Oof – good day, and welcome to Death Of 1000 Cuts – making you an awesome writer, one cut at a time.

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Right – as usual, look at the extract below (thank you for submitting, Kevin!), decide what you like and what you’d change, then read my thoughts under ‘The Cuts’.

Untitled (by Kevin)

“Another one,” Harris murmured from behind the binoculars.

Sharpe focused the rifle on the figure, which emerged from behind the ridge and loped downwards towards the base.

He fired. The thing tumbled like a heap of laundry, disappearing again into the snow.

They came less frequently now, maybe one or two a day. In the beginning there had been hundreds, even this far up in the mountains, and they had had to keep snipers posted day and night just to keep from being overrun.

They were still there, buried under the snow. Sharpe just hoped they stayed there this time.

They had been advised the things only went down with a direct headshot. Sharpe hadn’t believed it until he had seen the ones they brought back to the base and strapped to the gurneys in the makeshift lab. The dead were walking, and they had overrun India.

There had been reports of the dead returning in India for years. People thought it was a Hindu cult or government propaganda at first. Then the BBC had done a report on it, and the world realized it wasn’t a hoax.

Journalists, humanitarian aid workers, and thousands of new refugees from India seeking asylum told the same story. There was no plague and no apocalypse. There didn’t appear to be any reason behind it. The dead were simply coming back to life, and they became increasingly violent the longer they remained alive again.

The Cuts

“Another one,” Harris murmured from behind the binoculars.

So, hmm. Not shit. Arguably flawed, but I don’t feel adamant about it. Like, I am not flinging gigantic-ass thunderbolts down from Mt Olympus in disapproval, but maybe I am sending a little flotilla of paper boats marked SUGGESTIONS past you in the hope you will fish a couple out and act on the soggy messages contained therein.

So the dialogue is fine, plausible, not hugely evocative but not fucking stupid either. That is a win condition these days, apparently. ‘Not fucking stupid’? Tick. Please accept this engraved tankard and this hamper of artisanal cheeses. Still.

‘from behind the binoculars’? Yeah, go on. I mean, the sentence ends on the word ‘binoculars’, which is an interesting, specific noun and throws what we’ve just read into a different context. What comes before is a bit mushy and vague, but ‘binoculars’ has a tight semantic focus and that is good.

The most palpable bum note in this otherwise competent but uninspiring opening lick is ‘murmured’. But, like I say, I don’t feel charged up with the righteous ire of the avenging editor because, although I am of the inflexible, sternly moralising camp who say that any other dialogue tag aside from ‘said’ is horrendous stylistic blasphemy, a species of lexical war crime and a reliable augury of sixth-rate hackery, sometimes you really need a verb that modulates volume.

An exclamation mark can indicate shouting, but it feels weird to write: ‘“Aaaaiiieeeeeeeeeeeee!” he said.’ The phrase clearly isn’t ‘said’. But then, writing: ‘“FUCK YOOOOOU!” he yelled.’ feels comically over-determined. It’s like – he’s yelling? No shit! Thanks for tipping us off!

Better, in these situations, to reformulate so that the shouty dialogue is paired with a beat that matches the tone. The exclamation mark makes it clear the phrase is shouted, and you show the character pounding the table or, preferably, something less stock, to help emphasise the spirit of the utterance.

Whispering/murmuring is harder, though. I’ve written quite a few scenes where stealth or secrecy are paramount, and where it’s important that we know the character is speaking under their breath, taking a huge risk by talking at all. ‘said’ is all wrong for these situations – it implies the utterance is delivered at normal volume. The reader can easily lose that sense of quietness, whether it be knife-edge near-silence or merely calm, sweet nothings.

There are a couple of beats which can imply whispering and thus bypass the need for a dialogue tag. If a character moves their lips up to another character’s ear, you can just give us the utterance and we’ll assume it’s whispered. Same with a furtive shuffle nearer, a hand cupped round the mouth, etc.

But sometimes there’s just no elegant way round it, or you’ve already used these dialogue beats and you want to make it clear that the whispering continues. In these cases, ‘he/she/they whispered’ is, I think, acceptable. It’s not too clunky and it’s clear.

Multiple repetitions of ‘whispered’ do start to feel a bit stale. Unlike ‘said’, it sticks out and starts to clang if you keep using it. Still, switching it up with synonyms can sound even worse.

I’ve been a devoted reader of popular occult lifestyle mags Take A Break: Fate & Fortune and Chat: It’s Fate for six years now, and both publications are pathologically averse to using the dialogue tag ‘said’. The house style is ‘gasped, sniggered, wondered, threatened, breathed, murmured’. It’s magnificent and horrible.

I feel like ‘murmured’ is edging into melodramatic purple-prose territory. I am 90% sure I used ‘murmured’ as a dialogue tag in The Honours at least once. People really do murmur things, and it’s a distinct act from ‘saying’ things – really, it’s almost subvocal. Someone half-in, half-out of consciousness might murmur something. It’s not synonymous with ‘mutter’, which – to me – is more articulate, and implicitly grumpier.

But, as a verb, it does call attention to itself, and thus it distracts the reader from the actual dialogue. That is bad. If I do use it, it’s usually a last resort, the least-worst option I can think of, a compromise deal to keep the narrative moving. It never feels like a satisfying moment, never feels like I’m adding value to the story or enhancing the reader’s experience. It always has a question mark hanging over it, and if I can replace it with something better, I do.

This might be a record for amount of blather expended on a first sentence. (almost certainly not, actually – I’ve definitely devoted three-quarters of the blog to dissecting ponderous first lines, and this one isn’t even bad, so yeah – this is more likely to be high-average) And it turns out my only real point is: do you really need that ‘murmured’, Kevin?

Sharpe focused the rifle on the figure, which emerged from behind the ridge and loped downwards towards the base.

You don’t ‘focus a rifle’. You can focus sights, you can focus your sights, you can focus a scope, you can line up your sights, and you can focus your aim.

‘figure’ is fucking awful. Look, this is a noun I have definitely used. Sometimes a Stranger of Ambiguous Gender appears, perhaps silhouetted, unknown to the viewpoint character, and you need to reflect that.

But your use of ‘figure’ is not consistent with the viewpoint character’s knowledge. You’re being deliberately coy in a misguided attempt to tantalise the reader.

Because, based upon what you go on to tell us, Sharpe isn’t like ‘hello? Who could this fellow be? A travelling vaudevillian, come to delight us with his repertoire of bawdy songs? Some humble mendicant seeking succour on his endless pilgrimage? I really couldn’t guess, even as I eye him down my rifle sights.’

It’s a zombie. Say zombie. Or, if you feel the term carries too much culture freight, use the preferred nomenclature in your world.

Holding back and trying to tease us will only yield irritation and disappointment. It’s not like your undead follow any especially novel rules, so you might as well cop to this dude being a fucking zombie so we can move on. Otherwise you’re slowly drip-feeding us a load of familiar world-building that we can easily guess, as if it’s new to us.

Also – how exactly is Harris helping in this scene? Do you understand how the sniper-spotter relationship works?

Is Sharpe looking through a scope? You don’t mention one. How, if the zombie is far enough away that Harris needs binoculars, does Sharpe manage to hit it, first shot, without a scope? That is pretty fucking spectacular, especially since it’s undead, and so, canonically, you need to hit it right in the brainstem otherwise it’s going to keep on shuffling.

How does saying ‘another one’ help? Surely, unless he’s deliberately being a passive-aggressive dick, he would give a location?

Why does Sharpe fire right away? Surely, with ammunition a precious, limited resource, and the zombie a single, slow-moving target, he’s going to wait until it gets as close as possible before firing, to conserve ammunition and to maximise his chances of taking it down with a single round. Zombies don’t carry ranged weapons and they don’t – as far as we know, in this story – spray infectious blood on death or spread contagion after they die. You tell us that the dead return to life, so this is a supernatural problem, and zombie bites are neither here nor there (you imply any sort of death is capable of resulting in an undead resurrection) so he might as well wait until the very last moment to fire.

Also – the ‘figure’ emerges from behind the ridge after Harris has seen it. How did he see it then?

‘loped downwards towards the base’ – the verb ‘loped’ is well-chosen but the rest of this sentence is wishy-washy, vague and unevocative. ‘base’ is such a dull, broad word to close on. So they’re ‘up in the mountains’ but to reach the base one must go ‘downwards’? Are they in some kind of caldera? Why wouldn’t they be on the highest point?

He fired.

SNOOOOOOOOOOORE. Dull, unevocative. Engages none of our senses, gives nothing of what it feels like to fire a rifle.

The thing tumbled like a heap of laundry, disappearing again into the snow.

I do like the simile, and the introduction of snow. ‘again’ feels redundant. ‘thing’ is still being coy, though. You’re trying to create false tension by not being honest with us. It’s not a ‘thing’ to Sharpe.

Indeed, it’s going to have all sorts of specific human characteristics. It might look like a bearded dude in a red lumberjack shirt with square spectacles, it might be an old south-east Asian lady in a dirty silk nightgown, it might be a child with one arm. It’s not a generic ‘figure’. It’s an ex-person.

You should get that sense across. That way, when Sharpe plugs it with complete impassivity, with boredom almost, we’ll feel that disconnect viscerally. That kind of moment can do so much legwork for you in terms of world-building. We’re like: holy shit, that felt disturbing, but he’s not bothered at all. He must have nailed hundreds of these fuckers.

Maybe the two guys are carrying on a conversation about something else entirely, some small tension around base politics, a bit of gossip, some argument, some bit of trivia – so much so that the execution of a zombie scarcely registers. This bit of guard duty is routine, and this particular killing is unremarkable to them. Show, don’t tell. Make us viscerally feel how normal zombies are in this world.

They came less frequently now, maybe one or two a day. In the beginning there had been hundreds, even this far up in the mountains, and they had had to keep snipers posted day and night just to keep from being overrun.

No, no, no, no, NO.

This is the worst and weakest fictive structure there is, and so many people attempt it, especially in genre fiction.

It goes: opening line/para in the narrative present, action is happening.

Second line/para, wheel back into lengthy info-dump explaining How We Got Here.

Continue info-dump till reader loses will to live.

You can maybe, mmmmaybe get away with ‘They came less frequently now, maybe one or two a day. In the beginning there had been hundreds.’ as a plausible thought that arises in Sharpe’s mind.

The rest of this extract is pure premium-grade 100% certified dogshit.

Do not do this. Show, don’t tell. No info-dumps, no exposition-tsunamis. Especially when all we’re learning is: Generic Zombie Apocalypse Happened.

Stay in the narrative present. Give us character, give us tension and stakes now. We will figure out the history of your world as we go along. You don’t need to set it up. There’s no excuse. You’re guaranteeing that no one will read on, because exposition, delivered like this, with no personal stakes and no originality, is fatal to a story.

Be gutsy. Stick with the moment.

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