Crimes against literature: Fifty Shades has 50 novel-writing mistakes (part 2)

Book of How Not To Write a Novel with copies of Fifty Shades books and Grey

Welcome to part 2 of the list of writing failures exhibited in Fifty Shades as we go through what How Not to Write A Novel says about words and phrases, sentences and paragraphs, dialogue and narrative stance. As I often need to do when blogging about these books I ought to give a:

CONTENT NOTE: This series of posts is meant to be a fun and light-hearted. However, at times there is simply no getting away from the problematic portrayals of consent, BDSM, purity culture, misogyny, racism, child abuse and mental health problems that are inherent in Fifty Shades. To say nothing of the gratuitous displays wealth.

I also link to other blogs that also criticise Fifty Shades because I think they have insightful things to say about EL James’ writing, but I make no guarantees as to the language or suitability of content on those sites.

Also, credit where it’s due, the names given to the writing mistakes and the explanations are extracts from How Not To Write A Novel.

All in all, I hope you enjoy, but read at your own risk.

Words and Phrases

The Crepuscular Handbag – Wherein the author flaunts somebody else’s vocabulary

Ask yourself: “Do I know this word?” If the answer is no, then you do not know it.

Ana has two internal personas, kind of like a shoulder angel and shoulder demon, where one wants to have sex with Christian and the other keeps disapproving of Ana’s urges. The sex-negative and spectacularly unpleasant grouch is called Ana’s “subconscious”.

Except that no one is aware of their subconscious. That’s why it’s called the sub-conscious. This one is so pervasive I’m counting it as a writing fail in its own right.

Meanwhile there are plenty of other one-off word-meaning fails that also count towards the score.

For example, Christian caresses the front of his “palate” with his tongue as he pronounces the T of “eat” to Ana in FSOG chapter 24. As Das Sporking points out:

The problem is that you don’t pronounce the T sound that way. If you try saying “eat” while pressing your tongue against your hard palate—which is on the roof of your mouth—you end up lisping like an Igor from Discworld. “Eath, Mithress Ana.” … That’s because the T sound—like P and K—is what linguists call a voiceless alveolar plosive.

Oh wait, this bit happens in a dream. That must explain it.

(No it doesn’t. )

Are Sticks and Stones still an Option? – Wherein the author mangles common expressions

When you use idioms incorrectly, it makes you sound as if you come from a different culture than the reader, and possibly a different planet.

FSOG chapter 1: Ana says “The miles slip away as I floor the pedal to the metal.”

As Jenny Trout puts it:

Dear Non-American Author trying to write in Americanisms: It’s either “floor it” or “put the pedal to the metal”. And actually, no one says the latter anymore.

Breeding Contempt – Wherein the author relies too much on clichés

Because they are so familiar, these phrases are drained of even the meaning of the individual words that make them up.

“I’m going to drive you wild” Christian promises Ana in FSF chapter 11.

And then Ana is thinks:

Drive me wild . . . wow.

Sentences and Paragraphs

The Redundant Tautology – Wherein the author repeats himself

If you have made a point in one way, resist the temptation to reinforce it by making it again. 

Some writers do this by having multiple sentences that say the same thing multiple times, but as Newman and Mittelmark point it, it’s just as problematic to describe a “large grey elephant”. Of course, in FSF chapter 14 EL James tells us about “soft velvet”. This is the quote from the book:

Kate and Elliot sit back on the soft velvet seating, hand in hand. They look so happy, their features soft and radiant in the glow from the tea lights flickering in crystal holders on the low table.

Of course, there’s another sin of repetition happening here as we have the word “soft” twice in as many sentence. And here’s what Jenny says about it:

Word repetition is a bear for every single writer. In fact, if you ever meet a writer who says they don’t have an issue with accidental word repetition, throw holy water on them because they’re a gremlin in disguise. Every writer struggles with this. Here’s how you get rid of word rep like the one I emphasized above. See the first usage? Name a time when velvet has been, I don’t know, sharp or hard as iron. Right. So, if Kate and Elliot just sit back on the velvet seating, we know already that velvet is soft. The first use is unnecessary.

This writing failure counts as two.

The Penis-like Sausage – In which metaphors are inappropriate

A metaphor or simile should be accurate in the comparison it makes, and appropriate to the mood and context in which it is used.

So, FSOG chapter 12: Ana emails Christian telling him to leave her alone. He then rocks up at her apartment uninvited and demands to know why she sent the message. This is what we then read:

“I needed time to think,” I whisper. I’m all deer/headlights, moth/flame, bird/snake . . . and he knows exactly what he’s doing to me.

Here’s what I don’t get. These are metaphors for Ana’s relationship with Christian – and they’re supposed to be sexy. Repeat after me:

Predatory behaviour is not romantic or sexy.
Predatory behaviour is not romantic or sexy.
Predatory behaviour is not romantic or sexy.

So either these are not appropriate metaphors to blossoming titillation, or they are apt metaphors and the relationship is really toxic and dangerous. EL James can’t have it both ways.

Ya Hadda Be There – Wherein the author thinks you know what he means

While value words like [amazing, terrific and awful] can be used in description, they should never be used to replace description.

So, FSOG chapter 5: Ana describes Christian’s appearance:

Holy hell, he’s been working out. He’s in gray sweat pants that hang, in that way, off his hips and gray singlet, which is dark with sweat, like his hair.

And again, here’s Jenny Trout’s commentary:

His pants are hanging off his hips in that way. You know, in that way. Which way? Because every person wearing a pair of pants right now are wearing them hanging from their hips.

EL James commits another repeated sin when Ana describes how Christian arouses her and she feels it “there”.


The Court Reporter – In which every single last solitary word of conversation is included

Some authors, in an attempt to mirror reality, clutter their dialogue with all the polite chit-chat and workaday detail that occurs in real life.

We are expected to read Ana’s and Christian’s email conversations with each other – including the subject line for each one.

Don’t Mind Us – When the author forgets that other characters are present

In Unpublished Novelville, however, the streets would seem to be filled with characters walking along deep in earnest conversation with themselves, and no one bats an eyelash when a man in a crowded bus cries out, “Now I see it! I must kill Monique to save us all!”

EL James doesn’t so much forget that other characters are present, she just likes to ignore the continuity of the world she’s created so that Christian can do dastardly things to Ana and get away with it.

Take, for example, FSF chapter 5: Ana has wanted to get her hair cut and Christian wants to keep her safe and therefore insists she comes back to his apartment. He says she will come back with him even if he has to drag her there by her hair. (Really romantic gesture, there.) Anyway, we then get this:

“You can walk or I can carry you. I don’t mind either way, Anastasia.”
“You wouldn’t dare.” I scowl at him. Surely he wouldn’t’ make a scene on Second Avenue? …
We glare at each other—and abruptly he sweeps down, clasps my around my thighs, and lifts me. Before I know it, I am over his shoulder.
“Put me down!” I scream. Oh, it feels good to scream …
People are staring. Could this be any more humiliating?

So, yes, there is acknowledgment that there are other people, but, as Das Sporking points out:

GEHAYI: Now, this is idiotic. If people are staring, people are going to be taking pictures with their phones, tweeting about this, posting pictures on YouTube, etc. ESPECIALLY since he’s supposed to be such a celebrity.
KET: And I would hope someone would have the decency to at least call the cops.
GEHAYI: Ana also mentioned that there are a LOT of people around, doing Saturday chores. So there are cars driving by. Buses. Cabs. Pedestrians. Storekeepers. And, most likely, fire engines, ambulances and cops.
KET: And yet, nothing.
GEHAYI: Despite the fact that Ana is screaming.
It’s stupidity by authorial fiat. In a real world—hell, in the world James has established, where Hellspawn is so famous that he’s terrified of anyone finding out he’s an abuser—pardon me, “into BDSM”—where he has paparazzi following him everywhere (and yes, this happens), THIS. MAKES. NO. SENSE.


El Foreigner – Where non-native English speakers are rendered poorly

Do not have a foreigner address everyone as “Señor” or “Monsieur” despite speaking otherwise perfect English.

José exclaims “Dios mío!” to Ana twice in FSOG chapter 4, but otherwise speaks perfect English.

Oh yes, apart from the time he calls Ana “cariño”. That’s when he’s trying to kiss Ana and she’s saying “No, José, stop—no,” and pushing him away. I don’t think this additional use of Spanish exonerates EL James from her writing fail.

Narrative Stance

Grabbing the Mike – Wherein the point of view momentarily strays

Sometimes an author slips into a different point of view for the space of a single paragraph, or even sentence.

FSOG chapter 20, the boathouse scene: Christian switches on the lights of an attic room with “sloping ceilings”, “decorated with a nautical New England theme: navy blues and creams and dashes of red,” and a “couple of couches”. Ana describes all of this from her point of view and then says “I don’t have time to examine my surroundings.”

Don’t worry Ana, EL James examined them for you.

Reading Over Your Shoulder – Wherein the characters seem to hear each other’s thoughts

There must be an obvious or reasonable way for information to have reached a character.

FSD chapter 6: Ana and Christian are at a charity gala where the attendees are asked to put money in an envelope. Ana realises internally that she hasn’t brought any money but doesn’t have the chance to say or do anything before Christian fishes out two $100 bills, one for him, one for her.

“Maybe he could guess that from context,” I hear you say. OK, try this one then: FSOG chapter 13: Christian is dining with Ana and tells her she’s pressing her thighs together. She asks how he knows and he answers:

“I felt the tablecloth move, and it’s a calculated guess based on years of experience.”


The Paradigm Shift – When the characters are of one mind

Sometimes a particular character will have an insight that creates a new framing metaphor for the story—which is then inexplicably adopted by everyone else in the novel. Of course, this is because the insight is actually the author’s, and having informed the reader, the author then feels free to proceed as if the idea is “common knowledge,” shared by all.

It’s like Christian Grey has this insight that Ana is completely besotted with him even when she says she doesn’t want to be around him, or for him to be around her. That would explain why he rocks up at her apartment when she emails him with “I’ve seen enough. It was nice knowing you.” It would also explain why he rocks up when she goes to visit her mother. And the weird thing is that because he believes it, so does everyone else in the story.

I know this probably isn’t quite the writing fail that How Not To Write A Novel had in mind, but I think it’s close enough to count. And sure, there are some moments of dramatic tension near the beginning when Kate warns Ana that Christian might be dangerous, and again near the end when Kate discovers the contract Christian tried to make Ana sign, but these wrinkles pass as soon as they are inconvenient for the plot.

Ana meanwhile is conflicted over Christian pretty much throughout the entire trilogy. Only right at the end does she seem settled within herself to say yes, she’s in it with Christian for the long haul.

It would be romantic if it wasn’t so eerily like she’s been groomed and brainwashed into a cult.

Fail count for this post: 12 + 2 bonus = 14. Running total: 31.  In the last part I’ll look at interior monologue, setting, research and historical background, theme, and sex scenes.

I recently discovered (WHY only recently?) various reviews of Fifty Shades of Grey on YouTube by The Dom. Despite what you might think from the channel’s name, the presenter isn’t into BDSM, but he did talk to BDSM-ers whilst doing his review. There’s one video with a plot synopsis and another that actually reviews the book. CONTENT NOTE: Overall they are very funny – but they also have some very strong language and his humour is savage at times.

Do you want to write better fiction than EL James? Did you like the titles of the writing mistakes and the insights given about them? Maybe How Not To Write A Novel is for you.

Meanwhile, if scathing commentaries on Fifty Shades are your thing, there are index pages for Das Sporking’s (quite thorough, well-researched and perilously explicit) commentaries on Fifty Shades of Grey, Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed. Jenny Trout’s commentaries are listed here.

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