Editing: Name the Dog
I’m editing the manuscript of a first-time novelist. The story line is good–it has mystery, suspense, intrigue, humor, and a fast pace. And yes, Kristen Lamb, several murders take place. The manuscript held my attention all the way through my first reading.
But…here’s the but. The writer leaves out important details about location and the names of a few minor,
but still important, characters. He resorts to using vague terms when specific ones would help the reader.
The opening action of the story occurs at a “university” of unknown location. No clues whatsoever to country, state, or city. References to mountains suggest that the location might be somewhere in the West, but that’s a guess.
The main characters in the story have names, but minor characters become simply “the man,” “the monk,” “the girl,” “a person.” In a number of paragraphs, the writer repeats the words “the man” and “the girl” multiple times in the same paragraph. That gets boring. Those paragraphs need rewriting.
After reading a few chapters, I recalled this quote by Roy Peters Clark.
At the St. Petersburg Times, editors and writing coaches warn reporters not to return to the office without “the name of the dog.” That reporting task does not require the writer to use the detail in the story, but it reminds the reporter to keep her eyes and ears open. Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer by Roy Peter Clark
Details are important. You may not use all of them, but collect them. Give “the man,” “the old man” and “the monk” names, especially when they appear in multiple paragraphs. Or give a distinguishing characteristic: a bald head or a visible tattoo. This will help readers keep characters straight in their minds. Who is talking? That will be clearer if you give the character a name when he first appears in your story.
Of course, not all the minor characters need names. Sometimes “a man passed by without noticing the damsel in distress….” If this man is a one-moment character, he does not need a name. But if this man takes part in a multiple-paragraph situation in a critical chapter, he needs a name.
So when writing about minor characters, give them names if they have more than an incidental role. You will help the reader stay linked with your story. And don’t forget the dogs. They need names, too–just like Max, the driver in the photo above, and his buddy, Jake.
Janice Heck is coauthor with Chaplain Bob Ossler of Triumph Over Terror, a book about Chaplain Ossler’s experiences at Ground Zero after the terrorist attacks on September 11.