Category Archives: Prose

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:

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.

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.

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.

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.



Filed under Sentence structure

Construct Your Sentences; Don’t Let Them Grow Like Weeds

scaffold-770382-mIn my capacity as a contest judge, an editor, and a book reviewer, I do my fair share of reading fiction. Of late, I’ve noticed what seems to me to be a growing trend—less attention to sentence structure.

For instance, in a novel I’m currently reading, I saw one paragraph with four of its five sentences all starting with He. In another, the opening two sentences were constructed identically. In others, authors lean heavily on a favorite construction which appears with frequency.

Some writers might think, Nit-picky, nit-picky, nit-picky.

Once upon a time, I may have thought this as well. But what’s at stake is a reader’s attention. Most readers, perhaps without realizing it, are affected by sentence structure.

For example, structure that is repeated with frequency can become tedious. If that construction happens to be simple sentences, the effect is often so simplistic that readers may feel as if they’re back in first grade reading their primers:

Jack Silversteen unbuckled his gun belt. He let it slide to the floor. The belt landed with a bang. Jack stared at his enemy. He crossed his arms.

But even more complex sentence construction can become tedious, too, because it creates a distinct rhythm:

Martha poured a cup of coffee, being careful not to spill. She waited for Jack to sit down, tapping her finger on the edge of the saucer. She glanced out the window, humming a little tune. A bird landed on the sill, flapping its wings against the glass.

The lack of variety becomes tiresome, no matter how well constructed the sentences are.

The truth is, some sentence construction can be problematic even if it isn’t repeated too often. For example the use of present participles (verb forms ending in —ing) in the example above can easily go awry. The —ing form of a verb implies simultaneous action, but some writers use this construction as if the action carried by the participle follows the action carried by the verb:

EXAMPLE: He wolfed down his sandwich, burping with satisfaction.

Clearly the character couldn’t wolf down the sandwich and simultaneously burp with satisfaction, but the construction of the sentence says that’s what he did. The author’s intention was to show a sequence of events, but the present participle doesn’t accomplish that purpose.

Participles are also problematic when they introduce a sentence because they are easily misplaced.

The rule of thumb for phrases that describe is to place them in close proximity to what they describe.

EXAMPLE: The man wearing the baseball cap climbed to the top of the bleachers.

When a participial phrase (a group of words beginning with a verb form such as walking or written or talked) begins a sentence, therefore, it is positioned to describe the very next noun—the subject of the sentence.

Walking in the park, the little girl spotted her first squirrel.
Written before he had his coffee, the email didn’t make much sense.
Talked about as if she’d already won, the gymnast became careless.

When a modifier is misplaced, however, it is positioned before a noun which it is not describing.

Walking the last mile, her finish time was well above the goal she’d set for herself.
Written on a napkin, she cherished the poem as a spontaneous expression of his love for her.
Talked about for days, the reader looked forward to the release of the new book.

Inattention to sentence construction can also lead to redundancy, a lack of parallelism, and a host of other awkward or inerrant grammar issues which may confound readers. But it can also mean an author has missed an opportunity to communicate more effectively.

For example, sentence construction contributes to the pace of a story. In action scenes, when the pace should be fast, short sentences, even fragments, can be most effective. Nothing stalls action more than long, leisurely sentences that meander.

Sentences, like scenes and chapters and books have a “sweet spot,” a part that delivers the greatest punch. Consequently, a well constructed sentence will deliver the key piece of information in that sweet spot—the end of the sentence. Yes, the beginning is important, but the point here is, after the key bit of information, the sentence shouldn’t go on with less important detail.

Weak: Nothing was more important to her, and she’d spent all day looking for just the right one—the perfect book that would help her finish her research paper on time.

Improved: Nothing was more important to her, and she’d spent all day looking for just the right one—the perfect book. Now she could finish her research paper on time.

In the first example above, the thing most important to the character was the book, but the sentence doesn’t stop with that important information. By breaking the long sentence up, the writer can create a second punch. The book, it turns out, is important because it is the key to a second goal—finishing the paper on time. The construction of two sentences instead of one allows the writer to escalate the importance rather than simply moving past the first important object—the one the character has spent all day looking for.

Finally sentence construction is key to the creation of voice, whether the author’s voice or the various characters’ voices. For instance, in the previous paragraph, I ended the last sentence with a preposition. While grammar rules now allow such, a more formal writing style would still require rewriting the sentence to read . . . the one for which the character has spent all day looking.

weed-plant-1161347-mThe choice to construct the sentence in a formal manner or in a more colloquial manner is not an issue of right or wrong but rather of effect—what effect does the author hope to create. If he prefers a more academic, precise tone and wishes his audience to see him as careful in his usage, he most likely will opt for the formal construction. If, on the other hand, the author is going for a more relaxed tone, the preposition at the end of the sentence will be just fine.

Much of the problem with sentence structure, as I see it, is that writers may not be aware of the importance of writing from the ground up—choosing words purposefully and building sentences with intention. Rather, sentences seem to be left on their own, to grow as they wish. Like weeds.


Filed under Pace, Sentence structure, Voice

Five Fiction Killers

Reading_Young_manI’ve read any number of lists about writing fiction from editors, writers, and agents, all designed to give fiction writers help. Some enumerate story essentials, others, ways to improve, what agents look for, or story mistakes. I decided it’s time I make my own list–my “story killers.” The elements below are things that induce me to put a book down, perhaps never to pick it up again. Or worse–perhaps never to pick up a book by that same author ever again.

Of course there is some subjectivity in such list. Some readers care more about plot than others do. Some care more about character. Good stories, however, need to be a blend of both, in the right way. I think you’ll find the “killers” on my list reflect this blend.

1) Characters that don’t want anything. Instead, the story happens to the protagonist, and he merely reacts. Even when the action seems fast-paced and suspenseful, I remain rather ho-hum because I’m not cheering the character on to achieve anything. All the activity seems designed merely to keep the character alive so he can do other things to keep himself alive. Survival, without a plan to end the cycle, simply doesn’t make a compelling story as far as I’m concerned.

paper_cutout_character2) Characters that are flat. This point applies to minor characters as well as the main ones. Writers have several euphemisms for this kind of character–two-dimensional, cardboard cut-out, stereotypical. The point is, they lack originality and, therefore, the feel of a real person. No individual is actually like any other. When a character in a novel acts just like a “typical” barkeep or hooker or preacher or cop . . . in fact like a typical anyone, there is some stereotyping going on.

The other way to flatten a character is to make her non-descript. She is simply “a woman” or “a secretary” or “a waitress.” There’s nothing particular about her.

Some writers think that giving a character a particular or unique look is sufficient. However, characters become memorable by what they do more than by how they look.

A college professor with tats covering his arms and neck might seem unique, but if he behaves like any other college professor, then he will soon fade into the background. If he has tats and never writes anything using capital letters, now he’s acting out of character for a college professor.

The reader might start to wonder if his students like him more or if they’ll think he’s incompetent. They might wonder how he keeps his job. In other words, there’s been some complexity introduced, some conflict. And yet this character doesn’t need to become major. He can simply be interesting in his minor role.

3) Unimaginative prose. Rather than varying structure, each sentence is simple, starting with “He.” Or adjectives are pedantic–long arms, long beard, long cord–and verbs are lackluster. Everyone walks, sees, turns. These verbs, of course, aren’t “incorrect,” but they are dull. They don’t create an image for the reader or paint a unique scene.

I recently read a book that compared a bald head to a cue ball. This analogy was an attempt to make the prose interesting, but there were two problems with it. First, it’s such a common comparison it can almost be considered a cliché. But also, this was a work of speculative fiction and nothing in the story made me think these people would know what a cue ball was.

The point is, comparisons can liven up unimaginative prose, if they are done well. The comparison needs to give the reader a fresh perspective and it needs to be consistent with the viewpoint character’s thinking.

4) Conflict that is too easily resolved. Characters need to struggle and strive. They need to work hard to overcome. If obstacles block their goals but are easily removed, the struggle doesn’t seem like much of a struggle. Whatever they win doesn’t seem as if it’s been earned. When a character beats any foe, overcomes any problem, soon there’s little tension when the next hurdle looms ahead of the character. The reader already knows this too will be brushed away in a page or two, with little or no lasting effects.

5) A lack of emotional response. Characters that live through horrific things ought to feel something or ought to make a conscious effort to shut off their emotions to the awfulness. If they act the same after witnessing a murder or escaping death as they did before the event, the story begins to feel cartoonish and the characters, more like caractures.

Along those lines, a character running for her life should have more thoughts about how she can escape than about whether or not the love interest she’s with will kiss her or not. Seriously. I’ve read books that interrupt the tension of an escape for an injection of sexual tension–at least that’s what I imagine the author was going for.

This tension-on-tension is bound to water down one or the other. They both won’t have the same impact they’d have if they were introduced separately.

Plus, it doesn’t seem plausible to me. When the danger is over, yes, then the character might feel grateful to the love interest or so relieved or thankful, that a “moment” would be logical and appropriate.

But with gun-totting criminals behind and the edge of the roof ahead, I don’t see the female protagonist logically thinking, My, look at his broad shoulders. That sort of line will ineitable induce from me . . . well, 🙄

Along with a reason to put that book down.

What “killers” would you add?


Filed under Characters, Plot, Word Use, Writing Rules

Show, Don’t Tell: Beyond The Cliché

pulls_weedsMost writers have heard the adage to show rather than tell when writing fiction. When I taught English to seventh and eighth graders, I even taught the principle. And yet, one of the first things a writing professional who critiqued my work uncovered, was problems with showing.

There are actually several ways that “show, don’t tell” can go wrong. First, not everything a character does can or should be shown. Should readers be subject to long scenes of a character brushing his teeth? toweling off after a shower? weeding the garden? It’s possible in some story that these activities do carry some significance and should be fleshed out in a scene, but the chances are, for most novels these are incidentals that ought not receive equal weight with such things as a character leaving her husband or being fired from his job or meeting her birth mother for the first time. So the first rule of thumb should be, show what’s important.

_CrutchesEven showing the important is a bit of a balancing act. Some writers take the idea of showing too far and create what I refer to as “stage direction.”

    Joe sat up, rubbed his eyes, then stood, his left hand resting on the back of the chair. He reached his right hand toward the crutch propped against the wall. Snugging it under his right arm, he inched his left leg forward, then transferred weight to the crutch and swung his injured right leg ahead.

Again, there may be some story that needs these details, but most don’t. Writers should trust their readers to fill in the specifics when they aren’t essential to the story. The above can be improved by eliminating the stage directions:

    Joe grabbed his crutch and limped toward the door.

Besides knowing what not to show, a writer also needs to know what she ought to show. There are four areas which may appear in a scene that require showing: action, description, dialogue, and internal monologue.

First and foremost a writer needs to show the important action, not after the fact as if it happened off stage and someone is recounting the events. Rather, it should take place in front of the reader, either in story time or as a scene in a flash back.

cigarette_smokeIn conjunction with the action, a writer can show the scene. In so doing, he does not stop the story to set the stage, but rather inserts descriptive detail into the story, along with the action. Notice how Mark Bertrand did this in his novel Nothing To Hide, Book 3 in the Roland March Mystery series.

    He stares at me through a cloud of smoke, pleased with this pronouncement.

    We stand around for a bit, soaking up the UV rays and the secondhand carcinogens; then I thank Bridger for the help and get going.

Bertrand could just as easily have stopped the action and inserted a line of description.

    The air is thick with smoke, so thick the sun’s rays could hardly penetrate it.

If he had wanted to call particular attention to the smoke and the sun, that would have been the way to go. But if they are incidental, they can be included along with the action and they add richness to the setting without slowing the story needlessly.

Third, dialogue shows. Rather than summarizing an interchange between two or more people, the writer gives the exact words. However, in the same way that showing can devolve into stage direction, dialogue that’s trying too hard to be realistic, can devolve into the trivial. In the exchange below, I’ve omitted tags and action to show how the words themselves need to go somewhere rather than simply filling space.


“Hi back. What’s up?”

“Not much. Just hanging out.”

“I see that.”

“So have a seat.”


“You want something to drink?”

“No, I’m good.”

“Want to watch a movie or something?”

“What’s the or something?”

This exchange may be realistic, but in most instances there’s not enough relevance to the story for this entire dialogue to be included. The writer would be well served to move past the non-essentials to show the parts of the conversation that move the story forward.

The final area is internal monologue–what a character is thinking. Too many of us writers, when we’re starting out, tell the character’s emotion rather than showing it.

Here’s an example from an early draft of Hunted, Book 1 in The Lore of Efrathah, with the “telling” lines in boldface type:

    Jim glanced to his left and saw, to his surprise, that the shelf upon which he sat extended on in that direction. He hadn’t been aware before that it was more than a slight accidental overhang. He couldn’t see what became of “his ledge,” as he began to think of it, because it disappeared around an outcrop of rock that jutted from the cliff. But his decision was made.

Compare that to this segment from a later draft (and different scene) which doesn’t tell he’s exasperated or uncertain about what to do, but shows it with action and thought:

    Ignoring the stinging from his scraped and bleeding hands, he reached for his cell phone. Except it wasn’t in his pocket. Of course! He’d lent it to Karen. He thumped his head against the cliff, once, twice, a third time. Now what? With no way of telling anyone where he was, he might be stuck on this ledge for an unhealthy long time, considering all his cuts and bruises and whatever he’d done to his ankle.

One caution about showing internal monologue. It’s tempting to front load backstory by having a character remember past events. By using such a device, the writer might feel as if he is showing the character’s thoughts. In fact, he’s giving a clump of backstory. To be effective, internal monologue needs to be delivered in the character’s voice as a natural part of whatever is happening to him. It should never be included because the author wants to tell the reader something so decides to put it into the character’s thoughts.

I hope that difference is clear because it’s pivotal. In one instance the writer is showing the character’s thoughts and in the other he’s dictating to the reader what he wants her to know. Of course, the thoughts that the writer shows the reader should be the important ones which move the story forward. Not every trivial thought a character has is worth showing.

The key to the “show, don’t tell” guideline, then, is balance. A writer needs to show action, description, dialogue, and internal monologue–but not all of any of those.


Filed under Action, Description, Dialogue, Internal Monologue, Writing Rules

Em Dashes Can Keep Company

I’ve looked at the basics of the em dash, commonly referred to as the dash, in “Punctuation Pitfalls–The Em Dash and Its Cousin the En Dash” and “The Ellipsis or the Em-Dash.” But I realized there’s another aspect of this handy-dandy punctuation mark that I have yet to address: how does it work with accompanying marks? Or does it?

As in so much of English grammar, the answer to the last question is, it depends. There are times the em dash should not and will never be joined with another punctuation mark, but then there are the times, it must include a companion. So which is which?

The never instances are places where the em dash replaces a comma: in complex sentences. As a refresher, a complex sentence has two clauses, or groups of words containing a subject and verb: one independent, able to stand on its own as a sentence, and one dependent, not expressing a complete thought. To review where the comma belongs in a complex sentence, see “Punctuation Pitfalls – The Comma, Part 5.”

In these complex sentences, a writer may chooses to substitute an em dash for the comma, in which case, the em dash is flying solo.

Then there are instances when it takes on passengers. Here are three:

  1. If the parenthetical information set off by em dashes is either a question or an exclamation, a question mark or an exclamation point may precede the em dash.
    Most of the politicianswho says they care?–seem to ignore the wishes of voters.
  2. If an em dash is used to indicate a sudden break in dialogue, it precedes the closing quotation mark. If the sentence continues, requiring a comma, the em dash precedes the comma.
    “Get out of my way! Get out of my–“
    “I’ve had enough of your–,” she began, but her daughter burst into tears.
  3. If the sudden break belongs to the action rather than to the dialogue, em dashes are used after and before the quotation marks to separate the dialogue from the rest of the sentence.
    “Someday you’ll be sorry,” — he poked his finger into my chest — “and don’t you forget it.”

There you have it–our em dash friend isn’t always a loner. Depending on the circumstance, he can consort with punctuation partners.


Filed under Commas, Dashes, Sentence structure

Story Structure – Writing In Scenes, Part 2

In Story Structure – Writing In Scenes, Part 1 we looked at the elements that a scene must have–goal, conflict, and a resulting intensified problem.

Not only do scenes have these specific components, they show the story, verbally unfolding it before readers so that they visualize what’s taking place, as if on the stage of their minds.

How does a writer achieve this level of showing?

As in plays, novels or short stories should paint the scene and highlight the characters, but if that’s all we see on stage, there is no story, only models and artistic backdrops. The key to a good scene, then, is the action of the characters governed by their attempts to achieve their scene goal.

Writers must not neglect the staging, however. Readers need to be able to imagine the scene, and this requires a certain amount of detail. The descriptive elements, when appropriate, should involve all five senses.

Writers should not force sounds or scents into a scene, however. I’ve seen this from time to time in contest entries I’ve judged. For no particular reason other than the writer knows someone is judging to see if description involves all five senses, the sound of someone’s shoes on the floor makes an appearance. Or the smell of the garbage in the bin outside or the taste of the salt on her lips. These details may contribute to the story, but if they don’t they need to be cut.

A scene should feel full and real, but it should not be stuffed with window dressing. The scenery specifics, and the character descriptions, must enhance the action, not overpower it.

Here’s a scene from one of my own contest entries several years ago. Tell me what you think. Is there a character goal? Conflict? Heightened problem? Is the scene painted using the five senses? What would make it better?

The innkeeper shook her crooked finger in Abihail’s face. “The whole town suffers because of the likes of you.”

Abi squared her shoulders, ignoring the accusation, as well as the hunger pangs prodded to life by the yeasty aroma from the oven. The town suffered all right, as did all the towns bordering the valley, but certainly not because of the dissenters. “I only want a bit of bread, Mistress Trent, and I’ll happily work for it.”

The gaunt matron scowled. “You’d bring death on me and my family, would you?”

“No one need know I’m working for you. I can come at night—sweep out the common room and the kitchen, wash up your crockery, whatever you have need of.”

Mistress Trent seized her broom and flicked the coarse bristles toward Abi. “I need you to leave my property.”

Abi stepped nearer the door. Cold air seeped from underneath and crawled up her bare legs. She reached for the latch but stopped. Was she really wrong about Mistress Trent? She’d sneaked to the back entrance of The Pilgrims’ Lodge with such high hopes. Something about this tough-acting matron belied her imposing demeanor, but right now she showed no sign of softening.

How could Abi leave empty handed? How could she listen to Bijamin’s whimpering one more night? Her young brother was brave and rarely complained—a credit to all the dissenters—which fueled her determination to complete her task, both parts of it.

“Mistress, I know stitching, of all kinds. I can make you a shawl … or a dress. Whatever you want. No one would even see me.”

The innkeeper shook her head, swatted the air with her broom, and yelled. “Git!”

“Please, Mistress. I can’t let my brother starve.”

The care-worn woman shifted her gaze to the sideboard. “You heard me. Get off my property!” She reached for a pinkish-yellow pomegranate in the fruit bowl and hurled it at Abi.

Abi caught the hard-shelled fruit in one hand. Was this an attack … or a gift? She cocked her head, questioning.

“I don’t want you comin’ back here, is that clear?” Mistress Trent flung another piece of fruit to her.

Abi caught that one as well and tucked both in the pouch at the front of her tunic. “Yes, Mistress.”

“If I so much as see your shadow on the threshold, I’ll send for the constable.”

Abi mouthed a thank you.

Mistress Trent stepped toward her and swung the broom. “Out, or I’ll put you out! Leave my kitchen now!”

With a grin, Abi held up a hand. “I’m going, I’m going.”


Filed under Description, Setting or Story World, Structure

Oil And Vinegar, Not Oil And Water

Oil and water don’t mix no matter how much a person might try. On the other hand, oil and vinegar have properties that allow them to blend temporarily. When shaken together, along with all the appropriate spices, they can create a delicious dressing, a delight for the palate.

Poetry and fiction work the same way. Yes, they are separate entities and mostly stay in their own literary niches, but there are times and ways that the two can come together to enhance a story. Since April is National Poetry Month, it seems appropriate to discuss ways in which poetry can make fiction better.

One obvious instance occurs when a novelist includes poems or songs in his work. J. R. R. Tolkien utilized numerous songs in Lord of the Rings — from those Tom Bombadil sang to the ones Bilbo wrote as part of his story and those the elves sang on most occasions.

Besides incorporating poems as a whole into fiction, an author can utilize poetry’s various parts to spice up his prose.

Poetry, as you may know, is constructed using a number of sound devices and/or a number of imagery devices. It is these that can give prose a boost, taking it beyond the mundane and making it fun, insightful, or even beautiful.

Sound Devices

Many people think of rhyme when they think of poetry. This is certainly one of the sound devices poets may use, but it is not the only one. Others include alliteration, rhythm, onomatopoeia, assonance, consonance, even repetition.

Rhythm is probably the most popular device used by novelists. When poets utilize rhythm they are trying to create a pattern using stressed and unstressed syllables, such as you hear in nursery rhymes or children’s songs:

Twinkle, twinkle, little star,
How I wonder what you are.
Up above the world so high,
Like a diamond in the sky.

Novelists who pay attention to rhythm, however, utilize variety and flow more than patterns. Not only should a line say what the novelists wants it to say, but it should sound the way she wants it to sound.

High energy action scenes use shorter sentences. Fragments even. Leisurely scenes may consist of longer sentences and paragraphs filled with description or reflection, utilizing parenthetical material, perhaps — whether created by using em dashes, parentheses or even a colon. The key is, the rhythm of the sentence fits the content and the context.

When appropriate, an author may incorporate alliteration — the repetition of the same sounds at the beginning of words:

They muscled the boat to another bend, but as they navigated the curve the vessel rammed to a stop with a heavy clunk.

Consonance is similar but limited to the repetition of consonant sounds and not limited to the beginning of a word.

You crash over the trees,
You crack the live branch:
the branch is white,
the green crushed,
each leaf is rent like split wood.

In the same way, assonance is the repetition of vowel sounds.

Onomatopoeia — the formation of a word from the sound associated with it — is another common device. In the earlier line above, the word clunk is an example of onomatopoeia.

None of these devices occurs with as much frequency in fiction as in poetry, and when an author does employ them it should be with purpose. The sounds should strengthen the picture that the meaning of the words has already created.


Creating these word pictures can be more effective with the help of poetry’s devices: similes, metaphors, personification, symbols, hyperbole, and so on.

Similes and metaphors create comparisons between two usually unrelated objects for the sake of amplifying a particular trait of the item being described. Similes do so in a more obvious way by announcing the comparison with a preposition — like or as.

“His hair like moldy hay,” part of a line from the poem “The Highwayman,” makes an effective, and announced, comparison. On the other hand, “The serpentine road crawled to the top of the rise” doesn’t declare, the road was like a snake, but instead shows it. Both create vivid word pictures.

Personification gives human or organic properties to inanimate objects. Even phrases like “the heart of the tale” utilize personification.

Symbols stand for and represent something else. In A Christmas Carol the chains Marley’s ghost carried around represented his sins from his greedy life.

Hyperbole is purposeful exaggeration for effect. Example: The swarm of crows blackened the sky.

When using these imagery devices, a novelist should stretch to create ones that fit his characters and setting rather than relying on common ones already in existence. Many of these have become cliches.

In summary, good prose — lyrical prose — will utilize some of the same devices that poetry does. One way to become more familiar with these devices is to read poetry. Another is to write it.

What devices do you purposefully use in your prose? Have you done so because you write poetry or have you learned to do so because of what you read?

If you’d like to learn more about poetry, Owl Editing has an interesting page on understanding poetry — organized a little differently and in more depth than what I’ve presented in brief here.

Leave a comment

Filed under Word Use, Writing Style

Clarifying What’s Passive

Instruction manuals and conference workshop teachers say to avoid passive voice, and there’s a good reason to do so, but in order to follow that bit of advice, we need to have a clear idea what we’re talking about. As it turns out, writers of all stripes — including experienced novelists, MFA grads, freelance writers, and editors — can be confused about the term “passive” when used in reference to writing.

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.]

Writing instructors discourage passive voice. Since the subject is, for all practical purposes, supine, there’s not much for a reader to see in a sentence with a passive verb. Sentences, like good stories, need action. They need an agent who goes out and makes something happen. Passive characters make for boring stories, and passive subjects make for boring sentences.

So far, so good.

But here’s where problems start cropping up. Some writers (and even some editors) have taken the concept of active subjects to mean that all sentences must have action verbs. Any verb of being, then, gets lumped in with the passive voice. Here are a few sentences with verbs of being.

  • Despite everything that happened, the speaker still wasn’t late to the conference.
  • Her children are all gifted writers, singers, or artists.
  • I am certain about this one.

In each of these sentences, there is no action, so consequently, the subject is not passively standing by having some action foisted upon it. Rather, these sentences identify a condition or a state the subject is in. These are legitimate sentences and perform necessary functions in our writing. Still, they play a minor role and should not be overused.

Another form that gets dumped in with passive voice, and isn’t, is a helping verb working with a present participle (-ing form of a verb).

  • The writer is finishing the last chapter.
  • Her friend was posting on Facebook late at night.
  • The members of his critique group were giving line edits instead of overall impressions.

This kind of sentence is clearly not passive. In each of the examples the subject is the agent doing the action, and there is a strong action verb.

Is there a reason to steer clear of these sentences? Perhaps, but for an entirely different reason than for the erroneous accusation that they are passive.

Sentences with ongoing action, which is what this verb construction communicates, are a little harder for readers to visualize. The beginning of a thing, we can picture, but what do we see when the action is ongoing?

In addition, if an entire paragraph or page or scene contains numerous sentences with this construction, the repeated –ing acts like any other repetition: it becomes annoying.

Believe it or not, there’s one more sentence construction that gets accused of being passive, and it is innocent of the charge. These sentences are the ugly ducklings of writing. They have everything wrong with them — no action verb, the subject in the wrong place, and a bland, unspecific word up front. I’m talking about sentences that start with There is or Here are and the like.

  • There were three Facebook friend invitations in her email box.
  • Here is your coffee.
  • There aren’t any more books available.

These sentences are as legitimate as any other. They serve a necessary purpose, but like other sentences with verbs of being, they should not be overused.

So here’s what we covered:

  • Sentences with verbs in passive voice aren’t as strong as verbs in active voice. A writer would be wise to rewrite them.
  • Sentences with state of being verbs are perfectly fine but shouldn’t be overused.
  • Sentences with helping verbs and the present participle (-ing) form of a verb, while not passive, nevertheless should be used sparingly, largely because of repetition but also as a means to help readers visualize scenes.
  • Finally, sentences with construction similar to there is … may look passive, but they aren’t. The subject comes after the state of being verb, which adds to the impression that there’s a passive something going on. But remember, with no action verb in sight, there is no possibility of a passive subject. 😉


Filed under Sentence structure


Transitions are nearly invisible, or should be, whether in fiction or non-fiction. However, they serve a vital purpose. They usher the reader logically from point A to point B. They are the guideposts that make your writing clear because they establish the logical connections from one idea to another or from one event to the next.

Transitions include such words or phrases as therefore, next, then, however, first, in addition, on the other hand, for example, later, once, now, and so on.

Unfortunately, transitions can go awry in two different ways. First, a writer may fall in love with a particular transition and overuse it. Here’s an example from an excerpt of “The Other Open Door” with the transitions altered from the original:

If she didn’t love [her brother] so much, and owe him so much, she’d happily let him believe his gruff exterior had her fooled. Anyway, she knew how the conversation would end—the same way all their discussions about God ended. Anyway, after belittling her and dredging up the past, Darnel would yell and storm from the room. Anyway what made her think he’d listen today? What made her think anyone would ever listen to what she had to say about God?

Anyway, as her rangy brother shuffled toward the back of the house, that open door coaxed her, suggesting — promising? — this time would be different.

When a transition is repeated over and over, as the word anyway was above — even when that repetition isn’t in such a small section — it draws attention to itself. Rather than serving to seamlessly connect one part of the story with another, the transition becomes a distraction and disrupts the flow.

A second problem with transitions occurs when an author chooses an inappropriate word. In the following fable “The Cat And The Fox” I’ve altered transitions (words in red) to illustrate the point.

Surprisingly a cat and a fox were having a conversation. The fox, who was a conceited creature, boasted how clever she was. ‘Why, I know at least a hundred tricks to get away from our mutual enemies, the dogs,’ she said.

‘I know only one trick to get away from dogs,’ said the cat. ‘You should teach me some of yours!’

‘Well, maybe some day, when I have the time, I may teach you a few of the simpler ones,’ replied the fox airily.

Now they heard the barking of a pack of dogs in the distance. The barking grew louder and louder – the dogs were coming in their direction! Later the cat ran to the nearest tree and climbed into its branches, well out of reach of any dog. ‘This is the trick I told you about, the only one I know,’ she called down to the fox. ‘Which one of your hundred tricks are you going to use?’

The fox sat silently under the tree, wondering which trick she should use. Before she could make up her mind, the dogs arrived. They fell upon the fox and tore her to pieces.

A single plan that works is better than a hundred doubtful plans.

If you plug in the correct transitions — one day, just then, at once — you’ll see that the story reads more smoothly, with a logical flow.

In conclusion, transitions aren’t showy — they’re actually meant to be invisible. When a reader starts to see them, that’s when they aren’t doing their job.


Filed under Word Use

Tears And Smiles

When I was a sophomore in high school, I had a history teacher who had a verbal tick — that is, he repeated a pet phrase over and over and over. Honestly, I don’t remember what it was he said (something like “on a daily basis” or “so to speak”), but I do remember that on some days, a group of us would keep a running tally to see how many times he resorted to his standby. The very repetition of his words distracted us from his intent.

Novelists can distract readers in the same way by giving their characters stock or repeated responses to their circumstances. Two overused emotional reactions are crying and smiling.

Earlier this year, in a blog post about what fiction editors look for, agent Rachelle Gardner took a look at characters. Among the list of excellent points, she included this:

Avoid overstated emotion. For example, a single tear can be more effective than a dramatic breakdown. (Rachelle’s rule: a protagonist should never cry more than once in a book!) [font color change added for emphasis]

That resonated with me. I’d read a novel not so long ago that drove me nuts because every character, men as well as women, cried over everything. I mean, everything! They cried if they were worried, fearful, excited, grieving, in love, in hate, when they were tempted, when they were worshiping.

The fact is, people do cry in all those circumstances and more. But in the same way that characters have individual physical features and particular voices, they have unique mannerisms and expressions of emotion. Not everyone will “choke back a tear.” Not everyone will have “a tear squeeze from her eye” or “slide down her cheek.” Some people go stoic rather than cry in public. Some people use tricks to stop themselves from crying, like biting the inside of their cheek or taking a drink or making a joke. Some people try to hide the fact that they’re crying and others call attention to it: “Oh, look at me acting like such a big baby.”

The point is, expressions of emotion need to be as varied as the author’s cast of characters. No two people feel exactly the same about the unique circumstances they go through, and their unique personalities mean they will respond differently even if the circumstances are similar.

Smiling is the same as crying. Some characters smile when they meet someone new, when they get a raise, when their boyfriend brings them flowers, when dinner is ready, when they wake in the morning, when they turn down the bed at night, when the police arrest the villain, when the mom lets the son drive the car home, and on and on.

The sad thing about so much smiling is that it weakens the expression of emotion. Some things deserve a smile. Some things don’t.

Further, smile has a number of good synonyms, each with a nuance, that can add meaning to the emotional expression in the scene. Consider these alternatives, for example: beam, grin, dimple, twinkle; smirk, simper; leer.

The key when depicting a character expressing emotion is to know what that particular individual will do in that particular circumstance.

An outgoing, expressive character, for instance, may still behave in a reserved way at a funeral for someone he doesn’t know well. Or a shy person may act rather effusive if someone she knows and loves is getting married to the man of her dreams.

But if she is effusive at the bridal shower, at the rehearsal dinner, at the wedding, at the reception, when the couple returns from their honeymoon … quite frankly, most readers aren’t going to believe this character is shy. In addition, if her expression of joy is the same in each of those settings, readers may dread seeing her name in the opening sentence of a paragraph, because quite frankly, even effusive expression becomes boring when it is overused.

In summary, keep these in mind:

    * Emote with care. 😉
    * Avoid overusing emotional responses such as crying or smiling.
    * Particularize your character’s emotional response based on their personality and the circumstances into which you’ve put them.
    *Finally, stretch your vocabulary so that your prose has variety.


Filed under Action, Characters, Word Use