When More is Too Much: Family Business by Muriel Bolger

Writing.ie | Resources | Better Fiction Guides | The Art of Description | Writing Dialogue
Muriel Bolger

Muriel Bolger

It is said that you can tell whether a book is going to be any good after the first eight or nine pages. And I have to agree you usually can, although, as with every rule, there are some exceptions.

The ones which turn me off are those where every detail is described, and then described again, and again. Everyone knows you fill a kettle, with water, and boil it to make tea, the way you use toothpaste to clean your teeth. They are not noteworthy enough to demand a paragraph – ever!

Then there are those where the writer appears to have opened the thesaurus and worked his or her way though the list and decided to include as many words as possible, just because he/she can. Hence ‘the languid dog hiding under a bench from the midday sun’ becomes ‘the lethargic, somnolent canine reclining in the relative shade of a sun-bleached bench protecting himself from the searing, shimming midday heat.’ And it happens, more often than you would believe.

Passages of dialogue are where many writers fall down and it can be difficult to get the balance right.  A simple rule to remember that more is very often too much.

You want to set the scene. You want the characters’ traits and foibles to unfurl. What you do not want to do is give this information in great big wodges of stilted dialogue.

Think first. How much do I reveal? How much should be kept back and disseminated as the story progresses? Try to impart too much information and the conversation will come across as contrived and preachy: too little and it will have the opposite effect, making the character speaking sound pedantic, and sharp, and that may not be your intention at all.

Peppering you dialogue with long passages of idle chat and with unnecessary mundane facts will slow any story and distract from the plot or story line, guaranteeing that your readers will lose interest very early into your work:

‘Would you like a cup of tea?’

‘Yes, please.’

‘You take sugar, don’t you, Meg?’  her mother asked, going to the cupboard to get the rose-patterned china cups and saucers out.


 She added the sugar bowl and milk jug to the tray.

‘How are your children, Peter and Siobhan? They must be five and seven by now. It’s great they are so close together, not like you and your brother, Giles,’ she said as she carried the tray over placed it carefully on the gingham cloth that covered the square table. She handled the china with care. Meg knew she liked to use it. It had sentimental value. It been her mothers. A wedding present from one of her own grandfather’s grateful patients.

‘It is. Time’s flying by,’ her daughter replied.

‘You look tired. Are you getting a break away from them at all?’

‘Not really. It’s hard with Eddie’s hours, but when he’s not doing his weekend shifts at the pharmaceutical factory, and that’s once a month on the third week. When he’s off we try to do fun things with them, like take them to the zoo or the playground together with their cousins, Jack and Ciaran. They enjoy that. So do I.’

Yawn, yawn, yawn!

Read that out loud and listen to it.

A mother would know that her daughter took sugar. She would also know the ages of her grandchildren and would never refer to them as ‘your children, Peter and Siobhan,’ when speaking to Meg.

The china, and the family pedigree, if relevant at all, can be inserted elsewhere.

She’d also know her son-in-law’s name and what he worked at and would not need to reminded of these facts. There’s so much clutter between the conversation that the reader has forgotten the question when Meg answers it. Meg would know her brother was called Giles.

People don’t talk like that and, although as an author it’s your job to let us get to know your characters, there are other ways of doing it and over-writing is not one of those.

It can be easy to fall into that trap, especially when starting a novel, and you’re faced with producing 90,000-odd words. But, believe me, sticking in descriptions and facts to flesh the writing out doesn’t work at all and, it is a real put-off to any editor or reader.

How about:

‘Where has the time gone? I can’t believe Peter is five already. He’s nearly as tall as Siobhan too,’ Meg’s mother said as they sat in the kitchen.

‘Granny’s china. I am getting the special treatment today,’ her daughter replied.

‘I like using it. It brings back memories. You look tired. Have you plans for an easy weekend?’

‘Eddie’s off so we’re taking the kids to the zoo with their cousins.’

Seventy-one words, as opposed to two hundred and six of rambling trivia that confuses and irritates.

In the second version, we meet Meg’s mother and her kids, Peter and Siobhan, and deduce he is the younger of the two. We get a sense of the older woman liking to keep her memories alive and of her concern for her daughter. We also learn that Meg’s husband is Eddie and there’s a suggestion that he works irregular hours and she is in sole charge of their children. We also know that they are part of a larger family.

Being decisive and forensically chopping this passage has actually opened up several more possibilities. The edit will allow any of these treads to be woven into further strands of your overall plot without repetition.

The mother’s nostalgic streak could be developed as a sub plot or could become a recurring habit that might drive her family mad. Her family history could be of interest too.

Eddie’s shift working life at the still-to-be-revealed pharmaceutical factory could also be developed – a revolutionary new drug – industrial espionage – an affair facilitated by his irregular working hours – redundancy – that’s up to you.

Meg’s motherhood role could herald discontent with having too much time at home and/or her need for more stimulation – a lack that unbalances the equilibrium of the family. Conversely, a decision to stop working and stay at home could have all sorts of effects and put other pressures on her marriage.

Working like this allows you continue with a clear vision. Working on some jumbled up verbose manuscript where you’ve added names and details just to fill up space, will not.

I find if I think of an idea or a character trait that I’d like to attribute or include and it doesn’t necessarily fit in where I’m working, I scroll to the end of the document and write it there. Then when I need a little inspiration I read these eclectic notes and they usually kick start me again.

(c) Muriel Bolger

About Family Business:

Young, clever and accomplished, Anne is fully committed to her career at her father’s law practice – much to the delight of her parents and the not-so-hidden resentment of her younger sister Gabby. She doesn’t have time to think of her dreams of art college, or, indeed, the lack of love in her life.
Then Anne finds herself facing charismatic barrister Daniel Hassett in court. Equally ambitious, they seem to be the perfect match. But just as Anne and Daniel’s relationship heats up, a series of shocking events forceAnne to question what she really wants.
Will an unexpected French inheritance be just the thing to help her decide a way forward – in law and in love? Or should she risk everything she’s worked so hard for?

Order your copy online here.

About the author

Muriel Bolger is a well-known Irish journalist and award-winning travel writer. In addition to her works of fiction she has also written four books on her native city, including Dublin – City of Literature (O’Brien Press), which won theTravel Extra Travel Guide Book of the Year 2012.

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