If only…

By Clare Langley-Hawthorne

It’s a miracle this blog post got written at all – I have had a ‘twin-ful’ four days of raging flu in the house (just after my husband issued those fateful words “It’s been such a good winter, the boys have hardly been sick at all – I think we dodged the bullet this time…”) that, in the interests of sanity (and because I may be slightly hallucinatory after getting very little sleep for the last three nights), I offer up a very short blog post on a topic dear to my heart – writing techniques that drive me crazy.

In Australia there used to be a show that had a segment “what cheeses me off” and I was reminded of that when reading a book (which shall remain unnamed) which fell into what I consider one of the most “cheeses-me’ off sins of all – the “if only she had turned back, she would have seen…” sin. Yes, the, let’s totally get out of POV and warn the reader of some ominous event that the character (whose POV is firmly established) could never know or realize.

Now, I’m as guilty as the next writer of including ‘ominous’ descriptions – my own personal failing appears to the weather (which is always indicative of something ill, according to my husband) but I always strive to keep within the POV and voice of the book. To step outside this, I think, is a sign of flabby writing. The ‘If only she/ he/I had known’ technique drives me nuts. In first person POV it is an obvious no-no (how could I know, what I don’t know?) but even with second or third person POV it’s a technique that irritates me. Just think how much tension is lost when you reach a crucial suspenseful moment only to read “if only she had turned round she would have seen the giant squid poised to attack….”

As I hear the dulcet tones of my little ones calling for ‘nurse mummy’, I open the floor to all of you to vent – what is the writing ‘technique’ that most cheeses you off in mysteries and thrillers??

13 thoughts on “If only…

  1. This is considered a technique of omniscient POV, Clare. But in most cases, I consider it blatant author intrusion, and it’s way up on my list of things lazy writers do. Don’t tell me that “little does Mr. Moto know he only has seconds to live.” Just count off the seconds and then kill the guy.

  2. What cheeses me off is in the “ordinary man thrust into extraordinary circumstances” thriller, where the hero is in some impossible situation and out of nowhere develops the capacity to kick the crud out of some trained assassin. OR the conspiracy has entrapped the hero and tied him up in some drippy basement, leaving him…COMPLETELY UNATTENDED, with enough time to work his restraints against that rusty pipe, until he’s free enough to fake being restrained when the trained assassin comes in to check him, so the hero can….kick the crud out of him.

    Now, I have to be fair here. Endings are HARD in this kind of thriller. If the set up is done properly, it can work. It’s all a matter of avoiding the “Aw, c’mon!” response in the reader. But that takes some doing.

  3. Hands down, the cheat that hacks me off the most is the one where the villain decides, just before killing off the protagonist, to reveal all the stuff that the author didn’t know how to fit in gracefully. This is right up there with professional killers who can’t hit what they’re shooting at.


  4. It really broils my blue cheese when authors do a description dump every time a new character is introduced, bringing the action to a screaming halt. I especially don’t like it when it’s boring physical description that never gets used or mentioned again, and has nothing to do with the character: “Mr. Blue walked into the room. Mr. Blue had brown hair, brown eyes, and was wearing a brown suit.”

  5. Ah some doozies here I see. I should do ‘what cheeses me off’ each month as there are so many excuses for ‘flabby’ writing that drive us nuts! I agree Joe, it is legitimate as a technique for he omniscient POV but when it is the ‘if only they had known’ it drives me nuts nonetheless. It seems like a way of sapping the piece of all tension (like the ‘he had only secons to live’ – just kill him off already!). the only time I have no problem with it is when it’s used ironically or wryly – with a wink at the reader. Then I can cope – otherwise it’s a fondue frenzy for me.

  6. It bakes my brie when I’m reading in Character A’s POV in a scene, and then all of a sudden I’m in the head of Character B. Why? Now I can’t figure out whether Character A is thinking that is what Character B is thinking or whether it actually is what Character B is thinking. See how confusing it can get? Please, please don’t do it.

  7. Good cheesies, all. One more bit of stinky fermented dairy product I will add to the sandwich…genre confusion.

    I like literary novels, occasionally.
    I like thrillers, certainly.
    I like romance, parcelled neatly within a thriller.

    I do not like when a book is listed as a thriller, or action, but is written more like a literary or romance novel so packed with flowery description and writing for the sake of writing that I fall asleep before the action hits, or that when the action or suspense hits I am too confused by the big multi-syllabic words to follow it.

    Me Grug. Me like man hit man with stick. Me like big bang thing make big boom, good man flert with good woman, then decrypt major puzil and plot twist, then kill bad man with ekstreem prejuhdus then make qwerky comint that it nothing. That kewl.

    Ok, that’s several slices of stinky cheese.


  8. Have been enjoying this blog for a little while, thanks to all the bloggers here!!!!

    I hate physical description as a short-cut for charaterization. If you haven’t bothered to give a character traits through dialog, action, and choice, don’t just tell me he’s heavy-set or Asian or olive-complected and assume I’ll fill in the stereotypical details.

    I’m also currently annoyed with body language for body language’s sake “his eyebrow careemed into his hairline.”

  9. Basil,

    Mongo no like bad surprises either. But what do you think the solution is for books that truly blend genre (and it can be done well!)??

    Should we encourage publishers and bookstores to have a new category, blended genre? Or just shelve a book in the lowest-selling category, assuming that more people will enjoy a literary novel with lots of thriller elements than there are people who would enjoy a thriller that surprised them with literary ambitions?

  10. Mysti – I like genre blends and I think books like Tana French’s The Woods are a definite literary crossover. I also hate the short-cut description that is so generic it may as not be there. I’m not so sure I’m keen on eyebrows behaving like cars either!

  11. Mysti, you make a good point. And perhaps I am too simplistic…or just simple…

    The Time Traveller’s Wife is actually an example of a novel that I would consider a cross-genre (sci-fi/romance/thriller) that I really did like.

    Maybe they should come up with a way categorize books into multiple shelves in a bookstore and label them accordingly on the spine.

    ie. sci-fi/romance/thriller or perhaps “Books for smart people who eat caviar while sitting in sniper hide.” or “Books Grug Like”

  12. I hate it when the author decides I’m too stupid to figure out foreshadowing for myself and just has to lay it out for me. Ending the chapter with, “What I didn’t know then was that I’d never see her again.” or, “In 24 hours he’d be dead.”

    Yes, it’s harder to work it in, but make an effort.

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