To all of you painfully affected, truly moved, earnestly touched, really warmed, really and truly heartened melodramatists who can’t earnestly prevent the painful deluge of exaggerated emotion flowing through your writing:
This letter’s for you (For everyone else, for anyone with taste, sorry about “the painful deluge” of adverbs).
For those of you who haven’t got it yet, the topic of this week’s letter is “overwriting” and the most basic way of “overwriting” is demonstrated above with my introduction. It’s got too many adverbs: painfully, truly, earnestly, really, really/truly, earnestly (And yes, I repeated some on purpose). Although I’m sure there are folks out there who like this sort of thing, for most folks the preponderance of words ending in “ly” has a nauseating effect.
While adverbs tends to be the chief culprit in ‘overwriting’, unnecessary adjectives can induce vomiting as well (Substitute for syrup of ipecac anyone?). Either way, too many descriptive words take away from the action of a plot, the point in a paper, the creative license of a readers imagination.
So, that covers “overwriting” basics: too much description = puke. This, of course, begs the question: what other literary devices, when used overmuch, cause readers to lose their metaphorical lunches? Well, any literary device used as a descriptor has the innate qualities necessary for causing readers to throw up. And which would those be, you ask? A whole bunch. Watch me name five just off the top of my head: metonymy, epithets, periphrasis, circumlocution, and apostrophe (not the punctuation mark), …that’s five. For the sake of word count, I’m just going to focus on one and promise to write follow up posts on each of the others somewhere in the future (Flashback to LD 11 yo). So, which will I pick? Let’s start with the last on the list: apostrophe. (Dude, check out all the colon’s in this paragraph. Yea, that’s where your lunch SHOULD go).
Apostrophe: So, you thought this was just a punctuation mark? It’s also an ancient Greek literary device that’s most commonly used in drama, but has also seen action in novels. What is it? It’s a shout-out to a God or ghost or naturally occurring phenomenon or anything that’s not really real. Let’s start with a few classic examples. Remember the Iliad? It’s that ancient Greek epic by Homer. Check out the first lines of the poem: “Sing, O muse, of the rage of Achilles, son of Peleus, that brought countless ills upon the Achaeans.” When he shouts out to the “muse,” oh yea, that’s an apostrophe. The muse ain’t there and she ain’t real, but as part of Greek literary convention, the author calls on this muse to speak for him. Now, is this “overwriting” because he used an apostrophe? HELL NO! Homer was one bad dude, and he ain’t gonna be shoutin’ out to no muse every other line. He doesn’t do it too much, and that’s why it isn’t “overwritten.”
Let’s check out an example from good ol’ Bill Shakespeare:
Angels and ministers of grace defend us!
Be thou a spirit of health or goblin damn’d,
Bring with thee airs from heaven or blasts from hell,
Be thy intents wicked or charitable,
Thou comest in such a questionable shape
That I will speak to thee: I’ll call thee Hamlet,
King, father, royal Dane: O, answer me!
In this, Hamlet is calling out to the Ghost of his murdered father. Like Homer, Shakespeare uses the apostrophe as a plot device, as the inciting incident that sets off the events of the tragedy. Does he have Hamlet call out to the ghost every other line? HELL NO! Shakespeare, like Homer, was one bad dude. Sure, there are places throughout the play where we are reminded of the ghost, but it never becomes overwhelming.
In contrast with these “bad dudes” of literature, Mary Shelley, in Frankenstein, commits sin, after “overwriting” sin. I happen to be teaching the novel to an AP class at the moment. And even though I love the novel, the students and I have both noticed long dragged-out sections where the adverbs and adjectives are piled on, and the sickening overuse of apostrophe overwhelms the senses and the stomach.
Allow me an example: “Oh! Stars and clouds and winds, ye are all about to mock me; if ye really pity me, crush sensation and memory; let me become as nought; but if not, depart, depart, and leave me in darkness.” (I think I just threw up in my mouth). Victor’s shout-out to nature here wouldn’t be so repulsive if it were alone. But these types of lines litter several of the chapters with melodrama, which actually detracts from the seriousness of Victor’s emotions. I mean, shit, the creature killed his whole damn family. Is that how you’d respond to finding out your whole family is dead? Would you be calling out to “stars and clouds and winds”? Would you accuse the sky of mocking you?
And yes, I know she was being poetic. And by itself, that line is great. But seriously, similar lines are repeated over and over throughout novel. It just gets old. It detracts from the action of the plot.
Well, that concludes this letter. What was my point in all this? There’s nothing wrong with descriptive writing. The problem is when there is too much of it. So watch for your adverbs, adjectives, and shout-outs to the supernatural. If you do it too much, you might be accused of “overwriting.”
With true and humble regards (puke),
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