Hey, SE Readers. Joan with you today on this first day in June. Reading is still one of my favorite past times. There’s nothing like curling up on the sofa on a rainy day with a good book in hand.
Since becoming an author, I tend to read with a more critical eye, looking for ways I can improve my own work
Writing styles have changed over the years. Our vocabulary and choices of words are different than what they were a hundred or more years ago. People’s attention spans are much shorter, perhaps in part to the introduction of television in the mid-twentieth century. These days texting and instant messaging have become the norm. We like to keep communication short and sweet. Things that were once acceptable in writing are frowned upon these days.
Consider the opening paragraph from Last of The Mohicans, written in 1826 By James Fenimore Cooper.
It was a feature peculiar to the colonial wars of North America, that the toils and dangers of the wilderness were to be encountered before the adverse hosts could meet. A wide and apparently an impervious boundary of forests severed the possessions of the hostile provinces of France and England. The hardy colonist, and the trained European who fought at his side, frequently expended months in struggling against the rapids of the streams, or in effecting the rugged passes of the mountains, in quest of an opportunity to exhibit their courage in a more martial conflict. But, emulating the patience and self-denial of the practiced native warriors, they learned to overcome every difficulty; and it would seem that, in time, there was no recess of the woods so dark, nor any secret place so lovely, that it might claim exemption from the inroads of those who had pledged their blood to satiate their vengeance, or to uphold the cold and selfish policy of the distant monarchs of Europe.
Would you read that book? I’ve tried several times, but always give up after the first couple of pages. When writing, I try to keep my paragraphs at four or five sentences maximum. Cooper’s opening is four sentences, but all are lengthy. The last one is seventy-two words. We don’t need to bore our readers with unnecessary words or long, complicated passages.
J. R. R. Tolkien published The Hobbit in 1937. It’s still one of my favorite books. Let’s take a look at a scene from the first chapter.
“Good Morning!” said Bilbo, and he meant it. The sun was shining, and the grass was very green.
But Gandalf looked at him from under long bushy eyebrows that stuck out further than the brim of his shady hat. “What do you mean?” he said. “Do you wish me a good morning, or mean that it is a good morning whether I want it or not; or that you feel good this morning; or that it is a morning to be good on?”
“All of them at once,” said Bilbo. “And a very fine morning for a pipe of tobacco out of doors, into the bargain. If you have a pipe about you, sit down and have a fill of mine! There’s no hurry, we have all the day before us!” Then Bilbo sat down on a seat by his door, crossed his legs, and blew out a beautiful grey ring of smoke that sailed up into the air without breaking and floated away over The Hill.
“Very pretty!” said Gandalf. “But I have no time to blow smoke-rings this morning. I am looking for someone to share in an adventure that I am arranging, and it’s very difficult to find anyone.”
“I should think so—in these parts! We are plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures. Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner! I can’t think what anybody sees in them,” said our Mr. Baggins, and stuck one thumb behind his braces, and blew out another even bigger smoke-ring. Then he took out his morning letters, and began to read, pretending to take no more notice of the old man. He had decided that he was not quite his sort, and wanted him to go away.
But the old man did not move. He stood leaning on his stick and gazing at the hobbit without saying anything, till Bilbo got quite uncomfortable and even a little cross. “Good morning!” he said at last. “We don’t want any adventures here, thank you!
The passage held my attention but notice the number of exclamation marks. Tolkien got away with it, but the use of them today is discouraged. I’ve even heard it said never include more than one in a book.
They are looked upon as a sign of weak writing. If you feel you need to use one, examine the passage to see if you can do a better job with description.
Occasional use of exclamation marks, especially in dialogue, is okay, but remember they are often seen as a sign of shouting. You don’t want your characters yelling all the time.
We’ll look at examples from other authors in my next post. In the meantime, what’s your take on these passages? How would you write them differently? Please share in the comments.