When I say “negative description,” I’m not talking about describing something nicely versus being mean. It’s more about how to best be direct in your description.
I think of a “positive” description as a description of something that IS. A “negative” description, then, attempts to describe what something isn’t.
Examples of Negative Description in Fiction
Her purse didn’t hold the normal wallet/sunglasses/keys combination.
His smile didn’t invite you to sit down for a chat.
The garage was remarkable because it didn’t contain a vehicle.
You get my drift. Sometimes, like with the middle example, a negative description is an interesting, perhaps voice-y or sarcastic way of getting your point across. The guy in the example isn’t happy to see whoever, and it’s obvious, no matter that he’s trying to smile. I’d buy that.
The other descriptions, though, draw out the narrative because they are roundabout. Instead of revealing just what’s in the purse (a gun, say) or garage (alien laboratory, perhaps), we’re first told: “What you’re expecting to be in this purse or garage is, in fact, not in this garage.”
Be Direct in Your Descriptions
Well, yeah. If a gun is in the purse or an alien laboratory is in the garage, the reader will immediately know that this isn’t Grandma’s purse or Dad’s garage. So that part can remain implied, as all of our purse- and garage-related illusions are about to shatter.
Long story short, the negative description can sometimes be interesting. Sometimes, though, it’s more direct and less redundant to cut to the chase, cut out negative description, and describe what IS rather than what ISN’T.
Struggling with writing voice and description? Turn to me for fiction editing.
Lately, I have been noticing that descriptions of looks and voices tend to leave me underwhelmed in fiction, because they amount to telling in writing. You know the ones, and you probably all have them in your manuscripts: the withering glances, the pointed glares, the exasperated grumblings, the strained, tense utterances… All of these add color and emotion to characters, usually in scene. Let’s look a little closer at telling vs showing in these instances.
Some Things Are Better In Life Or On The Screen
If the eyes are the windows to the soul, that means various looks and glances are the ultimate body language. And tone can wildly alter the meaning of a conversation. Have you ever said something innocent via text message or email, only to have your recipient completely take it the wrong way? You may have been thinking the offending chat in a silly tone of voice, but it probably came off as snarky or passive-aggressive to the reader. That conversation usually ends in, “Ugh, it’s so hard to do nuance via text/email/IM!”
The adage, “A picture is worth a thousand words,” comes to mind. Some things are simply too intricate to lend themselves well to word-based description. And I’m starting to think that looks and tone of voice are better left for interpersonal interaction and the film or TV medium. As humans, we can usually “read” the emotions of another by interpreting body language, gesture, tone, or a certain “look” your partner has. When you try to put this on the page, you’re taking the energy and movement out of it, which also saps the life and usually amounts to telling in writing.
Don’t Take Shortcuts
Of course, the less you rely on describing looks and tone of voice — which boils down to telling in writing — the harder your job as a writer becomes. You can no longer take the usual shortcut of “she glared in his direction” to express her displeasure. You must now have her perform an action which communicates her dark mood, or she must say something in dialogue (the star of scene, after all) that clues the reader in to what’s really going on. Same with tone of voice.
“We’ll see you tomorrow morning,” he said in a menacing tone.
This is a shortcut. It’s not the end of the world, but it’s still a shortcut. Why? When we’re thinking about telling vs showing, you want to put the menace in WHAT is being said, not HOW it’s being said. This is great practice when you want to achieve tighter, more economical writing. By leaning on tone description, you don’t really need to think, “Hmm, how do I convey true menace without telling everyone there’s menace?” I would then argue that your voice muscle doesn’t get built up as much as it could.
Trim Out Telling in Writing
Instead, if you write…
“Oh yes, tomorrow morning.” He cracked his knuckles, one by one. “We’ll see you then.”
…you can mix in a little action, you cut the dialogue in half with the tag so that you generate a little suspense, and you inject a little voice with the “oh yes.” The information doesn’t change, but maybe the overall mood does — and in the telling vs showing struggle, showing wins out. Using something like this and context clues (I would imagine the reader is picking up on the fact that something gnarly is about to go down tomorrow morning), you can convey menace without once saying the word. You flip telling in writing to showing, which will always tighten up your manuscript.
Awareness, Not Elimination
Avoiding all look and voice tone descriptions is an impossible task. This is such a common and accepted part of contemporary writing that most people will never break the habit. All I’m asking is that you become more aware of it. Maybe take 10% of your look/voice descriptions and turn them into something else, something that’s a better fit for the text-based medium, and not so much a visual tool. For more tips on tightening up your character interactions, check out my post on expository dialogue.
Hire my editing services and I’ll help you trim out instances of telling in writing.
Great manuscripts create their own writing voice, dictionaries, and lexicons, in a way.
This is pretty commonplace in fantasy, where you rack up terms, place names, slang, and other words that are part of complex world building. Many fantasy series, in fact, have their own affiliated or “unofficial” encyclopedias published once the series runs out and a publisher senses that there is still money in ‘dem dere hills to be made from fans.
Building Inside Jokes With Your Reader
Having special words, repeating images, inside jokes and the like serves to bring readers further into your world because they feel like a member of an exclusive club.
But non-fantasy novels can have this inclusive, world building effect, too. One of the best examples I can think of has been stuck in my head because we’ve randomly named our GPS voice “Patty.” Relevant? Hardly. Stick with me for a minute, though, because it’s about to get more random. The only thing I can think of when I hear the name “Patty” is Tina Fey.
I have her and her book BOSSYPANTS on the brain often, actually, because I have played the excellent audiobook of her reading it on no less than three road trips. If you’ve read BOSSYPANTS, you may remember an episode from her summer theatre days where her melodramatic friend throws himself a coming-out party, a “gay-but.”
To the apparent surprise of his girlfriend. Whose name is Patty, and who has a face that resembles a scone. That’s a funny enough detail in and of itself. But what does Tina Fey, an expert at turns of phrase and building inside jokes, if you’ve seen 30 Rock, do next? She keeps elaborating on Patty’s sconelike face shape in several iterations throughout the story. My favorite is when she calls her “Sconeface Patty.”
Each time it’s mentioned, not only do we laugh harder, because it’s always an unexpected riff on what we’re already expecting, but we feel closer to the story because we get it. We’re right there in it.
Writing Voice and Word Choice
Creating a lexicon is especially important when you’re working on two elements: a sense of place, and a sense of voice. If your novel’s setting has a quarry in it where everyone goes to make out, you can invent your own shorthand, just like you would in real life. “We drove past Makeout Mountain to hit up the Dairy Queen” will become familiar to your readers as they try to picture your small town.
Keep mentioning it to make those streets and country roads feel intimate. You’re creating a place out of thin air, after all. You need to give it some grip. And once something is established, think of ways to refer to it that bring the reader into the fold.
In terms of voice, different characters should have distinct ways of talking. That involves turns of phrase, images, words, etc. that will create their own lexicons for each character. Don’t take this to a caricature place, though. Just like you’d never want a dialect to completely take over what the character is saying, don’t layer on catch-phrases and weird slang too thick.
But think about rhythm, word choice, way of describing something. I don’t think Tina Fey would’ve settled for “Sconeface Patty” if she’d genuinely liked the girl, for example. Think of how your characters describe good things, bad things, things when they’re in a good mood, things when they’re feeling annoyed, on and on and on.
Your goal with a book is to draw in your reader. One way of doing that is to get them in on the joke of your very own lexicon.
Voice is one of the most elusive concepts in creative writing. With me as your developmental editor, we’ll be able to drill right into it and take yours to the next level.
Explaining the joke in writing is so tempting. Everyone knows the feeling of loving a joke so much yet having it fall flat. Then, instead of accepting defeat, explaining to everyone how the joke works and why it’s so brilliant. If you’re me, you might also strongly imply that your audience is somehow deficient for failing to laugh.
If any of you have heard me speak or taken one of my middle grade or young adult webinars, you may remember the lame Twilight vampire/”high stakes” joke that I try and shoehorn in every time. It has met with a tepid response from Idaho to Japan but I keep on trying because, well, I’m convinced that one day I’ll fall upon the perfect audience that will get it.
Explaining the Joke in Writing Is Unnecessary
If you’re in this boat with me, we all need a wake-up call. Sometimes a bit of cleverness or specificity doesn’t have the payoff you’re seeking. This doesn’t just apply to jokes, of course. I see this phenomenon at work especially with imagery in people’s writing.
An example from the actual literary canon (rather that some stupid made-up thing that I wrote last minute) that has always bothered me: “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers” by Adrienne Rich. This has literally vexed me FOR OVER A DECADE.
Adrienne Rich is a wonderful poet, may she rest in peace. And this is poem reproduced widely in many school texts and taught all over the place, which is a testament to her talent. But the work itself is rather–please excuse the obvious pun–heavy-handed. I’ve included a link so you can read it, above.
Uncle’s wedding band is heavy on Aunt Jennifer’s hand. Her hands are ringed with ordeals she was mastered by. She’s desperately stitching a bunch of tigers. The tigers are not afraid of any men. The tigers are free, ironically, while Aunt Jennifer is caged. Etc. etc. etc.
Avoid Redundancy in Writing
Here Rich explains the images over and over again, in case you didn’t get it the first three times. She works very hard to make sure you know exactly where she’s going with the poem. In this case, I can let it go (I guess!) because the image works with the story that the poet is telling. Wedding bands, hands, etc. all tie into the symbolism of a woman feeling trapped in a marriage.
There are times when writers are just as insistent about images, however, and the image isn’t successful to begin with, like my lame vampire joke. This is something to watch out for in your own work. If you catch yourself trying a little too hard to CONVEY THE PERFECT-EST THING EVER to the reader, you may be picking either the wrong image or something so specific that it’s not going to be resonant enough.
Avoid Heavy-Handed Imagery
Some less-than-graceful examples would be these stupid made-up things that I’m writing last minute:
The sound of the children’s laughter bounced down the hallway like a tin can full of quarters bouncing down a concrete staircase.
It was her turn to go up and give the science presentation. Nerves shot up Nellie’s spine like that feeling she always got when breaking down a cardboard box and feeling the brown paper surfaces rasping against one another.
These are not successful images to me. The first one is off because the two things being compared have very little connecting them. The writer may have once heard the perfect tin can full of quarters and it could make total sense to her to compare it to children’s laughter, but it’s more likely that the link exists only in her head.
The same idea goes for the second image, and here it’s like the writer is trying very hard to describe exactly what this type of nervousness feels like but it’s too specific to have that frisson of recognition or universality. I happen to hate anything the results from pieces of cardboard touching one another, but that’s me, and my personal biases may not belong in the scene about Nellie’s science presentation.
Aim for Organic Humor and Imagery
The examples convey a feeling of jamming a square peg in a round hole. It’s heavy-handed imagery. The writer is working hard. Sweat is blooming on her brow. She really wants you to get it. Oftentimes, though, the best images, jokes, turns of phrase, etc. are more simple and organic than that. Keep an eye out for instances where you might be explaining the joke at the expense of your true meaning and goal in the moment.
The sentence is the smallest unit of thought in a novel, and I’ve been finding myself giving more and more sentence-related notes on writing craft lately. Writing a good sentence is clearly flummoxing a lot of writers. I’ll do a lot more talking about this in the near future, but I did want to prime you all to start thinking hard about your sentences by sharing an article I read a while ago. (The author is Christopher R. Beha, and the essay is here.)
Writing Craft vs. Overwriting
This essay may be old news to some, and it’s a bit long, but it’s still an excellent and thought-provoking read. I urge all of you to go through this and give it a lot of thought.
One of my favorite sentences from it:
You don’t develop a style by writing sentences that have no purpose other than to be stylish, sentences that seek to be self-contained works of art.
A-MEN! This ties into my ideas about overwriting, and writing good sentences by writing simply. One of my favorite notes to give to editorial clients is, “You’re saying something simple in a complicated way.
Meditate on that truism of the writing craft for a moment. Is style more important to you as a writer, or is substance? It’s always easy to tell which writers prioritize flash and making a good impression, over the ones who tend to put a premium on clarity.
Remember, writing a good sentence is, above all, about communication. Your first consideration should always be, am I getting across? The fancy stuff, more often than not, just gets in the way.
I work wither writers all the time as a book editor to hone their writing voice and develop their writing craft. If you’re ready to take the next step in your journey toward writing a good sentence (which is all there is to it, really), let’s talk.
A POV in writing that I see occasionally is a protagonist who’s a loner or intellectual. They observe the action of the story from a distance as an impartial observer without getting too involved. We all know these types of wallflowers and, as writers, I’m guessing some of you fit this description perfectly. That’s what writers and shy kids do, they observe. While this is perfect in real life, it doesn’t work well for fiction. That’s not to say that your characters all need to be gregarious and outgoing, and you shouldn’t do away with characters who take pleasure in simply looking at the world.
But your POV in writing can’t simply be a video camera or a set of eyes. Your protagonist must participate in the novel and in the action, because the reader really only learns about them when they reach out and do something. They can think all they want, or talk all they want, but it’s not until they interact with the world that you’ve created that you’re living up to the show don’t tell rule.
The other concern with this type of character is that the impartial observer sometimes relays what’s in front of them in a dry, emotionless way. This is what I mean by my “video camera” comment, above. A piece of technology records the action without adding any of its own stamp (unless it’s Instagram and has all those nifty filters!). A POV in writing that records observations but doesn’t comment or react is about as useless as a nondescript point-and-shoot.
Effective POV in Writing Requires Interiority
Interiority (thoughts, feelings, reactions) is your best friend here. So if a character is not taking action, give them plenty of internal reaction to keep the reader connected to and invested in their experience. Still waters should run deep. Same goes for if you’re writing an aloof or mysterious POV–it’s very easy for readers who feel distanced from their protagonist to click off. You want to avoid this at all costs.
Writing Shy Characters
So if you want to do a shy character who doesn’t interact much, that is your creative choice, but you should be extra careful to make them a) a participant, not just an observer, and b) a colorful narrator of the story, not just a video camera. Force them into the action and, when they’re hanging back and looking, give them real narrative presence that injects events with voice and character and emotion. Otherwise, your wallflower could be just any old person, relaying a story in a detached, cold, and clinical way. Nobody wants that. So keep these things in mind when working with this type of character.
Picture book alliteration always annoys. Just kidding! Well, not always, but it’s getting there. Why? Because this is such a common technique that amateur writers use, so the overall quality is lacking. I’ve been thinking a lot about alliteration picture books recently, after working with a lot of picture book clients. Here are some more nuanced thoughts on the topic.
Picture Book Alliteration Is Overdone
This post isn’t inspired by any one picture book manuscript from that batch (so don’t worry, students, I’m not talking about one of you in particular)…and that’s the problem. One of my growing pet peeves about picture book writers (and their imaginations) is alliteration. You’ll often find alliteration in rhyming picture books.
Gosh, I have a lot of pet peeves, I know. But I sit here and read manuscripts all day. That’s what I do. Tens of thousands of them. And so I see a lot of common trends and writer mistakes that I know you don’t because you don’t read nearly as many different potential books as I do. It’s an issue of context.
A lot of people seem to think that the bulk of their characterizing work or word choice craft in picture books comes down to alliterating. And that’s it. Just name him Sammy Skunk and kick up your feet because your work here is done! Right? Not quite. And “Sammy Skunk skips smilingly down the springtime sage-speckled slope” is all you have to do in order to nail that pesky concept of voice! Right? Again…not really.
Alliteration Doesn’t Add As Much As You Think to a Picture Book Manuscript
But more and more, I get alliteration picture book submissions that lean way too heavily on alliteration in order to “accomplish” (so thinks their author) both character and voice. It’s a lot like rhyme. A lot of writers remember rhyme in picture books, so they think they have to write in rhyme. A lot of writers see picture book alliteration on the shelves, so they alliterate. Both cause scribes to contort themselves into a type of sentence pretzel of unnatural language.
In rhyme, writers adopt an almost Victorian syntax in order to make sure they end on the right word. In alliteration picture books, word order also tends to sound unnatural because you’re letting the first letter dictate your word choice. This blog post has a terrible opening line. “Alliteration always annoys.” Nobody talks like that! It doesn’t sound organic! But I had to in order to shoehorn some alliteration in there, and the writers in my slush perpetrate a lot worse in order to stay consistent at the expense of meaning.
So instead of lending you a coveted voice, picture book alliteration makes you sound contrived in most cases. And if I see another cutesy alliterative character name, I will scream. Aim for more sophistication in your writing, especially for the picture book audience. That will set you way, way, way above and beyond the rest of the slush.
Picture books are some of my favorite manuscripts to work on. If you’re using alliteration (or other cliché techniques) but suspect you could do better, hire me as your picture book editor. We’ll figure out your unique writing voice.
Often, when I see writing voice from a newer writer or one who has just come out of a fiction class, I flag it for overwriting. What is overwriting? Basically, it’s a sense that the prose (and the writer behind it) is trying too hard to get their point across or impress the reader. It’s a chronic inability to kill your darlings. Sometimes I wonder if people who overwrite are trying to live up to some idea of “fiction writer” that exists in their heads … a scribe who uses $10 words and milks every image and otherwise packs every sentence until it’s dragging and bloated. They want to make sure we get they’re a real writer. Sometimes this process is at the front of their mind, sometimes it happens without them realizing.
There are two types of overwriting that I see the most often.
Overwriting in Images
Lots of overwrought writing lives in the images. Writers often see perfect images in prose — images that work well — and they try their hand at creating something comparable, not knowing that the key to most perfect images is a) simplicity and b) isolation. Or they hear that images are supposed to be an objective correlative (a parallel for emotion). Maybe they know to load images with meaning, so they do their best to create multiple layers with each description. Or they hear that words are supposed to be mimetic of the action they’re describing, so they really bring out the active verbs. These are all fine instincts and great fiction craft tips, but they could easily go awry. For example:
Cold starlight shattered across the inky black-velvet expanse of the searching night. The frozen air sliced the last of the warmth from Cassandra’s lungs as she choked in a sputtering breath.
Wow! Lot’s of tension there. Each verb is razor-sharp and engineered to convey drama: “shattered,” “sliced,” and “choked.” The stars and the night sky are hostile (“cold” and “searching”). Cassandra is obviously in a dark and unfriendly world.
But imagine if every sentence was like this. Or every image worked this hard. It would get downright exhausting to read. Which brings me to the next sign of overwriting…
Hitting the Reader Over the Head
Simplicity is the natural opposite of overwriting (I’m Team Simplicity, or maybe Team Kill Your Darlings, if anyone is wondering). Just as overwrought description is common in overwriting, it often goes hand in hand with its sister troll: hitting the reader over the head. In the example above, the world was hostile and cold. We got it. Redundancy is another way that a writer can hit their reader over the head.
This often happens when the writer thinks of not just one perfect image (their imagination is mightier than that!) but two or even three. Instead of opting for simplicity and choosing the one perfect image to convey what they mean, they go ahead and cram all three in. Let’s go back to poor Cassandra:
She grasped her cloak like a drowning woman grabbing a slippery lifeline. Her fingers scratched for the moth-worn fabric but it pulled apart like gossamer spiderweb. A tattered seam split down Cassandra’s side as she hugged the coat to herself, the noise like ice crumbling from a glacier, and the gape let in a stab of steel-cold night.
Simplicity in Writing Voice
We get it! It’s still cold and now her jacket’s a broken mess. This writer (me) really wanted the reader to get Cassandra’s desperation, so they introduced us to the image of a drowning woman. Next, I really wanted you to get that the coat is insubstantial … cue spiderweb metaphor. Then, just for fun, I loved the noise of ice separating from the glacier and I wanted to toss it on the heap (plus, this reinforces that — news flash — it’s really cold out there…genius!).
One of these images would’ve been fine. Two is pushing it. Three, and then all the extra cold imagery heaped on top? That’s overwrought writing. Pick one image and make it do the work instead of piling on every single thing you can think of. If you’ll notice, overwriting stops action. We’ve had five sentences and only two (more like one and a half) pieces of information: it’s cold, and Cassandra’s jacket isn’t great, which relates back to the cold. A lot of room to kill your darlings here.
Developing Your Writing Voice
Writers often get bored with the simple. A great example is the word “said.” To show off their chops (and their online thesaurus), they whip out all kinds of fancy “said” synonyms: “chortled,” “shrieked,” “argued.” Well, this is an amateur error because “said” blends in and it simply works. It doesn’t stop the action while the reader notices what a clever word you’re using, it keeps things flowing. Writers often think they’re saying something too simple, so they decide to jazz it up by going out of their way to say it differently.
This is where overwriting always swoops in. I understand it completely. Writers are chomping at the bit to write, to make up a new image, to really get their point across. But sometimes the simplest way of saying something — a way that’s still artful and expressive but also restrained — is the best. When you’re trying to show off in the prose, you lose sight of your real purpose: to tell a tale. When you’re trying to be understood through multiple images and repetition, you’re not giving your reader enough credit. Overwriting is all about trying too hard. Simplicity is all about letting the craft and the story speak for themselves.
Voice can be extremely tricky when learning to write fiction. Hire me to do developmental editing on your writing voice.
Wondering about writing young adult present tense? This post is actually more question than answer, because Lynne did such a great job of summing up the issue and, to be fair, answered most of this question herself. But I wanted to post that process and contribute to it! What’s the issue? Present tense.
For my WD seminar, every writer got to ask me a question and I was guaranteed to answer it. Roughly a tenth of all the questions were about tense or POV. Someone even asked about the tense that should be used in a query letter. What?! I’d never thought about that for a second in my life. I have thought about POV a few times before, and some articles on that are behind this link. Tense? Not as much. So here we go.
Young Adult Present Tense Is So Hot Right Now
I’ll start with Lynne’s question:
Lately when I’ve perused the YA section at Barnes & Noble, there seem to be awful lot of new releases written in the present tense. Several have been fabulous and very successful (e.g., Suzanne Collin’s HUNGER GAMES trilogy, Ally Condie’s MATCHED). Others are less well-known, but ten minutes in the YA section and you’ll have an armful. There’s been some buzz about the “trend” of present tense. Some authors don’t like the use of present tense and suggest its a fad (see Phillip Pullman’s take in The Guardian).
Others question whether it’s a trend at all, and conclude that in the end, it doesn’t matter because if the writing (in any tense, present included) doesn’t work for you, you can always just put the novel down. (see Laura Miller’s article in Salon). Another article or blog I read recently mentioned the appeal of present tense to young readers is its immediacy; that current teens are so used to a culture where everything happens at breakneck speed that younger readers today aren’t jarred by the use of present tense and may even gravitate toward it.
My question is two-fold: First, do you feel there a trend toward present tense (especially in a first person POV) in YA lit right now? Are you seeing more of it in your slush these days? And second, if so, what do you think about it? Do manuscripts written in the present tense intrigue you? Turn you off? Or are you neutral, and just wait to see if the writing lives up to the challenge? And are editors seeking books in present tense or are they wary of them?
In the end, I would think it all comes down to the story and more than anything, the quality of the writing. Present tense presents different challenges than past tense, and the immediately of the tense can be exhausting for the reader. Also, the stream of consciousness filter can be tough, so can the effort not to mix tenses. It’s still not the norm– but is it a trend?
Does The Tense Fit the Book? That’s The Only Consideration
To tell you the truth, I felt lazy with my short answer to such a long question, but so it goes. I think that tense really doesn’t matter as long as the book works. There is a trend of present tense YA out there right now, for sure. But do I gravitate toward or away from a piece because it is in present tense? No.
Also, I haven’t really heard an editor talk to me about young adult present tense in particular. We talk about story and hook and character. Sometimes POV comes into the picture, but the most I usually hear from editors about POV is a thought on really polarizing POV, like second person direct address (YOU by Charles Benoit is an example of that, and comes up often in discussions). It seems like us literary types should spend more time discussing tense but it really does fade into the background for me when I’m reading, as long as the writing, story, character, and voice are there.
Long story short: I think young adult present tense is hot (for the immediacy reasons Lynne mentions, which I also always cite), but it’s not really a consideration for me. I’ve read present tense. I’ve written in present tense. I don’t know if I’ve represented present tense yet. (See? I can’t even remember if my clients’ books are in present tense…although I do know WILDEFIRE has sections of present tense second person direct address, because Karsten Knight is crafty like that…)
Tense is very low on my list, in other words, of things I care about when I’m reading/considering. Hope that takes some of the, ahem ahem, tension out of the issue for you all!
Voice is crucial to writing YA but a lot of writers take years to find it. Bring me on your team as a developmental editor for personal, intimate manuscript feedback geared toward the young adult market.
Here’s a question about sarcastic voice in young adult fiction from reader Kathryn. It’s one I’ve actually thought a lot about and addressed in many manuscripts:
I wanted your opinion on using the same voice throughout a MS. I have noticed with the latest two books I’ve read (by two different authors) that they use the same witty, sarcastic, always-joke-cracking voice. Even in tense parts of the story. What is your opinion of that? For me it broke character and when I am writing the harsher scenes in my book, and I feel like I am going to lose my reader.
Is Sarcastic Voice in Young Adult Fiction a Requirement?
As you readers know, there is a lot of room on shelves for sarcastic voice in young adult fiction. (Check out my previous post on writing teenage characters.) But you can’t just give readers a sarcastic, quippy voice and a character who is biting and caustic and call it a day. That’s not all there is to teen voice or teen characters. In fact, writers who think that they’ve made an instant teenager by adding one part extra sarcasm are a big pet peeve of mine.
Another pet peeve of mine is when the sarcasm comes out in inappropriate times or doesn’t feel genuine in a situation or for a character, as with the situation Kathryn is describing. I feel that voice does have to be consistent. And, yes, humor and sarcasm can come together to create a voice. But not all situations do well with humor, quips, or sarcasm.
Tense situations, scary situations, poignant situations, and some scenes actually don’t fit well with sarcasm. Why? Well, think of what sarcasm is and where it comes from.
Sarcasm Has a Place In Fiction
As a teen, I was definitely sarcastic, biting, and witty. But when I think of those times when I was most sarcastic, most mean, or most joke-cracking…what was going on inside my head? I was actually using sarcasm and humor as a defense mechanism, as a wall. If I was uncomfortable or feeling challenged or otherwise feeling the need to put my shields up, I’d be more sarcastic or try harder to be funny than in situations where I was comfortable (unless I was riffing with a bunch of friends and getting all riled up, of course).
For important moments in your plot, I would stay away from too much sarcastic writing. Sarcasm drives a wedge into high stakes and deflates tension. It puts up a wall between your character and your readers. Sometimes, that’s okay. In other moments, though, you want your character to have a genuine, shields-down reaction to events. This way, those events will seem genuinely significant. If your character cracks jokes or shrugs off important stuff, your reader won’t care much about it, either.
Why Sarcasm Can Be a Problem
For example, here’s some bad use of sarcastic writing:
My dad tells me that everyone in my family discovers some big and important power on their sixteenth birthday. It happened to Grandma and it happened to Dad. And then we’re expected to use it for good and all that junk. I’ll believe it when I see it, and so far, all I see is the great pair of Prada pumps that’s going to be my birthday present tomorrow.
As always, this is hyperbole. But you can see the problems here, right? This character is, more likely than not, about to encounter something life-changing that members of her family are concerned about. Is she scared? Probably. Should she be scared? Probably. But do we know about her fear? No, because the sarcasm is standing in the way of that, and doing a rather shallow job of showing us her true feelings. So this is an instance of sarcastic voice in young adult obscuring something important about the protagonist that the reader should be aware of.
Sarcasm Puts a Wall Between the Character and the Reader
There are high stakes in the situation, or there should be, but they don’t come across in the way it’s described. She seems like she doesn’t care, or she’s making light and fun of it. That doesn’t invite us to take it seriously, either.
In important moments — moments when the reader is supposed to care — make the character care, as well. And as every teenager will tell you, sarcasm and humor, especially at tense moments, is a self-defense system designed to scream “I don’t care!” Sarcastic writing has its uses, but it should be used judiciously, with thought to the psychology of how real teen sarcasm works.
Finally, one last pet peeve (I know, I’m full of them today). I am cautious about too much sarcastic voice in young adult or biting humor because I feel like, often, it’s the writer saying “Look at me, look at me, look at me, and how funny I am and how funny my characters are!” This post has dealt with authenticity and when to use sarcasm, but also when to cut back for the sake of being genuine. In the same vein, the sarcasm or humor has to be real to the character, and can’t just be the writer showing off.
Voice is one of the trickiest fiction concepts to nail. But it’s critical when writing YA. Hire me to be your young adult editor and we’ll hone in on a voice that’s both true to the category and to you.