Vocabulary, Word Choice, And Fiction

SpellingBee2011-JamacianContestantAn author’s vocabulary and word choice are closely associated, as I realized when reading Stephen R. Lawhead‘s The Skin Map, Book 1 of the Bright Empires series.

Vocabulary is at the heart of language, and therefore, of writing. An author cannot use words he does not know. Consequently, it seems prudent for any serious writer to do whatever he can to improve his vocabulary.

The easiest method, perhaps, is to read widely. However, some writers take such pleasure in words, they regularly study them. Christian suspense author Brandilyn Collins is just such a writer. As a blogger at Forensics and Faith, she shared weekly a new set of words (see for example this vocabulary post), and frequently tweets a new word.

In The Skin Map, I encountered a steady offering of new words—conurbation, telluric, feculent, aubergine, imprimatur. Often the meaning of these words was clear in context. On occasion, I paused in my reading to look up a new offering.

And there is the question—should an author include words that might not be widely understood, chancing that a break in comprehension will damage the “fictive dream” to the extent that the reader won’t want to continue, or will, at least, pause before again buying a book by that author?

The answer to this question actually brings the discussion to word choice. Presumably an author such as Mr. Lawhead who would use a word like feculent could just as easily have chosen to write foul, filthy, or polluted instead. He did not, meaning that he chose a more precise, though less used, word for a reason.

What should an author consider when making such word choices? I don’t think “most common” should be the hard and fast rule, or books will all descend to the level of fifth grade readers, much as TV writing has. At the same time, peppering a story with “fifty dollar” words for the sake of sounding erudite is foolish.

Writing is first and foremost communication. Words that obscure meaning must go. Words that may be difficult can stay as long as the author has a reason for them and creates a context that makes their meaning accessible. Look, for example, at Mr. Lawhead’s use of telluric.

Into the invisible square the old man drew a straight diagonal line. “A ley line,” he said, speaking slowly—as one might to a dog, or dull-wited child, “is what might be called a field of force, a trail of telluric energy. There are hundreds of them, perhaps thousands, all over Britain, and they have been around since the Stone Age.” (from The Skin Map, p. 18)

Notice that the word I’ve labeled “difficult” is describing a type of energy and is renaming “a field of force.” Though this passage may not give a reader enough to come up with a synonym for “telluric,” it nevertheless gives enough for someone unfamiliar with the word to keep reading without having missed anything central to the scene.

In addition, the word appears in dialogue. Much of word choice in fiction must be made in relation to the characters. Is a word too sophisticated for a street urchin? To common for an aristocrat? Too antiquated for a twenty-first century teen?

Choosing words with characters in mind is especially important when writing in a close third person narrative. An author has more latitude when writing, as Mr. Lawhead was in The Skin Map, in an omniscient point of view with an unseen narrator. Beyond dialogue, he could choose words that fit with the narrator persona or with the main character of each particular scene.

In summary, an author should make it his goal to expand his vocabulary. Then, when making word choices from the wealth of his vocabulary, he must consider how clearly his words communicate as well as how consistently they represent his characters.

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This article is a reprint, with some minor editorial changes, of “Vocabulary and Word Choice” which first appeared here at Rewrite, Reword, Rework in November 2010.

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The Denouement – Wrapping Up Loose Ends

The End - BookA novel’s plot structure, in its simplest outline, consists of an inciting incident, rising action, a climax, and the denouement also called the conclusion or resolution. Of all the story elements, perhaps the least examined is the denouement which resolves the complications of a story’s plot.

Part of this lack of analysis might be because no two denouements look alike. Truly, there is no hard and fast “right way” to wrap up a story.

Fairy tales famously took care of the denouement with one line: They all lived happily ever after. Mysteries often closely dovetail the denouement with the climax—the whodunit is entwined with the lives and stories of the suspects who didn’t do it, and the reader learns all about those too as the detective reveals how the crime was committed.

Somewhat popular today in fantasy are stories that have a somewhat open-ended denouement, often for the purpose of introducing the next book in a series.

Other stories seem to go to great lengths to wrap up all the loose ends. I think, for example, of Return of the King, third in J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. Essentially the story question ended when Frodo battled Gollum and ended up destroying the One Ring.

But we know by the title that this volume of the story is about the returning king, so after the climax, there is the resolution of the king being accepted by his people. Then there is the story of the hobbits returning home, of their dealing with Sauroman in the Shire, and finally of Frodo’s departure with the elves. And I’m not listing all the various loose ends that are nicely tied in the process.

Another approach is to skip the denouement altogether. The story “The Lady Or The Tiger?” skips the climax (will the princess tell her lover under punishment by the king to open the door releasing the tiger or the lady he would then have to marry?) Consequently, with no climax, there can be no denouement.

Gone With The Wind ends in a similar way with one major difference: the protagonist is a different person in the end; she has learned who she loves and who she doesn’t love and she’s learned what gives her strength. Apart from that, the reader knows little of what will become of her.

The_End_(5647069175)Writing instructor John Truby in The Anatomy of a Story says, “A great story lives forever” (p. 418), much the way a train ends but continues on.

Truby describes three types of endings that truncate a story: premature endings (of which there are also three kinds: the protagonist’s early self-revelation, the hero’s desire attained too quickly, the actions the hero takes to achieve his goal aren’t organic); arbitrary endings in which the story just stops; and the closed ending in which the hero achieves his goal, gains new insights, and essentially lives happily ever after.

With these endings, the story does not live on.

All three of these structural elements give the audience the sense that the story is complete and the system has come to rest. But that’s not true. Desire never stops. Equilibrium is temporary. The self-revelation is never simple, and it cannot guarantee the hero a satisfying life from that day forward. Since a great story is a always a living thing, an ending is no more final and certain than any other part of the story. (Truby, The Anatomy of a Story, p. 419)

As I see it, this “living ending” is the secret to a successful denouement. Of course, there is no formula, no set way to ensure that readers will continue to think about the characters going on after the story, but there are some principles that might help.

One writer, Charlie Jane Anders, says the most legitimate reason for the denouement to exist is to “provide some resolution to the themes of your story.” She goes on to explain:

if your plot doesn’t end with enough of a clear-cut catharsis to resolve the main themes of your novel, then yes, you need a denouement. (“What’s The Difference Between Denouement And Picking At A Scab?“)

Later she adds

Remember: readers actually like it when you make them do a lot of the work themselves. And a big part of the pleasure of reaching the end of a book is getting to imagine in your own mind how the characters will go on afterwards — the story keeps unspooling in your head after you stop turning pages, except that the training wheels have come off. So the less you spoonfeed the reader in your final pages, the more you’re inviting her/him to start imagining the story after the book ends. (Ibid.)


Statements about denouements that accomplish what a novel needs, then, include the following:

  • they do not have a set length
  • they do allow the characters to “go on living” after the end of the story
  • they may give a panoramic view of the characters doing something that lends itself to expansion in the reader’s mind
  • they may hint at what happens next without spelling out particulars
  • they should wrap up the theme of the story, though other loose ends may still be dangling.

Your turn: what’s the best ending you’ve read? What, in your view, made it so good?

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Putting The Good In Good Description

newspaper-490932-mOnce upon a time, description read much like a classified ad, with all the significant attributes of whatever object the author chose to highlight, listed out one after the other. More recently, this kind of static description has given way to description through action.

While this method may be the best way for writers to create graphic scenes and vivid characters, it is not the only app on the screen. Let’s look at three other devices that contribute to good description.

First, good description utilizes a variety of senses. Rather than limiting depiction of characters or setting to visual aspects, a writer can include sound, touch, taste, or smells to give life to the story. This idea is not new and may seem simplistic.

However, the saying “too much of a good thing” can apply to description, too. I’ve critiqued, judged, or edited work before that seemed bent on providing a five-senses descriptive experience, regardless of whether or not the sounds or smells, tastes or textures mattered to the story. Rather than enhancing the scene, these unnecessary additions bloat the action, slowing the pace.

Picking the right sensory details, then, is the second way writers can build scenes that come alive. The clue is to pick those sensory details that matter to the character at that time, in that place. From Description by Monica Wood:

Sometimes it takes only one or two details to light up a character for your readers. These precise, illuminating finds are the “telling” details of fiction, for they stretch beyond mere observation to give the readers a larger, richer sense of character or place. The old man’s carefully parted hair suggests that he has not totally given up. The tinny clatter of cheap crockery implies that the restaurateur has fallen on hard times. …

This kind of detail makes fiction more than what-happens-next storytelling. It makes description more than an account. The right details, inserted at the right times, allow your readers access to a character’s inner landscape (pp. 6-7).

A third device at the writer’s disposal when creating powerful imagery is two-pronged: on one hand the writer may employ similes and on the other, metaphors.

A simile is a figurative statement comparing two usually unrelated things or people to one another by using “like” or “as.” The sentence My brother is as tall as my father does not create a simile because the comparison is between two people. However, My brother is as tall as a giraffe does produce a simile.

The metaphor is another figure of speech, more understated and more revealing, according to Ms. Woods.

With a simile, the comparison stops at the end of the sentence; with a metaphor, the reader’s imagination goes on to include all the images and associations that the metaphor implies (Description, p. 14).

Metaphors, like similes, can be created using nouns and adjectives. Example: The boss was coming, our supervisor warned us. And still I wasn’t prepared for the peacock that strutted into the conference room.

Another effective way to create metaphors is to utilize verbs, which some writers already do naturally. Characters burrow under the covers, for example, or fly across the room. These established uses of verbs in a non-literal sense add color to our writing. Creating new and unusual metaphors make our words memorable.

Just For Fun.

I used two metaphors earlier in this post (not as part of an example). Just for fun, see if you can spot them, then write your own or identify the well-known (and oft used) comparison that served as the model for the one I created. Feel free to leave your answers in the comments if you’d like.

Next, look at your work in progress and find places you can deepen your description by creating a simile or metaphor. Enjoy! :-D

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This article is a reprint, with some minor editorial changes, of “Good Description” which first appeared here at Rewrite, Reword, Rework in June 2011.

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The Character Arc

Leonard_Nimoy_William_Shatner_Star_Trek_1968A number of writing instructors refer to the character arc, or the path a protagonist takes from the beginning of the story to the end, as a tool for the novelist. In many respects it is an artificial construct best recognized after the fact. Except, what happens to the main character really is the story.

Some novels or visual stories, to be sure, have heroes who change little. Captain Kirk of the USS Enterprise in the original Star Trek TV show exhibited little change week after week. The Lone Ranger, first as radio drama, then as a 50s black and white TV favorite, centered on a similar unchanging hero.

Some might consider those types of stories to be plot driven. Except, characters around the iconic protagonists often changed. Each episode, then, was about the growth or character arc of a secondary figure: the woman trying to make a go of a stage line, the creature who lured passing star ships into his prison, the sheriff accused of murder.

Nevertheless, the eye of the reader or the viewer is on the protagonist who does not change. Generally he has a set of values or a code of conduct which guides him from start to finish. He may have flaws, but he is true to his own standards which neither improve nor deteriorate. They are who the character is. Other such characters include Indiana Jones, Sherlock Holmes, and James Bond.

One writing instructor identifies these types of characters as having a flat arc. (And I’m wondering about the geometric possibility of such a shape! ;-) )

By far the greatest number of stories depict characters who exhibit growth throughout their story. At the beginning the protagonist has a problem or story question that drives her actions forward. But she also has an inner life that dovetails with these outer circumstances. By the end of the story, the character has learned what she needs, made what changes her circumstances require, commits to a new course of action, and thus answers the story problem which confronted her at the beginning.

This is obviously a simplistic sketch of the character arc, but it shows an important aspect—the inner life of the character and the outer events of the plot are integrally entwined.

The need for character growth can sometimes be caused by the inaccuracies a character believes about himself or the world or both. These beliefs drive him to make decisions and to act as he acts.

Sometimes his actions bring success, but not permanent change, and he is forced to come up with a better plan. More often, however, his actions fail because they were built on those erroneous views.

Poster_-_Gone_With_the_Wind_02For example, in Gone With The Wind, Scarlett O’Hara believes she’ll be happy if she can win Ashley Wilkes’ affections. She makes great plans only to hear his announcement that he will marry someone else. She believes she must get him alone and declare her feelings for him, but when she follows through with her plot, he spurns her advances.

Other problems intervene—the Civil War, his marriage, his wife’s devotion to Scarlett—and yet she persists in believing that she would be happy if only she could be with Ashley.

As events unfold, the reader begins to understand that Ashley is not the answer to Scarlett’s happiness. At long last, Scarlett herself comes to realize the truth. She is, in fact, in love with Rhett Butler, and has been for some time. However, when she makes this discovery and declares her love, he tells her she’s realized the truth too late. His love for her has died.

More common are stories in which the protagonist realizes the truth, takes the necessary steps in the right direction, and is rewarded in the end with what he actually needed. However, as with Scarlett, he may not accomplish his goal in the end, though he may find what he needed.

Not every character arc is built upon the character believing a lie. Some show a character’s struggle to overcome a flaw. Initially he may not realize how devastating his character weakness is, but as the story progresses, he has a moment of self-revelation that either pushes him to change or to despair.

Still other characters might believe something true though no one else in his circle does. His story arc, then, might show how his beliefs are tested, how he himself is tempted to doubt in the face of failure after failure. At some point, however, after facing his greatest fears, he chooses to cling to his belief, no matter what.

For example, a boy just out of his teens wants to be a writer. He completes a novel and sends it out to publishers but receives rejection after rejection. As years go by, his friends laugh at his “silly hobby,” his wife encourages him to find “a real job.” He takes odd jobs to make ends meet, but every spare moment he works on another story and another and another. His rejections pile up, but he believes he has the talent, he knows he has the love, and he keeps trying. Eventually his hope wanes.

At last, he experiences the turning point. His wife is threatening divorce. His friends no longer come around. He’s out of money. Again. And he’s no longer a kid. He must get a better job to keep his house and show his wife he cares about the family, or he must publish. Here is his dark night of the soul. What will he do—cling to what he knows is true, that he was born to write; or cave and abandon his life’s work.

What he decides and how the events of the plot resolve in the face of that decision, complete his character arc. He will have either ditched his long held beliefs or held to them more tightly than ever.

Must those stories resolve happily? Clearly not. The character may make a decision to cling to his faith, but dies without seeing a positive result.

However, death should bear out that the character made the right choice. In the case of the writer, he may become famous and receive awards posthumously. Or in a different story, a young girl may end up dying so that others she has lived for go free.

If the character dies and his view of the world or himself are not validated, his character arc makes him out to be a fool. I’m not sure many readers would care to read a story about a character who held firmly to his beliefs only to be proved wrong in the end.

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley came close to utilizing this character arc. Savage, the main character, dies and his beliefs are not validated in the story world, but they are validated in the hearts and minds of readers. At least they were validated in part in the heart of this reader.

To sum up, the change in the inner life of a character from beginning to end forms the character arc of a story. A handful of iconic characters don’t show change, though others around them will. Stories begin with a character believing a lie, struggling against a flaw, or clinging against all odds to a truth he believes.

Not all stories resolve happily with the character making positive change and finding success because of it. However, if the end resolves badly for the character, his character arc may still be positive if what he believed or learned is validated as the right course for him to take.

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Bad Guys Need To Be Bad

Darth VaderThe conventional wisdom today is that antagonists in fiction, in order to be believable, must have a “pet the dog” moment to show that they have a human side, that they are realistic, since real-life people are a mixed bag of good deeds and evil desires.

In an earlier blog post, “Antagonists Are Real People Too,” I made a case for a different way of creating realistic antagonists: give them appropriate motivation.

Then too, an antagonist may not actually be evil. They might simply be in conflict with the hero, the way the San Francisco Giants pitcher Ryan Vogelsong is in conflict with the Los Angeles Dodgers ace, Clayton Kershaw.

But sometimes the antagonist is evil.

I think, however, writers tend to overlook the fact that there are different types of evil. The general picture of an antagonist is a character who wants total control no matter who he hurts to get it. Certainly that antagonist works, whether he wants total control of a family, a church, a business, a country, or the world.

His number one tactic is force. He aims to break knee caps or kidnap children or murder cousins just to force people to do his bidding. He is made in the image of the Godfather. Or Hitler.

But violent, power-hungry megalomaniacs are not the only people who are evil. What about the charmer who talks people out of their life savings? He’s evil on a different level. He can cheat people but also undermine their trust in others—perhaps a worse result of this evil person’s actions than the loss of money.

Or how about frauds? Or liars in general. These are people who don’t need to cheat—they are healthy, able-bodied, smart and capable, but they’d rather figure out a way to cheat the government or lie to their boss or to their business partner or their clients. They are constantly looking for an edge so their “half” is a little bigger than your “half.” These are the people who steal identities so they can benefit from someone else’s hard work.

Another type of evil is the computer hacker or spammer. This person wants to create havoc because he likes to see other people scramble around and try to undo what he’s done. He might do something malicious like put people’s lives in danger because of his tampering with other computers. Or he might operate like the arsonist—start a virus and see where it goes and what all people have to do to get it under control. He might like seeing his work talked about in the media. He might get a sense of accomplishment by bringing entities more powerful than he, to their knees.

Another type of evil is the sexual predator. Many suspense stories feature this type of antagonist, so I don’t have to elaborate. There are varieties of sexual predators, however. Black widow movies, for example, came into their own when writers realized that women could also be sexual predators.

Other familiar bad guys, but perhaps not utilized as antagonist very often, are people who are prejudice. I’m not referring to the obvious white supremacist or Ku Klux Klan member. I’m talking about the people today who might whisper to their neighbor about “those people,” or start a petition against a certain religion or ethnicity. Or, for a real twist, favor a certain gender over and above the other (and clearly, women can be favored over an above men just as easily as the reverse).

Another effective bad guy is the one who is out to get the story hero and no one else. He may be motivated by revenge, so his aim is to destroy the hero, one way or the other. His hate is focused and white hot so he won’t consider the illegality of his own actions or the danger to others in his way.

Showing antagonists with a bent toward a specific evil is the writer’s first step toward making them realistic. And no dog needs to be petted in the process.

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Beginner Is Not A Bad Word

Dan_Wheldon_2011_Indy_500Now that self-publishing is easy, inexpensive, and available to everyone with a computer and an online connection, a growing number of writers are trying their hand at producing fiction. But there’s a basic problem: these aspiring novelists don’t know what they don’t know.

I’m reminded of an experience I had in first grade. As I recall, the teacher was taking us through the beginning steps of learning to read. She put a word on the chalkboard (this was actually back in the dark ages when, yes, they still had chalkboards, and they were actually called blackboards)—something like cat. We were to think of words that rhymed. Easy-peasy.

After a while of this oh, so simple work, I tuned the teacher out and said something to a classmate near me. And that’s when the teacher called on me for an answer. We’d moved past the “rhymes with cat” exercise. Not only did I not know the answer, I didn’t know the question.

The truth was, I was a beginner. I hadn’t mastered a thing and needed to pay attention to every piece of the reading puzzle the teacher was giving us. I just didn’t know it. I thought if step 1 was so simple, surely step 2 would be also. Except, what I overlooked was that I actually needed to know what step 2 was.

I think a lot of writers who have a story in mind make the same mistake I did. They know how to write, and they have a story. What else is there? Well, actually, a lot.

Recently I used an analogy with one of my editing clients to make this same point. Generally adults in the United States know how to drive. Especially out West, there are miles and miles between places and little affordable mass transportation. Consequently we learn to drive and apply for a license as young as possible (not to mention that driving can make a teen feel very grown up).

Imagine that a driver who got his license when he was sixteen and has been driving for twenty years decides he wants to try his hand at auto racing. Is he qualified to do so? He thinks, Of course I’m qualified. I’ve been driving for twenty years, and during all that time, I’ve never been in an accident, never gotten a ticket. I’m a good driver! Sign me up for the Indy 500!

Here’s the problem. Yes, race car drivers do drive, but their type of driving is not the same as the kind of driving that the average commuter does on a daily basis. Race car drivers have much more to learn—about the car they’re driving, the race track, their competitors, the team they’re working with, handling a car at high speeds, safety regulations and equipment, emergency procedures, racing etiquette, and undoubtedly a host of other things I haven’t even heard about.

But Mr. Good Driver doesn’t know what he doesn’t know. He thinks he’s ready for the races because he’s good at the level he’s been operating at. He doesn’t realize, however, that there’s another set of skills required of the race car driver.

In the same way, writers who have mastered written communication for their job or with friends and family, may be fooled into thinking they know all they need in order to write fiction. They don’t know what they don’t know.

One of the give-aways that a writer isn’t ready to publish their novel is that they are overly concerned about mechanics and formatting. They want to be sure they have all the commas in the right place and the right words capitalized. They want to know how long a chapter should be and if they are to set their margins at an inch or an inch and a half.

I’m not saying mechanics and formatting are unimportant, but they are down the list and are the things most easily fixed. The harder things act like worms burrowing into and eating away at the heart of a story—things like point of view errors, underdeveloped characters, weak description or overdone description, a lack of tension, or a bland voice.

A black hole concept drawing by NASA

A black hole concept drawing by NASA

The bottom line is this: if you’re just starting out, realize you are just starting out. Yes, you know how to write, but you are just a beginner when it comes to writing fiction.

There is no shame in being a beginner. It’s actually wise to realize you have things you need to learn. It’s wise to sit up, listen to the teacher, and take notes when necessary. It’s wise to practice, practice, practice. It’s wise to get evaluated from time to time in order to know if you’ve graduated from beginner to intermediate. It’s wise to be patient and learn what you don’t know so that you can turn that black hole into a brilliant star.

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Photo credits:
Indy Car by Greg Hildebrand via Wikimedia Commons
Black Hole, unknown artist, in the public domain

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Redundancy And Sleep

Falling asleep readingHave you ever read yourself to sleep? I have. Of course, there’s always that great book that makes me want to keep my eyes open, that causes me to fight my own inclination to sleep. But then there are those novels that work better than any over-the-counter sleep-aid you could buy. I suspect few writers would rejoice if they knew their book had achieved such status!

There can be any number of problems with a novel that reduces the interest level—slow pace, uninteresting characters, low stakes, a lack of compelling action. And yet, I suspect redundancy might be writer enemy number one when it comes to creating a story that lulls people to sleep.

Redundancy can occur at the sentence structure level or at the scene level. To be clear, it may include repetition, but the two are not synonymous. In short redundancy means “superfluity,” or too much of a good thing. Or a bad thing. Mostly, just too much. The greatest reason something is “too much” in fiction is because it’s already been done. Or said.

I believe there are three basic reasons a writer allows redundancy to creep into a story.

First a writer has not learned to trust his reader—or, perhaps, to trust his own ability to be clear. Consequently, he puts safe-guards into the story “so readers get it.” This type of redundancy shows itself in a combination of showing and telling.

In reality actions—showing—should replace the telling narrative rather than complement it.

    Example of redundancy: In an angry fit, he stomped from the room, slamming the door on the way out.

In the illustration above, the phrase “in an angry fit” isn’t necessary because the action clearly shows the anger. To eliminate this type of repetition, the author should omit the phrase that explains what the action is supposed to show.

However, the temptation to explain grows when the action is weak.

    Example: With joy in her heart, she followed him into the room.

To improve this sentence, the author must strengthen the action, making the narrative phrase unnecessary.

    Example: She danced into the room behind him.

A second reason a writer may allow redundancy to seep into her work is because she has forgotten her own lines or plot points and replicates them, or perhaps she hasn’t stretched her creative muscles enough to develop new and fresh dialogue, description, and events.

As a result, events may take on a similar shape. For example, the character is about to step into the street, but someone calls to him. As he turns, he is saved from walking in front of an oncoming car. Some chapters later, this same character is about to lean over a porch railing but someone calls to him. As he turns, he is saved from . . .

Either the writer has forgotten she used this same last-second distraction earlier to save the character, or she hasn’t dug deep enough to find something unique.

Finally, characters themselves create redundancy. Well, of course the writers do, through our characters, but in an effort to be true to the people we have created, we allow them to struggle with what they’re experiencing, often through internal monologue. Nothing wrong with using characters’ thoughts.

However, those thoughts must move the story forward, not recap what happened in the past. If their musings bring nothing new, nothing the reader doesn’t already know, they are redundant and therefore sleep inducing.

At one stage of my writing, I was good at lots of rehash internal monologue. My character needed to understand what was going on. He needed to analyze and come up with a motive that would explain his next decision. The latter is true, except in many cases his thoughts stated the already stated. At one point I realized the particular chapter I was working on was boring me! That’s a sure sign that something needs to change.

As a corollary to this last point, some writers utilize “echoing” dialogue, which amounts to redundancy. Often times the writer wants to reflect an emotion such as surprise or disbelief, so he has one character repeat some part of what another character just said.

Such interaction may be true to life, but restatements don’t tell the reader anything new:

    Example: Tyler shook his head. “You can’t go, John. Didn’t you hear Mom?”
    “I can’t go? What do you mean, I can’t go?”
    Tyler stared at his brother. “Just what I said. You can’t go.”
    John’s tone turned to the whine he’d used as a little boy. “Did Mom really say I can’t go?”

This example may stretch the point, but clearly echoing dialogue isn’t necessary to move the story forward, and there are better ways to show surprise, anger, or dismay.

I can only think of one instance in which writers appropriately used redundancy. In the TV program Monk, the title character suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder and did many things redundantly, helping to establish his quirks and foibles. There may be other proper uses of redundancy, but for the most part, writers would be wise to eliminate them from their fiction. Unless their promotion plan includes something about inducing sleep. ;-)

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How To Avoid Choppy Prose

waves-on-beach-1432430-mChoppy prose can be a story killer. If the prose doesn’t flow and the action doesn’t follow a logical pattern, a story can become tiresome or even confusing. Happily, there are fiction techniques available to avoid choppy prose.

One such technique involves sentence structure. Too often writers fall in love with their favorite type of sentence—a simple sentence with a single subject and verb, perhaps, or one with a participial phrase modifying the subject.

In addition, some writers begin all sentence types with the basic subject-verb pattern. The writing, then, becomes somewhat static, with a monotonous, repetitive beat. Below is an example of this latter, “See Spot run” type of writing.

Smoke filled the sky. Brad walked outside. He looked left and right. Flames leaped upward in the distance. He raced back inside and yelled, “Fire! Everyone out.” He grabbed up his phone and car keys. He dialed 9-1-1 as he fumbled to put his key in the lock of his old SUV. His phone went dead.

There’s nothing wrong with the storyline in the above example, but each sentence starts with the subject (smoke, Brad, he, flames, he, he, he, phone) followed by the verb.

Repetitive sentence structure can be effective for short periods, especially if the author wants to create a staccato beat, but when such a pattern continues for any length of time, the choppy nature of the prose can become tiring.

The way to alleviate the problem is to do a draft revision with sentence structure in mind. For those who consider themselves grammar challenged, length of sentence is one sign to look for that your sentences are all fairly similar.

Also, if you read the manuscript aloud, you can often hear the repetition. Finally, you can break paragraphs apart and put the sentences in a list to see if they look a lot alike. Here’s what the sample above would look like in a list:

* Smoke filled the sky.
* Brad walked outside.
* He looked left and right.
* Flames leaped upward in the distance.
* He raced back inside and yelled, “Fire! Everyone out.”
* He grabbed up his phone and car keys.
* He dialed 9-1-1 as he fumbled to put his key in the lock of his old SUV.
* His phone went dead.

A second way authors can make their prose more readable is by utilizing transitions. Writers sometimes forget that they know more about their story than readers do. The writer, after all, is visualizing the place. She knows the characters. However, what seems obvious to her isn’t necessarily clear to the reader.

Transitions can go a long way in clearing up muddled prose. A simple phrase like, “When Dan arrived,” can let the reader know time has passed, who’s in the scene now, and where the scene occurs. Those specifics keep a reader from becoming confused. Notice how the absence of transitions can lead to confusion in the following example:

Sally slapped a hand on the table. “We need Dan, and that’s all there is to it.” She grabbed up her phone and punched in his phone number.

#

Sally picked up her revolver. “Somebody is stalking this place. I’m certain of it!” Dan placed a hand on her shoulder. “Come on, Sal. Relax. Tell me what’s been going on.”

Without a transition in the sample above the reader would have no way of knowing that Dan had arrived. As a result, after the scene break there may be a moment of confusion.

If there’s an accumulation of such omissions, readers may become discouraged because, as a general rule, they don’t want to fight confusion throughout a novel.

A third prose technique necessary for fiction has to do with cause and effect. Apart from intentional variations, a story should unfold in a logical progression. An inciting incident occurs to which the main character reacts.

His response might take the form of a decision or an action or an attitude, but regardless of its form, it in turn affects the people and circumstances around him. Their subsequent response causes the character to act again. Once more, what he does affects his world in a way that comes back on him, prompting him yet again to a response.

In that way, the story logically unfolds, one action causing a reaction which in turn leads to a new action and the subsequent reaction.

When an author writes without that natural progression, however, a reader can easily become confused. Here’s an example to illustrate how writing in isolation rather than in cause-effect connection can be unclear.

Martha hurried home. The principal said something about . . . what was it? A tragedy? No, he hadn’t sound that concerned. But he thought she should get home right away.

She pulled into her drive and couldn’t believe what she was seeing—Jefferson, crying? That hard-hearted old coot had a soft spot after all?

She strolled up the porch steps and flopped onto the swing. “I can hardly wait for summer. I want to have a party as soon as school is out.” Jefferson was the best set-up man around. She couldn’t have asked for a better gardener/handyman. He’d get the place ready and cover all the details she’d forget.

In the example above there is a disconnect between the various plot points. The only cause-effect that is apparent is that the principal told Martha she needed to go home, so she did. However, what the principal said is not connected with Jefferson crying. And his sadness is not connected with what Martha says or thinks once she gets home.

The connection could just as easily have been negative if the author wanted to show Martha as a selfish, uncaring person. But as it is, the events stand in isolation and the reader is left to guess how they are connected.

Again, if this is a pattern throughout a novel, the story can become so confusing a reader may choose to set the book aside.

Finally, a novelist can create smooth prose by avoiding abrupt point of view changes and/or an excessive number of point of view characters. Readers need to settle in and identify with the characters of a novel. When point of view changes occur too rapidly or in a chaotic manner or are too numerous, readers may disconnect.

Choppy prose can be effective occasionally, but generally it makes fiction waters hard for readers to navigate. The wise novelist will employ the necessary tools to smooth out her prose.

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Online Writing Courses

Girl Writing at DeskWriting conferences offer the aspiring or published writer a wealth of needed input, from writing craft instruction, marketing tidbits, and manuscript critiques, to editor and/or agent contacts. Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, some writers may not be able to attend a conference. Whether the obstacle is money, time, or location, a good alternative to consider is online instruction.

In the last decade, as you might expect, online writing courses have proliferated. Now someone looking for beginning how-to information to advanced hands-on help can find reputable instruction.

For some, the best place to look is at writing courses offered by universities. You can find individual classes or degree programs, depending on what you’re interested in. Notable universities offering writing programs include UCLA, Purdue, University of Washington, Harvard, Stanford, New York University, and the University of Phoenix.

Notable is the University of Michigan because they include classes that are free. But they’re not alone. Diploma Guide has a wonderful listing of free writing courses, and an equally impressive list of links to schools offering degree programs in writing.

For those looking for a less academic approach, with interaction with an agent or editor or experience writer, there are any number of other options, depending on how much money you are willing to pay. Classes run from those in the free range on up to $500.

Length of courses vary as well. Some are short workshops, others two week classes, a month, or longer.

Another consideration when looking at online classes is the feedback a student might expect, whether critiques by other students or by the instructor. Writing, after all, depends on the response from those reading the work. Many writers have no opportunity for feedback from writing professionals. Some may wish to find online classes emphasizing their small size which enable students to have more interact with the instructor. Someone ready to look for an agent may wish to look specifically for a course taught by an industry insider.

Below is a list of online classes I either am familiar with or have discovered in doing research for this article. I wish I could offer a first hand endorsement, but since I haven’t taken any online classes, I’ll have to present this list and let you decide which you think might bear consideration.

  • WOW (Women On Writing). Classes are offered every month. “WOW! handpicks qualified instructors and targeted classes that women writers will benefit from. The instructors are women we’ve worked with on a professional level, and these ladies offer high quality courses on various topics.” (Never fear, not all the courses listed are gender specific).

SallyApokedakI do know one of the instructors for their June line-up: agent Sally Apokedak. She’s teaching FOUR FIRST-CHAPTER ESSENTIALS FOR NOVELS which starts June 2. “You will come away from the class with four hour-long taped lectures, with an in-depth critique of your first chapter, and with an understanding of how to carry what you’ve learned, from the first chapter on to the rest of the book.”

  • The Writer’s Workshop. Introduction, intermediate, and advanced levels of instruction are offered. “These fiction writing classes will help you develop your own habit of art, mastering the craft of fiction writing essential to creating compelling stories. The Writer’s Workshop’s online fiction writing classes will give you the skills and techniques to take your fiction writing to the next level.”
  • Elizabeth Ayers Center for Creative Writing. “Our online writing courses are small, intimate … and lots of fun. The nurturing atmosphere means your creativity can flourish in safety, no matter how intimidated you may feel.”
  • Writers.com. “We can help you improve your skills, explore new directions, ready your work for publication, or simply provide a community, inspiration and deadlines to start you writing and keep you writing.”
  • Gotham Writers. Specializes in creative writing. “We focus on teaching you the fundamental principles such as plot, structure, character, voice, dialogue, description, and point of view. These principles are taught through lectures, class discussions, writing exercises, and in-depth critiques of your writing.”
  • Writer’s Digest University. Offers courses on a wide variety of writing: copywriting, essays, blogging, basics of novel writing, and more. “Whether you’re writing for publication, extra money, or to tell personal stories, Writer’s Digest University can help you get your writing career underway. Our expert instructors will provide advice, specific instruction, real-world experience, expertise, and the motivation and drive to help you achieve your goals.”
  • LitReactor. Covers a variety of genres—from New Adult to horror and fantasy. Also offers courses dealing with specific aspects of writing such as writing query letters and crafting characters. “LitReactor offers a unique approach to a writing education: You study what you want, when you want, at your own pace. We bring in veteran authors and industry professionals to host classes covering a wide range of topics in an online environment that’s interactive and flexible.”

There are any number of other writing courses, some offered to members of writer organizations, others provided by individual instructors. This list will hopefully provide hope to those looking for instruction but unable to attend a conference. Online help is available, and there’s a good chance you can find something at your level of expertise, in your area of writing, and at a price that meets your budget.

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Parallel Structure

apples and orangesHow many times have you heard some variation to the old adage, You can’t add apples and oranges? I dare say, we’ve all heard it repeatedly and may have used the phrase ourselves. It creates a good image and is helpful in understanding a variety of concepts. As it happens, I think it also helps in understanding parallel structure, also called parallel construction or parallelism.

Of course with parallel structure, we’re talking about words and phrases and clauses, not fruit, but the concept is still the same.

The point of parallel structure, like most grammar, is to create clarity and readability:

Parallel structure adds both clout and clarity to your writing. When you use parallel structure, you increase the readability of your writing by creating word patterns readers can follow easily.(“Parallel Structure,” Evergreen Writing Center)

The key, I believe, to utilize parallel construction consistently is the idea of creating word patterns—or putting all the oranges together and all the apples together.

At the word level, parallel structure “adds” nouns with nouns, verbs with verbs, and adverbs with adverbs. Hence, in a list, all the items need to be of like kind:

Parallel:
Catlyn enjoys writing, reading, and sleeping.

Not Parallel:
Jordan likes books, movies, and to take long walks.

However, these words must also be in the same form. Hence, a verb ending in -ing should not be “added” to a verb in the infinitive form, or the to- form.

Parallel:
Oscar gained a reputation for his blocking, catching, and running.

Not Parallel:
DeShawn likes hitting blockers, tackling ball carriers, and to strip the ball from the runner.

At the phrase level, parallel structure “adds” phrases of like kind, constructed in a similar way.

Parallel:
Whether at the ball park or at the skate rink, he was always on the go.

Not Parallel:
Whether at the mall or shopping on line, she’s always looking for a bargain.

Not As Parallel As It Could Be:
Whether by himself or with a group of other guys, he always found something to do.

The last example is not technically lacking in parallelism—the conjunction and “adds” two prepositional phrases. However the first one has no modifiers and the second one has another prepositional phrase modifying it. If the rhythm in the paragraph requires strict parallelism, this last example doesn’t do it.

Here are a few similar example.

Not As Parallel As It Could Be:
He pulled out a box of toys, a pile of comics, and a couple shoes. [The first two nouns are described by prepositional phrases, the last one is not].

Ary prefers driving fast cars, drinking strong drinks, and lounging in front of the TV. [The first two verb forms have objects, the last one is described by a sequence of prepositional phrases].

Parallel structure also applies to compound clauses, that is, to a group of words with a subject and verb.

Parallel:
Dad often spoke of his older sister who put herself through college but who never did anything with her education.

Not Parallel:
The coach told his players that they should play as a team, that they should share the ball, and not to be selfish.

As with words and phrases, form also matters in the structure of parallel clauses.

Not Parallel:
The shopper expected that she would find a new dress, that a salesman would ring up her purchase, and that the item would be bagged. [The first two verbs are active, the last is passive].

Apples and oranges. Keep them separate. Your readers will thank you, though they probably won’t know what you’ve done to make your writing so clear and so easy to understand.

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