EVERGREEN: On Being a Professional Amateur #8: Barney as Narrator

More often than I’d like to tell I see manuscripts that read as if they were written for children, regardless of who the target audience is. Partly this is the result of what the writer chooses to tell the reader, partly it’s how the writer tells it.

Sample paragraph: Queen Amelia looked at the new ambassador. He looks familiar, she thought. What she didn’t realize was that the new ambassador was a disguised Lord Roberto.

“I am your new ambassador, Majesty,” announced Lord Roberto in his disguise.

oOo

What’s wrong with this perfectly grammatical set of sentences?

There’s nothing grammatically wrong with the paragraph, although “announced Lord Roberto in his disguise” makes it sound as if he’s saying the line up his sleeve. But it has other problems:

  • It’s juvenile-sounding and awkward.
  • It gives the reader information the point-of-view character doesn’t have. In fact it makes a point of her not having it.
  • It repeats the fact that the Queen has a new ambassador three times, and the fact that it’s Lord Roberto in disguise twice.
  • It repeats certain words in the same or different forms: look, ambassador, new, disguise.
  • The dialogue tag (“he announced”) tries to inject false excitement into the scene.

In most writing suffering from the “Barney Effect,” the characters rarely say anything. They shout, yell, bellow, scream, shriek, squeal, exclaim and cry their dialogue. The writer thinks he’s injecting excitement into the prose when, instead, he’s creating something that reads like those old Dick and Jane books we had to slog through before we got to read something with a plot. (“See Spot run,” shouted Dick.)

Notice, too, that In these constructions, the verb (shouted, cried, squealed etc.) is often the only indication of heightened emotion. Nothing else in either the dialogue or the scenario hints at why Dick would shout his observation about Spot’s activities. And often the character is uttering dialogue that is almost impossible to shout, squeal, or bellow: “I’m having a very difficult time controlling my temper today,” bellowed Roger. 

How do you avoid Barney-isms?

Two simple changes will help a great deal:

  • Don’t make your characters shout unless they’re trying to attract someone’s attention across a crowded room, or scream unless they’re absolutely terrified, or cry out unless they’re shocked and amazed. Have them simply say things. In other words, make sure your verbs make emotional sense in context with the scene and the dialogue.
  • Don’t pause to inform the reader of what the hero doesn’t know. (Unless asides to the “audience” are part of the “schtick” of your story.)

Exercise: See if you can make the Sample Paragraph above sound like it belongs in an adult book of fiction. Embellish at will!

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EVERGREEN: On Being a Professional Amateur #8: Barney as Narrator — 2 Comments

  1. With his wig and false nose securely in place Lord Roberto approached Queen Amelia. He flourished a leg and said. ‘I am your new ambassador, Majesty.’
    Queen Amelia frowned. There was something familiar about the man, she was sure but couldn’t quite put her finger on it.
    It was only later that it came to her; he had been wearing one of her wigs…

  2. Snort!

    Bob, you are a card!

    I love the image. But now I’m agog to know under what circumstances Lord Roberto came by the dear lady’s head gear.