Peggy Bechko: Trying Too Hard


Writing is a tough business and we’re always trying to put our best foot forward, to give our best, to produce our best work, but there is such a thing as trying too hard.

You know it. I know it.

There are few things less impressive than someone trying to be impressive.

Humor is a victim as well. How many times have you seen or read someone trying to be funny and it fell flat? Few things are less funny than someone trying to be funny.

As writers we need to watch out for things like using tailing tags to get readers to see the humor. You know, things like “he quipped,” or “he joked” or “he said with his usual wry sense of humor,” or some other hint that we’re trying to be funny. It may work on rare occasion when you toss the line off in a script along with the hot-potato to the actor who has to pull the humor off.
But, realistically if your dialog is funny you don’t need to point that out to your readers, be they enjoying your novel or reading your script. And if it isn’t as funny as you’d hoped you sure don’t need to draw attention to what didn’t work out as you’d planned. So look for places in your story where you know you were trying to be funny and change it until it actually is funny. Same for impressive mentioned above though impressive is a whole ‘nother animal.

And there are many facets of “trying too hard”. Isn’t just trying to be funny or impressive. Sometimes it’s just showing off; using all sorts of cute and helpful little tags to your dialog.

Writers sometimes get obsessed with their thesaurus and just can’t help coming up with one word after another in preference to simply saying he ‘said’. Tags like gasped, chortled, grunted, hissed, barked, screeched, harangued. I mean come on, people, you’re writers, don’t irritate your readers. You can do better. They know you have a word processor with a thesaurus attached, dictionary too. Just keep it fresh, keep it simple and tell your story. I mean if you’re truthful, when you’re reading, doesn’t all that stuff irritate you? One, well-placed tag such as above can add to the story – a gushing torrent of them doesn’t.

It’s a hard concept to handle sometimes, but you and I, as writers, don’t really want people admiring our writing, our cleverness, the adept way we handle the English language. Nope, instead we want to hook the reader, grab ‘em by the eyeballs and not turn lose. We want the reader to not be able to put the book down or in the case of submitting a script we want it tight and fresh enough for it to be moved along in the pipeline of selling the script.

And to accomplish that, we don’t want to trip our readers up. We don’t want them to pause to admire our writing or roll their eyes in exasperation. You’re not giving your readers history lessons or explaining the flora and fauna of northern California. They’re not prepping for a spelling bee or grabbing (at least we hope not) a dictionary to broaden their vocabulary.
Anything that jars your reader is bad.

Period.

And, as you build toward climax of your story, the pace will steadily increase. Most definitely not the place you want to throw up and roadblocks or potholes.

Keep it simple stupid isn’t a bad philosophy in this context. Your readers are looking for a story that’s entertaining, believable and somehow moves them. They want to be so engaged in the story, so transported to the world you’ve created that they take no notice at all of how you wrote it, how you used words to draw them in and shape that world.

So reread your book or script. Look for distractions, for jarring or colorful to the point of ridiculous language. Use fewer devices, not more.

I think we’re back to keep it simple stupid.

Now write.