I’ve noticed this strange trend in the prose style of novels, and I’ve wondered why it’s happening. I finally realized that the prevalence of social media is almost certainly the culprit.
I won’t try to write a whole thesis on the history of this type of thing, but I think it’s pretty commonly accepted that social trends can be a big influence on prose style.
Dickens was wordy because of how serialization worked. The modernists produced intentionally difficult and confusing writing to show how difficult and confusing the world was after the world wars.
And so on.
Here’s the old rule that’s been changing:
Show emotions using subtext.
Stating emotions outright is considered a bit of a faux pas for a reason. It’s a special case of the “show, don’t tell” rule.
When I first started working on my fiction, this came up everywhere.
There’s a time and place where it’s acceptable to write: “Joe was mad.” But mostly, this is the result of lazy or untrained writing.
One can show so much more nuance with subtext. Why is he mad? How mad is he? How is it affecting his actions and choices?
Not to mention, showing the emotion makes Joe more human and three-dimensional, because there will be complexity and confusion about the answers to all the questions. It can also turn a passive statement of fact into action.
Joe threw the book across the room at Susie’s head.
The reader can interpret their own emotions into this. Most of the time when I see this rule violated, it’s because the writer doesn’t trust the reader. It shows up in addition to the action:
Susie plopped down next to Robert and placed her hand on his leg. She wanted to upset Joe by flirting with someone else. She locked eyes with Joe and gave him a seductive smile. Joe threw the book across the room at Susie’s head, because he was mad.
Yeah. All that telling can be read into the scene given the context of the rest of the novel or story. Here’s what it sounds like removed:
Susie plopped down next to Robert and placed her hand on his leg. She locked eyes with Joe and gave him a seductive smile. Joe threw the book across the room at Susie’s head.
In real life, I’d try to flesh it out a bit more, but you see the point. Now, I obviously can’t prove that social media has caused this shift, but it makes perfect sense. As a culture, we’re inundated with people’s status updates.
Most of the stories we read are people blatantly telling us their emotions with no subtext. I did a search for the word “mad” on Twitter. Here’s the most recent one:
I just came back from the cinema and I’m mad af. That was one of my worst experiences in my life 1. They screamed every time a new member popped up 2. Sang every background song 3. Screamed the fanchant every chance they got. I didn’t go to a fkn concert
— Sam (@kinoptgz) November 15, 2018
This is pretty typical. Social media posts tend to be a raw, unfiltered dump of how someone feels. Most social media posts are accompanied by a picture or video.
This does the hard work of apt description for the writer.
I don’t want to come off as saying this is “bad.” Social media posts are a completely different medium and serve a different purpose than long-form writing. It’s okay to have different conventions.
What I am saying is that these conventions have started to bleed into longer writing merely because it is what we’re used to now. Very few people read blogs or books or magazines or newspapers these days.
Almost all reading is now done from social media posts.
I have no statistics to back up such a claim, but leisure reading is at an all-time low and the average American spends over 2 hours a day on social media. So I’d say it’s likely true.
I know what you’re thinking: 99% of everything is crap. I shouldn’t jump to conclusions about trends in case I’m reading a string of crap that no one thinks of as good. Well, the inspiration for this post came from reviewer trends.
Many prominent reviewers in the genres I follow have written that certain books have “good writing” when these blatant “mistakes” are all over the book.
It got me wondering why reviewers have been desensitized to the emotion dump and have even come to think of it as good writing.
Unfortunately, I blame social media.