Category Archives: Prose

Repetition Has Many Faces

statue-many-facesGenerally repetition in writing refers to the author’s use of a word or phrase more than once within a passage such as a sentence or perhaps a paragraph or scene. Unless used intentionally, such repetition can be distracting (See “Repetition And Redundancy” for a closer look at this type of repetition) .

However, repetition has more than one face.

For instance, an author may unintentionally give several characters the same quirk. The main character may “worry her bottom lip” in the first chapter, third chapter, and fourth. That’s her tic. But then in chapter five in waltzes a minor character who begins to “worry her bottom lip.” If the mother-in-law and then the pastor’s wife and the sheriff’s deputy all start “worrying their bottom lip,” we have a serious problem.

But even if the repetition doesn’t spread that far, it’s still problematic. Certainly people share nervous habits and even quirks, but the author has used the same wording, which prevents the readers from seeing the peculiarity of the way these two characters, who share the habit, carry it out.

This same principle applies to dialogue as well. If one character has a pet word or ends sentences with something out of the ordinary such as, “so how about that?” no other character should share that tell.

Sometimes the dialogue repetitions are more subtle—the cadence of a sentence, a questioning inflection, specific vocabulary. Each character should have his or her own voice, but when the unusual pops up in Dorothy’s speech and Jasmine’s speech and Miguel’s speech, there’s a problem. Unless the author intentionally shows the characters mimicking each other or coming from an environment that would reasonably influence them to talk in similar ways.

A third face of repetition is that of scenes. Especially in romance and action adventure, love scenes and fight scenes should have a uniqueness so that readers don’t think they lost their place and are re-reading an earlier scene. There should be something different about each battle, about each romantic encounter. Otherwise, that which should engender emotion becomes a source of boredom.

I hate to admit it, but I’ve experienced this kind of ho-hum attitude in some superhero movies. Another monster tipping over cars and kidnapping the hero’s love interest and smashing buildings. Wake me when it’s over. I suppose for those who love the special effects or who haven’t watched a superhero movie before, all the explosions and near misses can be exciting. But the repetition of them reduces tension since we’ve seen that scene before. And reduced tension kills fiction.

Finally, characters can be repeats. No, not precisely so, not in every facet. But authors would be wise to vary some basic character components, starting with physical features. I’ve read manuscripts, for example, with an inordinate number of blue-eyed characters. Or green-eyed. Or both.

In one of my early drafts, I realized I had created all my characters tall. In the same way, be sure that all your characters aren’t beautiful or muscular.

Character social status should also be varied. Besides making my characters tall, I created all of them single. Not particularly realistic. Of course, not every character should be married, either. In fact, not every character should be rich or middle class. Not every character should come from a sordid past. Not every character should live in the suburbs. Not every character should be brilliant or talented or college-educated. Not every character should attend the same church, nor should they all reject religion. Unless, of course, the storyworld you’ve created requires this kind of uniformity.

Aphid_on_dandelionOne more thing writers should avoid when creating characters—making them all the same age. People your story with old as well as young, those facing death and those about to be born, the newly married and the fifty-something’s celebrating their silver anniversary.

A story with variety is much more interesting than one seeded with repetition. Be aware of repetition’s many faces so you can squeeze the life out of the ones you don’t intentionally plant in your story.

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Cut Deadwood: Eliminating The Innocuous “It Was”

ideadwood-685380-mBack in elementary school, I had various teachers who assigned “essays” by giving a required topic and length. Later in college, I had professors who made similar assignments. Not surprisingly, a number of students in both instances looked for ways to pad their work in order to meet the length requirement.

Their goal, of course, was not to entertain the teacher or professor. They simply wanted to complete the assignment.

Most writers who aspire to sell their work aren’t length conscious, but I suspect few of us learned ways to keep our writing lean and focused.

Eliminating the innocuous “it was” falls under the category of tightening prose and is particularly important in controlling the pace of a piece of writing.

“It was” is not grammatically incorrect (and thus the “innocuous” label)—it’s just not needed in most instances. In all fairness, neither is he was, she was, or they were. These subject/verb combinations almost always follow a sentence that introduces the it or the he, the she, or the they. In essence, then, the pronoun/be verb combinations are redundant.

Examples may clarify the point:

    * He pulled out a knife. It was an old World War II relic he’d inherited from his grandfather.
    * Jill passed a distinguished gentlemen heading for the front desk. He was taller than her father and as broad-shouldered as Uncle Jack.
    * As their mother looked on, the Dorsey twins walked up to the front door and knocked. They were each carrying a birthday present for their classmate.
    * Kelvin introduced himself to Mrs. Watson, his son’s third grade teacher. She was busy sorting papers at her desk and continued to work as they talked.

In most instances, a sentence beginning with a pronoun and a verb of being is describing or renaming the noun introduced in the previous sentence. So in the examples above, it renames knife, he renames gentleman, they renames twins, and she renames Mrs. Watson. Because of this close connection, however, the extra wordage is not needed.

In many cases, the sentence introduced by the pronoun/verb of being can be incorporated with the previous sentence. The simplest method is to replace the subject/verb with a comma:

    * He pulled out a knife, an old World War II relic he’d inherited from his grandfather.

Sometimes the descriptive material can be incorporated in the previous sentence as parenthetical material:

    * Jill passed a distinguished gentlemen—taller than her father and as broad-shouldered as Uncle Jack—heading for the front desk.
    * As their mother looked on, the Dorsey twins, each carrying a birthday present for their classmate, walked up to the front door and knocked.

Sometimes the material can be restructured in a more succinct way in an independent clause.

    * Kelvin introduced himself to Mrs. Watson, his son’s third grade teacher, who busily sorted papers at her desk while they talked.

Whichever method an author chooses or the context demands, eliminating the innocuous pronoun/verb of being combination trims deadwood from prose and contributes to a more lively pace.

One caution. The goal of good writing is not to create the fastest pace possible. At the same time, unnecessary words should not pad our prose.

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Replacing The Passive

Weight_lifterBecause active voice is stronger than passive, writing instructors generally encourage authors to avoid the latter. By way of review,

Passive voice is a grammatical term identifying a particular subject/verb relationship—a specialized one that runs counter to the usual active voice.

Typically, the subject of a sentence is the agent that does the action of a sentence. In the examples below, the subject of each of these simple sentences is the agent doing the action.

  • The writer cleaned off her desk. [Who cleaned? writer]
  • The editor marked the final page of the manuscript. [Who marked? editor.]
  • The publisher congratulated the team on a job well-done. [Who congratulated? publisher.

In sentences utilizing the passive voice, however, the subject is actually the recipient of the action. Again, examples may be helpful.

  • The book was published by WaterBrook. [The subject book is the object of the action was published rather
    than the agent doing the action.]
  • The email was sent from her phone. [The subject email is the object of the action was sent rather than the agent doing the action.]
  • Another writer was added to the group without advance warning. [The subject writer is the object of the action was added rather than the agent doing the action.]

(from “Clarifying What’s Passive”).

Understanding the passive construction is a good start, but writers also need to know how to revise those sentences and replace the passive verbs with active ones instead.

Writers utilize the passive construction for primarily three reasons: (1) they don’t know who the active agent is, (2) they want to emphasize the object, or (3) they don’t want to point fingers.

Consequently an author might write sentences like these:

The article was shared on both Facebook and Twitter. [The active agent is unknown.]

No one could verify if the film was seen by as many viewers as the theater reported. [The clause if the film was seem by as many viewers emphasizes the subject of that clause, film.]

The car was towed to a nearby garage. [The writer chooses not to point out what agent did the action.]

The key to constructing a sentence in the active voice is to make the subject of the sentence the active agent. The first step is to restructure the sentence so that the subject receiving the action (in the examples above, the subjects in question are article, film, and car respectively) becomes the object of the active verb.

To create the active verb, the writer must remove the form of the be helping verb (was in each of the examples above; other possibilities include were, is, are, been, and being) and any other accompanying helping verbs (such as have or had), then choose the appropriate tense of the action verb.

Finally, the writer must insert a new subject. Often times the agent in a passive sentence shows up as part of a prepositional phrase, usually introduced with by. Those sentences are the easiest to replace: . . . by my neighbors yields the subject neighbors; . . . by the publisher yields the subject publisher.

Putting the three steps together, the passive sentence The tree limbs were broken by the wind becomes the active sentence The wind broke the tree limbs.

The harder kinds of sentences to correct are those which do not name the agent at all. Sometimes context will yield the agent and sometimes an indefinite pronoun can do the job. The examples above which do not have agents might become one of the following:

    * Any number of blog visitors shared the article on both Facebook and Twitter. [Subject determined by a context clue.]
    * Many shared the article on both Facebook and Twitter. [Indefinite pronoun used as the subject.]
    * The company associated with AAA towed the car to a nearby garage. [Subject determined by a context clue.]
    * Somebody towed the car to a nearby garage. [Indefinite pronoun used as the subject.]

If there is no context clue and an indefinite pronoun won’t work as the subject, or if the writer’s intent is to feature the receiver of the action, he may need an entirely different sentence structure, perhaps incorporating the information contained in the passive sentence with another sentence, perhaps adding details, or perhaps reordering the sentence and choosing a different verb:

    * After being towed to the nearest garage, the car sat unattended for three days. [Incorporated with another sentence.]
    * Both Facebook and Twitter became the perfect platform to share the article. [Detail added.]
    * The article received considerable attention on both Facebook and Twitter. [Reworded to maintain article as the subject since the writer wished to feature it.]

Unfortunately “the Passive Police” have mistakenly accused a few other sentence constructions of being passive, but they are innocent and therefore writers and/or editors do not need to replace them. For help determining which sentences are not passive despite the accusations, see “Clarifying What’s Passive”. 😉

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Cadence

PoetryCadence is the variation in a person’s tone, the rhythm created by the rise and fall of his voice. Poetry relies on cadence to create rhythm patters, but novelists can employ the device as well.

Poets, of course, are meticulous about their word choices so that each not only carries the meaning they desire, but also the proper order of accented and unaccented syllables.

Novelists, not concerned with a regular rhythmic pattern, create cadence in several different ways. First is through the length of sentences.

Long, luxurious sentences and paragraphs slow the tempo of a passage. Conversely, short sentences quicken the pace and frequently produce a tense, staccato effect.

The best passages employ both strategies to effect a paragraph with rhythm and balance. (“How To Tell,” Michael Orlofsky, Writer’s Digest, October 2002)

A second rhythmic device involves conjunctions—either their addition or their omission. The first, called polysyndeton, repeats a conjunction between each of the words or phrases in a series. The latter, asyndeton, omits the conjunction, even before the final element. Here are example of each:

Polysyndeton: An avalanche of rock and dirt cascaded beside him and over him and under him.

Asyndeton: His brother picked up another plate, piled it with a variety of stuffed pastries, a handful of baby carrots, a couple cauliflower clumps.

A third way to create cadence in prose is to purposefully use repetition. For instance, a proposition can be used over and over or a key word in one sentence can be repeated in the opening of the next sentence.

The first use creates a staccato rhythm which can be enhanced if short phrases are written as sentences.

    Repetition of a preposition in a sentence: Away from Laguna Beach, from Eddie, from the tatters of his career.
    Repetition of a preposition in consecutive sentences: Away from Laguna Beach. From Eddie. From the tatters of his career.

The Color Of Grief Isn't Blue cover

    Repetition of a key word from one sentence at the beginning of another: “But my sister, Ainsley, puts her key in the lock five mornings a week. She straightens the over-sized posters that shift every time a train goes by on the tracks across the road from the strip mall that houses the headquarters. Posters of a beautiful little girl with strawberries on her sundress and a makeshift wreath of flowers in her hair.” (From The Color Of Sorrow Isn’t Blue by Sharon Souza).

Parallel construction is another method to create rhythm. The parallelism can be within a sentence or within a paragraph, but the idea is that multiplies—phrases, clauses, or sentences—have the same basic structure.

Here’s an example of phrases each consisting of a verb each followed by a prepositional phrase:

    He slid behind the wheel of his Porsche, backed from the driveway, and accelerated onto the road heading south.

Anaphora, or “the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of successive clauses” (Oxford American Dictionary), is another way novelists create cadence in their prose. The following excerpt from Caught by Harlan Coben illustrates this technique:

And that was when Marcia started to feel a small rock form in her chest. There were no clothes in the hamper.

The rock in her chest grew when Marcia checked Haley’s toothbrush, then the sink and shower.

All bone-dry.

The rock grew when she called out to Ted, trying to keep the panic out of her voice. It grew when they drove to captain’s practice and found out that Haley had never showed. It grew when she called Haley’s friends while Ted sent out an e-mail blast—and no one knew where Haley was. It grew when they called the local police, who, despite Marcia’s and Ted’s protestations, believed that Haley was a runaway, a kid blowing off some steam. It grew when forty-eight hours later, the FBI was brought in. It grew when there was still no sign of Haley after a week. (As quoted by Margie Lawson, emphases mine)

Cadence is not a device that readers will necessarily notice unless they stop and think about the prose—not a plus if they are to remain immersed in the story world and wrapped up with the character’s problems. However, the absence of cadence can work against readers, causing them to stumble and retreat to regain the flow.

Writers want readers moving forward, fully engaged with the story. Proper cadence can help to accomplish this goal.

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How Important Are Details?

Are details important?

In more than one article critiquing the 2013 Mark Burnett/Roma Downey TV mini-series The Bible, reviewers pointed out “picky” details—Adam portrayed as a European-ish white guy, not an African or a Middle Easterner. And beardless. More than once I read remarks about the angels outfitted much like Ninja warriors.

My first thought was, Come on, people, quit being so picky.

But hold on.

Aren’t the picky things noticeable when they pull readers (or viewers) out of the story? Some time ago I read a post by agent Steve Laube about inconsistencies in novels that editors don’t catch but readers do. It reminded me of a book I read in which basketball details were wrong.

For example, Team A faced off against Team B in the NBA finals, with Team B hosting game 1. Some pages later the series is 3-2 and game 6 is being played at Team A’s home court.

But hold on. Fans of pro basketball would know that at that time the NBA finals were a 2-3-2 format—games 1,2,6 (if necessary), and 7 (if necessary) were to be played at the home of the team with the best over all regular season record. Games 3, 4, and 5 (if necessary) were played at the home of the two-seed. So no way could game 6 be played on Team B’s home court if game 1 was at Team A’s.

There was a similar stumble earlier connected with basketball (in the NBA, only one free throw when a technical foul is called) and another one with the weather in Southern California (a week of rain in May? Right! Doesn’t happen!) And another one on a cross-country drive. Three days, the character determines. It will take three days to reach her destination. She starts out on a Sunday and arrives … on a Sunday. O-o-kay.

But here’s the thing. If I were writing a review of this book, I would feel like I was being overly critical to point out these slips. I mean, did any of those matter in the long run? No. Will people who are not basketball fans, or residents of SoCal, even notice? Probably not. Does the day of the week really matter? Not really. Then what’s the big deal?

Do the details in fiction matter?

Actually, yes, they do. The details give the story a sense of credibility. I’ve said before, one of the things I think J. K. Rowling did so well was construct an incredible fantasy world. Others say she merely played off British boarding schools and that may be true. But through the details Ms. Rowling included, the world of magic came alive.

Horseless carriages that convey themselves, a sorting hat, a whomping tree, portkeys, food that appears in dishes on the dining tables, a ceiling that reflects the weather outside, broken wands mis-repaired that send spells incorrectly—on and on, each detail woven into the story with a high degree of consistency. There weren’t three school houses in one book and four in another. The new students weren’t placed in houses by the Sorting Hat in one book and by the Sword of Gryffindor in another.

Of course, the longer the book, the greater number of details there are to keep straight. An epic story like the seven Harry Potter books requires a great deal of work to keep all the details straight.

But I’ll come back to the point—why does it matter? I said credibility or realism, if you will, and that’s perhaps the greatest point, but in tangent is the fact that inconsistencies may pull readers out of the “fictive dream.” Rather than living side by side with the characters, the reader stops: Wait a minute, didn’t she say the trip took three days, and didn’t she leave on a Sunday? Then how can they be arriving on a Sunday? Did I miss something?

Lack of clarity can do essentially the same thing. The details might be right, but if they aren’t expressed clearly, the reader is still stopping, still looking back and checking to see why what she thought had been conveyed actually was something different.

So yes, details matter. At least they should.

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The Place Of Adjectives In Prose

Adjectives receive a fair amount of discrimination from writing instructors. Sol Stein, author of Stein On Writing, has a great deal to say on the subject. In fact, he created a little writing math formula for adjectives: one plus one equals a half. Here’s his explanation:

Experience proves that when two adjectives are used, eliminating either strengthens the text. The more concrete adjective is the one to keep. Or the one that makes the image more visual (p. 200).

I’ll admit, when I first read Mr. Stein’s one-plus-one principle, I wasn’t sold, but the more experience I gained through critiquing manuscripts and then through editing, the more I understood the point. In writing, an author is creating an image for a reader to focus on. When introducing a character or place, he might think more is better, but in fact, the more describers, the less the reader focuses.

The best approach is to identify the “telling detail” and focus on that aspect. Again from Mr. Stein:

In addition to eliminating unnecessary words, I am focusing on using words for their precise meaning, which is the mark of a good writer (p. 199).

As he explains, beginning writers often suffer from a tendency to write using generalities.

Example: A man walked into the room and sat next to a woman.

Everything in that sentence is bland. Nothing stirs the reader to envision the scene. To counter this generic writing, instructors prod beginners to be specific, but the inexperienced are apt to respond with too much detail “robbing the reader of one of the great pleasures of reading, exercising the imagination” (p. 186).

The answer is to find the detail that evokes the most emotion or imagination in the reader. Here’s an example Mr. Stein gives:

“The spoon left a line of froth on his sad mustache.” Without “sad,” the line is merely descriptive. With “sad” it characterizes both the person described and, by inference, the speaker (p.200).

Mr. Stein ends his section on adjectives by giving his “rules,” which he prefaced by saying, “Like any good rule, using one adjective in place of two has exceptions.” He then proceeds to give three guidelines for determining which adjectives to use and which to throw away.

1. Adjectives must be necessary. Without such an adjective, the sentence would be confusing or unclear. The salesman in the brown jacket is my uncle. Without the adjective “brown,” the sentence implies that none of the other characters is wearing a jacket. If that’s not the case, the adjective is needed.

2. Adjectives should be included if they incite curiosity. Jeffrey Overstreet’s novel, The Ale Boy’s Feast, utilized effective prose, including this line: “Any light, even the sickly glow of the sun’s cold coin over a world drained of colors, was better than the subterranean dark.” I think the adjectives in that line stir curiosity. What kind of a place is this when the sun is called a cold coin? Wow! Vivid and evocative!

3. Vivid is the third guideline for adjectives. The ones novelists use should be precise. They should call up an image that the reader can then expand upon in his imagination.

Mark Twain is reported to have said, “If you catch an adjective, kill it.” He was wrong. Adjectives in toto aren’t the problem. It’s only the ones hanging with the herd or the bland ones that clutter the page without adding a splat of paint to the picture that need to be ruthlessly cut from our manuscripts. The particular ones — those are keepers.

– – – – –

This article is a reprint, with some minor editorial changes, of “Word Discrimination, Part 2” which first appeared here at Rewrite, Reword, Rework in May 2011.

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Problems With Participles

participial phrasesParticiples are verb forms created by adding -ing, -ed, or changing the verb in an irregular way. They can be either present or past.

Participles should not be confused with the main verb in the sentence. Rather, they may work alone as describers, or in combination with a group of words as participial phrases

Examples
Present participle used as an adjective to describe a noun:

  • Because of the lopsided score, the officials decided to use running time in the second half.

Past participle used as an adjective to describe a noun:

  • Sweetened coffee turned her stomach.

Present participle introducing a phrase:

  • Remembering his commitment to his wife, the tech assistant left work a few minutes early.

Past participle introducing a phrase:

  • Handcuffed by the officer, the suspect climbed into the patrol car.

Participle problems are threefold. They can be improperly constructed, misplaced, or chronologically impossible.

Improperly Constructed
Present participles regularly add -ing to the verb stem, though there are occasional spelling changes such as changing an ending -ie to -y before adding the suffix:

    tie, tying; die, dying; lie, lying.

Past participles generally add -ed to the verb stem, but some two hundred verbs require an irregular form instead. This form is one used with helping verbs such as have. Some common irregular forms include the following:

    go, (have) gone; write, (have) written; come, (have) come

The improper construction problems, then, are wrong spellings of present participles and the use of incorrect irregular past forms for past participles.

Examples

  • The one lieing lying on the bed is dirty.
  • Water rang rung from the rag splattered the floor.

Misplaced Participles or Participial Phrases
The noun or pronoun that the participle or participial phrase describes must follow it immediately. When another noun is substituted, the “dangling modifier” can sometimes create humorous sentences.

Examples of Dangling Modifiers

  • Surfing in Hawaii, the waves were bigger than any he’d seen. (Waves don’t surf).
  • Hiked frequently by tourists, the park rangers removed rocks from the trail. (Tourists hike the trails, not the rangers.)

These problems can be changed in a variety of ways.
1) Rearrange the main clause so that the noun which the participial phrase describes is the subject.

    Surfing in Hawaii, he faced bigger waves than he’d seen before.

2) Reword the sentence without the participial phrase, creating instead a compound or complex sentence.

    The park rangers removed rocks from the trail because tourists hiked them frequently.

3) Introduce the participial phrase with a subordinate conjunction such as after or before.

    Before surfing in Hawaii, he’d never seen such big waves.

Chronologically Impossible
Present participles indicate simultaneous action. Consequently, a participial phrase must only contain action that can occur at the same time as the action of the main clause.

Examples Of Problematic Sentences

    Running to catch the train, he bought his ticket at the booth. (He can’t be running to the train at the same time he is at the booth).
    Turning on the oven, she mixed all her ingredients at the kitchen table. (She can’t be turning on the oven at the same time she is at the kitchen table.)
    The quarterback threw a touchdown, celebrating with his own special dance. (The quarterback can’t be celebrating at the same time he is throwing the TD pass).

Primarily authors who use participial phrases in chronologically impossible ways intend to create a sequence of events. One way to correct the problem is to turn the phrase into a dependent clause.

    Before the passenger ran for the train, he stopped at the booth to buy his ticket.

A second possibility is to create a compound verb.

    She turned on the oven, then mixed all her ingredients at the kitchen table.

Finally, the sentence can be converted into a two sentences.

    The quarterback threw a touchdown. He celebrated using his own special dance.

Authors can eliminate participle problems first by learning the proper spelling of present participles and the correct forms of irregular past participles, then by asking two questions: (1) Is the participle or participial phrase right next to the noun it’s describing; (2) Can the action in the participial phrase occur at the same time as the action of the main part of the sentence?

Chances are, once you start seeing participle problems, you’ll chuckle at the impossible things you’ve written, then you’ll happily edit them out.

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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.

– – – – –
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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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! 😀

– – – – –

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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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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