The biggest selling book of 2012 was¬†Fifty Shades of Grey. Not only has it introduced many people to the world of kink, it’s given them a lesson in how¬†not¬†to write. And if a lack of literary merit isn’t going to slow down sales, well, at least people can learn about the elements of style while being turned on by the elements of sadomasochism.¬†
1.¬†Avoid repetition of words and phrases.¬†
When Ana first meets Christian Grey, she thinks she spots a “ghost of a smile” in his expression. That’s a nice, descriptive way of putting it — it’s easy for the reader to imagine. The problem is, James uses the same exact phrasing only a few pages later, for the same character. And that’s not the last we hear the term “ghost of a smile,” either — it pops up a few more times in the first book. Using something so specific again and again just comes across as lazy.
2.¬†Use adverbs sparingly.¬†
Anastasia Steele never met an adverb she didn’t like, especially when it’s modifying the way she or another character speaks: “I mumble almost inarticulately”; “I murmur apologetically”; “he murmurs softly.” (For painfully excessive use of the word “murmur” throughout¬†Fifty, see rule #1).
3.¬†Don’t use substitutes for the verb “said.”
The¬†Fifty Shades¬†characters rarely just “say” something, they¬†whisper¬†it, they breathe it, they¬†moan¬†it, they mumble it, they¬†murmur¬†it,¬†ad nauseum¬†(see rule ¬†#2, and then rule #1). One of Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules on Writing is this:¬†
Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue. The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But “said” is far less intrusive than “grumbled,” “gasped,” “cautioned,” “lied.” I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with “she asseverated” and had to stop reading and go to the dictionary.
What he said.
There is such a thing as creative license, but E.L. James’s should be revoked. Like driving, creative license is not a right, but a privilege, and should be used responsibly and with the utmost care. For example, the author creatively personifies Ana’s internal struggles over various situations as two polar-opposite people living in her head: a sex-loving, open-minded, free-spirited, back-flipping “Inner Goddess” and a careful, cautious, judgmental worrier called her “Subconscious.” Cute, but what Alanis Morissette did to the word “ironic,” E.L. does to the word “subconscious.” To quote Inigo Montoya from¬†The Princess Bride: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” If it were truly Ana’s subconscious guiding her, Ana would not be aware of her — that’s what the whole “sub” part of that word means: not conscious! Similarly, there are a ton of British anachronisms in a story about American characters living in American cities with nary a funny Mancunian sidekick to rub off on them. James even includes an apology at the end of the third book for including a scene so preposterous that it defies all logic and law — that’s when you know you’ve abused your creative license.
5.¬†Don’t worry about the rules of writing.
E.L. James didn’t, and look where that got her: laughing all the way to the bank! The most important thing is just sitting down and actually writing. As long as you do that — ideally with passion and conviction — then there’s a chance (albeit small) that you can ignore rules 1 through 4 above and still be a success.