people have these conversations in real life, but they also clean their teeth, put their socks on, stack the dishwasher, blow their noses – and we don’t need to know about those things. We just assume they’re going on. The same applies to small talk.
Misuse of the word ‘incidence’ is becoming so common that I think it’ll be one of those words that will change its meaning over time. But we’re not there yet, so I’ll take this moment to unravel the confusion.
An incident is an episode or an event. The incidence of something is the rate or extent of its occurrence. An instance is a case or example. For instance [that was deliberate, FYI], a car accident is an incident, whereas the incidence of car accidents refers to the rate or number of car accidents in a place and/or time. And if we’re talking about speed as a cause of car accidents, we might describe a particular car accident as an instance in which speed was a factor.
I recently read in an author’s note (in a published novel) that ‘all the incidences in this book really happened’. No! She meant ‘incidents’. Clearly the editor didn’t get to check the author’s note!
It’s the details that bring a story to life: the sights, sounds, smells and feelings. In my recent book about the voyage and quarantine of a typhus-stricken 19th century emigrant ship, for instance, I wanted to create a vivid scene – to immerse the readers in those foul conditions. The dimness below decks, the stench of steerage (think of vomit and dirty nappies), the cramped prickling of the 18-inch-wide berth and its straw mattress, the strains of the hymns typically sung during a funeral at sea. The good captain’s distress and outrage at the media’s finger-pointing.
In fiction or narrative non-fiction, these details are crucial. But they don’t just have to be there; they also need to be credible! Include an implausible detail and your readers will no longer feel part of the scene. Examine every detail. Is it the right time of year for the roses to be in bloom? Would you truly find mangroves so far inland? Your character’s wearing a singlet top – but wasn’t it mid-winter in the last chapter, just days ago? A cassette tape is playing in the 1950s – but weren’t they invented in the early 60s?
Writing a timeline can help to plot the chronology and keep track of the seasons, so that you can at least get the weather conditions right. Check everything in a scene: the flora, the fauna, the geography, the history. Even in a fantasy novel, you’ll need internal consistency, so it’s important keep track of your details.
You don’t need to overdo the details, but including little observations that are pithy, fresh and unique will really make your writing shine.
About this blog
Through my experience as an editor, a reader and a book reviewer, I’ve noticed that some writing faults keep just popping up again and again. As an author, I’m especially aware of those writing crimes that I’m frequently tempted to commit myself. This series of brief tips addresses the common writing problems that I’ve encountered. Following them will help make your writing clear, accurate and stylish.