Possibly my biggest pet peeve occurs when writers of fiction overuse punctuation and capitalization. In a vain attempt to make a scene seem dramatic and possess impact, they do everything they can visually on the page to get their point across.
Whether it’s the use of bold text, italic text, underlined text, and capitalization, or the use of multiple forms of punctuation at the end of the same sentence, too many writers are writing with the maturity of grade-schoolers, depending on visual emphasis of word on the page to get across their point, rather than relying on powerful writing.
Here’s an example of what I mean:
“I have BAD news! You have cancer!! YOU HAVE THREE MONTHS, AT BEST!!!!” (Incorrect)
Now, you may think I’m exaggerating with this example, but I’ve seen plenty of fiction that does this sort of thing in even more prevalent form, often several times per page in some manuscripts.
The unfortunate result of all this capitalizing of words, adding of bold and italics effects, and extra exclamation points is that it turns what should be a serious moment in a story comedic. It’s hard to take such passages seriously, precisely because they’re taking the scene too seriously, and in doing so, are relying on the crutch of visual cues on the page to communicate something tragic.
It’s also treating the audience as, well… a bit dumb.
Who reading this blog would not understand that being told you have cancer and perhaps three months to live is a grave and serious matter? I’m guessing most of us would get that without any of the histrionics such effects on the page create.
But see, the core writing isn’t bad at all. Let’s take away all the visual-on-the-page melodrama and look at it again:
“I have bad news. You have cancer. You have three months, at best.” (Correct)
Strip away all the all-caps, overpunctuation, capitalization and other text effects, and at the core you have an impressively powerful piece of writing.
Those thirteen words, completely unadorned by any special formatting, get the message across in a serious and life-changing way. This is how a serious-minded doctor would break this sort of bad news to a patient.
And it’s the sort of dialogue that is strong enough to use as the kick-off to a short story, novel, or whatever sort of story one chose to build off of it.
So when I see things like the first version, what I deduce immediately is that I’m seeing the work of an inexperienced writer who lacks confidence in the power of their own writing.
But here’s the core truth: Anyone who writes poorly enough to actually need all that extra decor to communicate the impact of a scene, probably hasn’t written that powerful a scene to begin with. And if they have, they’re not experienced enough to realize it, and understand they don’t need all that visual melodrama on the page.
Now, some people will defend all-caps in instances of shouting. It’s true that this is sometimes used. But even if one chooses to use it, it is more powerful used very sparingly, rather than overdoing it.
Beth saw her son wobbling along on the cement railing of the bridge. “COLE!” she shouted, sprinting toward him. “DON’T MOVE! I MEAN IT! YOU COULD FALL!!” (Incorrect)
In this example, the writer is more under control in narration, but has overused exclamation points and capitalization. Again, it robs the scene of its potential power and drama. Much more effective would be this, allowing for a little of each effect for maximum impact.
Beth saw her son wobbling along on the cement railing of the bridge. “COLE!” she shouted, sprinting toward him. “Don’t move. I mean it. You could fall.” (Correct)
Some might prefer the first version because they’re used to seeing writers who are lacking confidence write that way. But think about it.
The first and more important word, the one a concerned mom would scream, is her son’s name. Then, she’s sprinting toward him. I doubt sincerely anyone could maintain that kind of volume and panic while also running as fast as she can to save him. We’ve indicated that she’s shouting both by the capitalization of her son’s name, and the exclamation point following it. We’ve also indicated she’s running toward her son.
The reader will figure out she’s probably still speaking loud enough to be heard. They’ll intuit her concern. They don’t need to be hit over the head by the writer. And that’s the net result of making the rest of what she says all-capped and followed by exclamation points.
A character can shout at another character without the writer shouting off the page at the reader.
AND THAT’S WHAT ALL THIS STUFF DOES!!!!!!!!!!!!!