Marji Laine: Faith~Driven Fiction

. . . Authentic and Intense

Writer Tip: Avoiding Insults

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I turned on a detective movie from the 30’s last weekend to give me some noise while I worked through my research. I swear the movie-goers of the 30’s must have been ignorant. Or at least the people in Hollywood THOUGHT they were ignorant. (Which is doubtless the truth.)

What I’m talking about is treating the reader, or in this case the viewer, as though they are incapable of logical thought.

In one scene, a man is tying his shoe. Picks up his

jacket and exits a hotel room into bright sunlight. Yet the screenwriter saw fit to tell me through the dialogue that it was early morning and then a few minutes later specify that “It’s only a little after 9AM.” Yes, the man said AM. Obviously getting 9AM and 9PM confused was an issue in the 30s?

That wasn’t the only example in the movie. Sun shining, splashing sounds in a swimming pool and a girl walking across the lawn in a bathing suit. Two men sit at a table with sweating glasses full of ice tea and one says to the other, “Sure is a warm day.” Thanks for that. I’d have never figured it out on my own.

Another instance: A man, laying nose-down on a table with a knife sticking out of him could have been alive, I guess. The policeman made sure I knew, asking, “He’s dead?” as he calmly stared down at the corpse. I hope if I’m ever NOT dead that someone doesn’t just stand over me and say, “Gee, you think she might be dead?”

“I dunno, but she might have a hard time breathing with her face in the dirt.”

“You think we ought to check or something.”

“Maybe that’s a good idea. Hey, you dead?”

If anything, the movie made me start thinking about the things that I write. Am I set up to insult readers? Between some other websites I’ve seen, the three books on craft that I’ve been reading, and Kathy Ide’s posts from a course on the American Christian Fiction Writers email loops, I have a few ideas about avoiding insults.

Adverbs:

Not all -ly words need to be eliminated, but the thinking is that adverbs weaken active verbs. Rather than try to dress up a plain verb with an adverb, I should be using a vivid verb.

She walked calmly toward the kitchen.

This sentence isn’t nearly as strong as

She sauntered toward the kitchen. 

Along those lines, some words should be avoided altogether. Words like really, very, awfully, seemingly, terribly, totally, somewhat, sure, completely, just. 

Verbs:

There are a few verbs that don’t mean much of anything. Seems is one of those. It goes along with all the wases and weres and is a cousin to must, appears and looks. Could, should, and would work if used sparingly.

And as to that, do searches on words that show up regularly. Pet words. (Mine is just!) Make sure you spread them throughout the document so they aren’t overwhelming.

Clarifiers:

Okay, I’m probably cheating, but the word clarifiers works so well for this subject. I’m talking about insulting explanations like shrugging shoulders. What else might be shrugged? Likewise with nodding head. Just in the example from the movie I saw, the guy said 9AM. Unless I’m talking to someone on the other side of the world, I won’t use AM or PM when I’m talking about what time it is.

But I confess that I encountered such a situation as I wrote this article. I originally wrote that the man walked outside into bright sunlight. Like there would be such light inside? Yeah, I caught that. And I hope I didn’t leave any others dangling about!

When have you felt insulted by the way a book was written or the dialogue from a movie?

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Author: Marji Laine

Marji is a homeschooling mom with teenage twins left in the nest. She spends her days transporting to and from volleyball, teaching writing classes at a local coop, and directing the children’s music program at her church. Raised in suburban Dallas, she got her first taste of writing through the stories of brilliant authors of their day, Mignon Eberhart and Phyllis A. Whitney, and through stage experience. After directing and acting in productions for decades, Marji started writing her own scripts. From that early beginning, she delved into creating scintillating suspense with a side of Texas sassy. She invites readers to unravel their inspiration, seeking a deeper knowledge of the Lord’s Great Mystery that invites us all.

4 thoughts on “Writer Tip: Avoiding Insults

  1. So glad it made you think about it even if we don't quite see eye to eye. And Yes! I think your quote was from Spock (Mr. as opposed to Dr.) I can hear his voice in the delivery! Ha! Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts!

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  2. Hmmmn…..I don't see it this way. Especially with the scene with the pool….people state the obvious all the time – maybe especially about the weather. It strikes me as realistic…..And for your example….bright sunlight streaming in through the windows is delightful. I appreciate someone giving directions like "outside" or "through the slanting, bright sunshine patch in front of the east-facing bay window"…Somewhere, I read or heard this comment, attributed to Spock:"Insult cannot be given where none is taken."Some writers, maybe, aren't passionate about the work they do. Maybe the atmosphere on that movie was unpleasant, and the writers weren't being well-paid. Maybe hack writing was all that was required.I guess, when I feel that a book or a movie doesn't engage me on an intellectual level, I put it down or turn it off….However, the thought that people might put MY book down, gives me a reason to watch my own writing more carefully.I am happy to have read your article.

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  3. Thanks, David. This was a fun article to write!

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  4. Right on, Marji. Readers don't appreciate being treated like idiots.

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