Little Writing Speed Bumps

traffic-sign-24338_1280There are two reasons to study the craft of fiction writing. The first is to learn tools and techniques that actually work, that have been tested over time. Some of these might be so valuable as to rise to the level of “rules.” A rule, of course, can be broken, but only if you have a very good reason to do so and know exactly what that reason is. Otherwise you’re flirting with danger, like a brain surgeon who decides on a whim to use a butter knife instead of a scalpel.

The other reason for study is to learn what doesn’t work, what trips up a story. You learn not to do certain things.

Some of these errors are relatively small. But commit too many of them and they will have a cumulative, and negative, effect on the reader. I call these errors “speed bumps.”

It’s like this. You’re enjoying a pleasant drive through a scenic part of the country. You’re relaxed, the vistas are inspiring. You forget for a moment that you’re driving and you just take pleasure in the sights.

Then you hit a speed bump. You come out of your reverie for just a moment. But if it’s the only bump you hit, you quickly get back into the nice-drive mode.

But what happens if you keep running over speed bumps? Pretty soon your nice drive is completely ruined and you vow you’ll never take this road again.

That’s the way it is with speed bumps in writing. Most readers don’t consciously analyze these. They don’t sit there and think, Wow, he should not have used an adverb there! But there is a little jolt inside that reader’s mind, back there in the subconscious zone. I contend that enough of these small bumps can ruin the reading pleasure of a book. In some cases it may mean the difference between a reader seeking out another of your titles, or deciding not to give you further consideration.

You don’t want that, do you? So un-bump your writing! That’s one sure way to elevate your craft.

I am now going to offer you an exhibit. This is from a well-regarded and bestselling writer, one whose books I have enjoyed in the past. I want you to read it over and see if you can spot the speed bump. The scene is a restaurant:

“So she didn’t talk specifically about her mother?”

“Just about the murder. The murder is very big in her life.”

The waitress brought us menus.

“My God,” he said. “Actual food.”

“No reduction of kiwi,” I said.

“No skate wings,” Paul said. “No pâté of Alsatian bluebird. No caramelized parsnip puree with fresh figs.”

The waitress took our order.

“Why do you suppose she didn’t want me to talk with her aunt?”

“Daryl’s hard to understand,” Paul said.

“She ever talk about her father?” I said.

“No. I always sort of assumed he was dead.”

“Siblings?” I said.

“She never mentioned any.”

“How long have you known her?”

“Two years,” Paul said. “We worked together in the first play I did in Chicago. When she’s up, she’s a hell of a lot of fun.”

The waitress brought smothered pork chops for Paul, spaghetti and meatballs for me.

“Why are you asking about her?”

“Because I don’t know about her.”

Paul was nodding as I spoke.

Ask yourself if there is any small thing in that scene that might cause a casual reader to feel a subconscious bump, and a more alert reader to actually stop and say, Hold on there a minute. Something’s not right!

Cue Jeopardy music:

Dum dada dum dada dum dum dah, dum dum dum dum DOT dee dada dada….

Time’s up!

Here’s my take: These two men are in a restaurant discussing a murder that took place years ago. The waitress appears and gives them menus…and then stands there while they joke around. In the real world, a waitress would leave the menus and give them time to read them. Or ask for a drink order. I waited tables, my friends!

But maybe we can let that one slide.

They continue their conversation. What they say to each other takes about 23 seconds. I timed it. And then the waitress returns with their full meals! There is no time lapse, either, because as soon as the plates are put down the conversation continues in exactly the same spot!

So either this waitress is the love child of Supergirl and The Flash, or reality has been blithely tossed out the window.

It’s a pet peeve of mine: restaurant scenes where the food timing is all off. I do see it often. In film it’s usually a bar scene where they order martinis and the bartender goes out of the scene for fifteen seconds, then comes back with two perfect martinis that could be neither shaken nor stirred. It always takes me out of the scene. And it’s so unnecessary.

Care enough about your readers to study the craft so you can root out speed bumps. Some will slip by. You just don’t want to fill the road with them. I’m here to help.

There. Off my chest. Now it’s your turn. What speed bumps to you notice in books? Pet peeves that take you out of the story? What do you have to watch for in your own writing?

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27 thoughts on “Little Writing Speed Bumps

  1. Perfect timing, as I’m about to “take another road” with a highly recommended and regarded author because I find the advertising named dropping distracting, almost to the point of making me wonder mid-paragraph if these “commercials” are in fact commercials for specific drug store and rrstaurant chains, a vehicle manufacturer, credit card company, etc.

    Sure, sometimes the only way to describe a muscle car is to call it a Mustang, but typically not a “Ford Mustang” almost every chance you get.

    While this didn’t happen every page, or every other page for that matter, it happened often enough to make me want the DVR remote so I could fast forward – but that’s a different metaphor, isn’t it?

  2. Oh no!

    My reading life will never the same afterwards.

    I didn’t see anything in that restaurant scene (I was busy trying to figure out what was going on), but then you revealed the speed bump, and I read it again. You’re right (of course).

    My pet-peeve speed bumps are strange head-jumpings or the use of a special jargon or language all the time to show how clever the author is knowing that special language.

  3. Some of mine:
    – attributions in dialogue tags that create confusion about who the speaker was
    – things that are incorrect given the nature of the story’s world (e.g., firing 10 shots out of a six shot revolver without reloading)
    – repetition of otherwise cool elements to the point they come distracting (e.g., the rich and lengthy descriptions of the world from a vampire’s perspective in Anne Rice’s vampire series–cool and interesting the first two occurrences, but tedious afterward)

  4. I’m a gun owner. I do a bit of hunting and target shooting. Mind you, I’m no gun expert. So when something is off in a scene where guns are involved, it slams on the brakes for me. I read House by Frank Paretti and Ted Dekker. I couldn’t even finish because of the glaring problems with their gun knowledge. Little things like referring to a pump shotgun as a “single barelled gun” and putting a clip into a revolver. I’m not one to nitpick, but if your novel requires a lot of scenes with guns, run ’em by a hunter or anyone with basic knowledge.

    Military references also throw me. I was a sailor for 4 years. One of my favorite authors once referred to the ships in San Diego as “battleships.” Since the book was set in modern times, there wouldn’t have been an actual battleship in San Diego. He was referring to all navy ships as “battleships.” I may be wrong, but I don’t think civilians, especially those who live near navy bases, would make that mistake.

    Okay, those are my favorite speed bumps. Thanks for another good post, Jim.

    • There are some subject areas, Ron, that you just have to get right, and guns is one of them. A LOT of writers use “clip” and “magazine” interchangeably. Do that and you’ll hear about it.

  5. The second line, “Just about the murder. The murder is very big and her life,” is more than a speed bump to me, it sent me on a detour. I’m assuming the mother has been murdered.

    “Just” is contradicted by “and her life.” Perhaps replace “just” and/or “and.”

    Ex: “Just about the murder. The murder is very big (in) her (own) life.”
    Ex: ” Mostly about the murder. The murder is very big, but she added some details about her mother’s life.”
    Ex: “Mostly about the murder. The murder is very big to her but she opened up a little about her own life.”

    I found myself at crossroads with no direction.

  6. Great advice, Jim. And maybe those of us who are indie or hybrid writers especially need to hear this. It definitely supports the argument for an editor to help us remove the speed bumps before we put our work out there.

    Case in point, I had just finished GLIMPSES OF PARADISE (smooth driving, sucked into the story totally, sleep deprivation until I finished the book, and now my wife is reading it – great book). I was looking for the next book to read. A friend encouraged me to read a new indie author. I was assured this author was very good. By the end of the first page I had hit so many speed bumps that I was seriously questioning whether this book had been edited at all. But I plowed ahead. After a few chapters, the story seemed interesting, but my teeth were rattling from page after page of speed bumps. I set the book aside. And, sadly, I doubt that I will try another book by the speed bump king/queen.

    Thanks for all your teaching/writing to help us recognize the speed bumps and how to improve our writing. 27 FICTION WRITING BLUNDERS was terrific. I’ve read it a couple times.

    Is there possibly another bump in the second line of your example? The line felt like it should read, “…The murder is very big in her life.” (vs. “and her life.”).

    • Yes, my lovely wife caught that error and informed me of it. I should do a post about typos, which are like sand fleas to me. No matter what you do, one or two seem to hide out in your swimming trunks.

      • I just read an interesting article about typos. Experts say one or two in a novel is a good thing. The logic is this: when a reader finds a typo they feel superior to the author, like “ah-ha caught you” and it makes them feel good. Thus, they continue to read, searching for more typos, flipping pages, and getting more and more immersed in the story. Does that mean we should leave typos in? Of course not! But if one slips by, hey, maybe we’ll make someone’s day.

  7. Adverbs after dialogue tags are huge speed bumps for me. For instance, I love Lisa Gardner’s stories, but I can’t read them anymore due to the overwhelming amount of adverbs. The last book I read by her I had to conscientiously ignore anything after “she said” because otherwise I’d get so frustrated I’d never finish the story. It’s a shame too, because her novels twist and turn with excellent plots,IMO. And now, she’s so big she’ll probably never change. Ah, well.
    I had to learn a hard truth in my own writing recently. I had one word…ONE word…that my editor caught. This one word threw the entire scene off, whirled it out of reality and into fairytale land. Thankfully she caught it because I never did. Now, I go over my work with a fine tooth comb (sorry for the cliche, but it fit) because you never know when one word can make or break your story.

  8. Actually I didn’t notice the waitress making speed dinners in the sample provided. The minor irritation (or speed bump) was spending too much time diverting to discussion of the food. But the major speed bump that would have irritated me to death and caused me to put the book down is the “same old same old” short irritating staccato of the sentences that had absolutely no variation at all. I can only take that in very limited doses. It’s like reading “See Spot run.” “See Dick and Jane have dinner.” etc etc. UGH!

  9. Excellent topic. I probably have enough speed bumps in my WIP to make it more of a corduroy road. Gun glitches bother me, particularly when they confuse revolvers with semi-automatic handguns. Geography issues as well: assigning ocean related features such as tides and rip currents to inland lakes. I missed the timing on the meal arrival. Too much dialogue about the food they were not getting. Thanks.

  10. I didn’t catch the food coming so fast. I have noticed that in movies and TV before.

    A speedbump for me is when characters pop up out of nowhere and are included in a scene without any warning. Two characters will be having a conversation and then, all of a sudden, another character says something, no intro, no nothing. It kills me every time and has me asking myself, ‘where did he come from?’ I like to know who is in the room!

  11. Here’s a speed bump written by a famous and normally excellent writer who sounds like she’s writing for the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest:

    “As my FBI forensic psychologist husband put it last night while I was cooking dinner in our historic Cambridge home that was built by a well-know transcendentalist, ‘You’re being tricked, Kay.’”

  12. My pet peeve is anythng in a written work that even has the faintest whiff of a dramatic aside. In a written work, it almost always rips me out of the story. I see Sniddly Whiplash with a hand to his mouth blocking the other characters and talking to the audience. “Na, ha, ha. Now I have Nell and Dudley will never get her back.”

  13. The only speed bump I noticed was a missing quotation mark.
    “No skate wings,” Paul said. No pâté of Alsatian bluebird. No caramelized parsnip puree with fresh figs.”

  14. Didn’t catch the fast service. Maybe character commenting, ‘wow, that was fast.’ Would have helped.

    What jarred me was:

    The waitress brought us menus.
    /
    The waitress took our order.
    /
    The waitress brought …

    Seemed mechanical. I’ll find the same in my writing. Example only:

    “he picked up the pistol.
    /
    ” he walked down the hallway
    /
    “he fired blindly into the dark.”

    Hard to explain, but I don’t like your or mine example given

  15. “One of my biggest pet peeves is animal characteristics in dialogue tags,” he barked.

    “That’s because you’re such a snake in the grass,” she hissed.

    “Both of you, shut up!” he growled.

  16. Jim – you’re gonna crack up when you read my post here tomorrow. We really are on the same page on pretty much all things writing, including how we deliver it. For me that’s an affirmation, and I’m proud to have your name in my new book as a blurb (as well as the earlier titles).

  17. This is what stopped me. There’s a typo for one thing, and two “saids” in a row.

    “Daryl’s hard to understand,” Paul sad.

    “She ever talk about her father?” I said.

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