Red Pen on Grey Matter

A few weeks ago, I mentioned that I was reading the E L James novel Fifty Shades of Grey as part of an Instagram project. I’d heard it was badly-written, so I wanted to find out exactly what made it that way.

The series of posts gives much more detail, including spoilers and the ending. Yet the main points can be summed up with three pieces of advice:

Trim, cut and discard

There’s a principle in writing known as ‘show, don’t tell’. A more powerful image is created when a character is shown wrapping up against the wind rather than the author telling the reader it’s a cold day.

This book is written in first-person, so the story is told through the eyes of Anastasia Steel who falls in love with Christian Grey. As such, her inner thoughts are ever-present, and they frequently state or repeat what could be shown more fluently through other description.

A case in point is the contract that Grey presents to Anastasia. Rather than picking out the relevant parts in dialogue, the entire document is dumped in front of the reader.

Cutting and discarding also applies to characters who don’t forward the plot in any way. Grey, for instance, has a housekeeper called Mrs Jones who appears for a few scenes then is never mentioned again.

The only time it might be useful to focus on a minor character is where a murder mystery writer wants to throw the reader off the scent.

Characters’ wants

Once you’ve decided which characters to keep, they need to be put to work. The screenwriter Aaron Sorkin advises writers to think about not who a character is, but what they want.

I’ll give E L James some credit for Christian Grey: we know exactly what he wants, and it remains constant throughout the book.

Anastasia’s best friend Kate, by contrast, is highly consistent. One moment, she’s excitedly helping her friend pick out a dress for her dates with Grey; the next, she’s apparently suspicious of him. At one point, this change happens within the same page.

Jack up the drama with conflict

Storytelling convention dictates that the drama should start relatively small or minor and gradually ramp up as the narrative progresses. Most stories also have subplots, or even two or main plots intertwined.

In Fifty Shades of Grey, however, the stakes are never particularly high and no real subplots are established. Nothing untoward would happen if they split up at any point, except that Anastasia would mope for a while and Grey would find another woman.

Yet the potential for drama was tantalisingly there. She signed a non-disclosure agreement early in the book and stuck to its terms. So much could have happened if she’d broken that: her family might have found out, the authorities might have been involved, Grey’s business might have suffered, &c.

As an author, never be scared to ask ‘But what if this happened?’, then make your characters live it.

A small caveat: an experienced novelist might be able to subvert these rules by taking characters on an emotional journey rather than a dramatic one. However, this technique tends to be more suited to the short story form.

Having read the book, I decided to give the screenplay a watch as well.

What a relief not to have Anastasia’s inner monologue, with the action shown rather than explained. The dialogue is clipped back and the character of Kate is also made consistent.

That’s not to say the film is good, though. Remarkably, it sticks closely to the novel, but that also means a lack of subplots to keep us engaged.

The Long and The Short of It

This week, I’ve been looking through some of my old short stories and flash fiction.

I started exclusively prose in 2010 before moving gradually to poetry. As a result, I have an archive of pieces that are complete but are unedited.

Looking through them, I can now immediately spot where I’ve told the reader what was happening instead of showing it through action or dialogue, and any clumsy phrases that I’d now strike down. Here’s an example:

“How much have you had to drink?” she laughed, as he picked himself up. They had enjoyed only a small wine before heading out.

Today, I would probably have shown the character picking himself up in a different way, and placed the information about the small wine into dialogue.

However, I did spot a piece of flash fiction that I still wouldn’t edit very much. This is You’re Going Down.


The referee in the first boat shouted to the other two.

“The race is from here to that island. I want a fair competition, no funny business, no putting each other off. Understand?” They agreed, not quite in unison. “All right. On your marks, get set.” He blew a loud horn.

As soon as they picked up their oars, the man on the left began to regret his drunken bragging the previous week. Still, he felt sure he would win. The small hole he had drilled in his opponent’s boat would take care of that.

Unpicking Suits

Over Christmas and New Year, I had the chance to catch up on legal drama Suits up to and including season 7.

So far, it’s been an engaging watch, and I think that’s down to the strong writing. The characters are motivated by what they want, whether that’s money, power, or – especially in the case of Louis Litt – petty one-upmanship.

It’s also clear that the writers have lived the experience of being a lawyer rather than simply researched it. In that sense, it has a similar feel to The West Wing. But the writing does have some flaws.

It is reasonable that characters will think in a similar way because they work in the same field, but they often express themselves with identical turns of phrase, sometimes down to swearing in the same manner.

The other piece of dialogue that often appears is: ‘What are you talking about?’ Used sparingly, this allows a character to explain the point in a different way and allow the viewer to understand it more clearly. In Suits, however, it’s used as a crutch.

That said, I’m still looking forward to season 8, whenever I have a chance to watch it.

Giving the Right Direction

Whenever possible, I go to an event called Scrieve. Playwrights are invited to submit a 10-minute extract of their work, where it’s read out by volunteer actors.

Having recently revisited and edited my one-woman play Jennifer Goldman’s Electric Scream, I submitted scenes 1 and 3 for reading. I omitted scene 2 largely because of time constraints.

Some months ago, I’d submitted another extract from later in the play and I was pleased with the person who’d read it out, as it was in exactly the excitable manner I’d intended. I was fortunate to have the same person read it out in this instance. However, while scene 3 was satisfactory, scene 1 made the audience laugh – but it’s supposed to be more serious than the majority of the play.

Playwriting is not for the control freak. It’s a common rookie mistake for the writer to micromanage the actors. By convention, the writer supplies the dialogue and the bare minimum of stage direction, while the director has control over how the play looks and sounds to the audience. There were some great plays at Scrieve, but my script definitely allowed the characters the greatest freedom of movement.

So I’ve taken another look at the direction in scene 1. I can’t control the final outcome, but I can suggest how the dialogue is supposed to be delivered.

The misunderstanding probably arose with the phrase I’d used to describe the character at that point: ‘[…] FORMALLY DRESSED AND CONFIDENT’. The lines were definitely delivered with confidence, but also with humour. This has now been amended to: ‘[…] FORMALLY DRESSED AND SPEAKING IN A SERIOUS TONE’.

Unless I can rope in a willing volunteer, this will probably be the last time I’m able to hear my words spoken by someone else before I submit it to an upcoming event. Nonetheless, it proved invaluable for ironing out a small flaw that changed the nature of a whole scene.

Following Suits

Every writer who creates multiple characters has to balance up two factors.

On the one hand, both characters are inherently part of the author, and their words and actions are dictated by what is written. Yet the voices of these two characters must also be sufficiently different from each other so a reader can accept both as individuals. This is not always an easy balance to achieve, and sometimes even the professionals don’t succeed.

English: Gabriel Macht in March 2009.
English: Gabriel Macht from Suits in March 2009. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve recently been watching legal drama Suits. Generally speaking, the dialogue is of a high standard, and pared back to lend a speedy pace. But the standard, I’ve noticed, begins to slip around Season 4. The first observation was that every character – main, minor and recurring – swears in an similar manner. Had this attribute been confined to one character, perhaps two, I would have accepted it as a personal quirk; it works for Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It, for instance.

Suits also relies upon the line What are you talking about? and its variations. Used sparingly, this technique can be a near-invisible way to clarify information for the viewer, but its constant use becomes obvious and lessens its effect. Writing in The Guardian, playwright Lucy Prebble even warns that If ever a character asks another character, “What do you mean?”, the scene needs a rewrite.

Suits is not the only drama affected by such similarity. A couple of weeks ago, I watched Collateral Beauty. Among its other flaws, it seemed that each character held a spiritual belief and would often speak to the others in similar platitudes. Yet even if the writer did want to evoke a spiritual tone, it might have helped if someone had questioned or challenged these beliefs.

So how can we, as writers, avoid the trap of carbon-copy dialogue?

A good starting point is to reduce the number of characters where possible. In Moby Dick, the narrator Ishmael is on a whaling ship with dozens of other men, but Herman Melville tells their stories by illustrating only a few. He focuses, for instance, on the overbearing and egotistical Captain Ahab who who could not be confused with Queequeg and his strange customs.

For those who survive the cull, it’s worthwhile letting them live in your head and allowing them space to forge their own identities, perhaps even to construct their own back stories. It should be possible for the reader to follow two characters having a short conversation by looking at their individual speech, mannerisms and attitude rather than he said or she said tags.