Tag Archives: Brandilyn Collins

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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The Ins And Outs Of Backstory, Part 2

As we established in part one of this short series, backstory should be used sparingly, sprinkled throughout the novel, but rarely included in the opening.

Super agent and writing instructor Donald Maass explains:

Backstory is the bane of virtually all manuscripts. Authors imagine that readers need, even want, a certain amount of filling in. I can see why they believe that. It starts with critique groups in which writers hear comments such as, “I love this character! You need to tell me more about her!” Yes, the author does. But not right away. As they say in the theater, make ’em wait. Later in the novel backstory can become a revelation; in the first chapter it always bogs things down. (The Fire in Fiction, p. 208 – emphasis added).

The rule of thumb is to give backstory only when the reader needs it.

But suspense author Brandilyn Collins adds an important element to the aspect of “need.” Not only do readers need answers, they need more questions:

We make the mistake of looking at backstory only as a way to answer reader questions. That’s part of its function. But we should also use backstory to raise reader questions. Often, a good sentence of backstory will raise more questions than it answers. (“A Bit on Backstory” by Brandilyn Collins, September 22, 2005)

Raising questions in the right way makes readers curious and keeps them turning pages to find out.

The next logical question follows: what exactly is the right way?

Collins again:

When backstory is necessary (and a certain amount of lines usually are), don’t stop the story to go into author narrative. Many times entire backstory paragraphs can be negated with one carefully written sentence, or even phrase. Find a way to weave the brief backstory into the current action, either through conversation or thought. (Ibid.)

Author and writing instructor Hallie Ephron elaborates on ways to incorporate backstory into fiction in a recent Writer’s Digest article “6 Ways To Layer In Backstory” (May/June 2011).

The first two approaches are unique to either a first person or an omniscient point of view. The last four are helpful regardless of the perspective.

Dialogue ranks high on the list, but Ephron gives this caution: “Never force words into characters’ mouths … Use dialogue to convey backstory only when it feels natural and works dramatically.”

Maass explains this idea of backstory “working dramatically.” In examining an example of backstory in a Robin Hobbs novel, he notes that the delivery of backstory does more than give facts about the past. Instead it reveals a conflicted character. He concludes by saying, “Hobbs uses the past to create present conflict. That is the secret of making backstory work” (The Fire in Fiction, p. 210 – emphasis added).

Another way of layering backstory into a novel is to introduce a document — a newspaper article, letter, will, journal, photograph, email, title to property, bill and so on. Such items can be handled in several ways. One possibility is to reproduce it verbatim. A second is to have a character summarize the contents.

In an earlier version of my first novel, I incorporated this document technique, though slightly altered. I’ve since taken the passage out because it came in the first chapter and clearly interrupted the story, but it will serve as an example, good and bad.

In the story, the main character was standing on a cliff overlooking the ocean, but the overhang under him breaks away and he tumbles toward the rocks. He’s able to stop himself and find a spot on a ledge, then this:

Easing his tense muscles, he settled against the cliff and glanced out toward the ocean where low, dense clouds bulldozed toward shore.

Ironic! If he died like this, people might suspect he had jumped. He shook his head. How would the headlines read? Something like, “Basketball star plunges to his death.” And the lead? “In a possible suicide, James David Thompson, former NBA star for the expansion Scorchers, fell to his death yesterday south of Crystal Cove State Park near Todd Point.”

Well, yes, the imagined document works to give readers information, but do they need to know this very minute what his full name is? Or even that he is a former NBA player or that he’s south of Crystal Cove? Not really.

In addition, because of the disruption and the distraction, readers may stop caring about the present action — the character perched on a cliff above rocks and an angry sea.

And where’s the tension in the backstory? Likely the article’s wrong implication would create tension for the character, but does that translate to tension for the reader? Not really, in part because the article may or may not be written, and because the reader doesn’t have a reason yet to care for this character’s reputation.

The example, then, works to show how a document, in this case, an imagined one, can be used to layer in backstory, but it also shows why backstory doesn’t belong in the beginning of the story.

There are a couple more techniques authors can use to add backstory appropriately, but we’ll save those for next time.

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The Ins And Outs Of Backstory, Part 1

A recent Writer’s Digest article, “Building Backstory” by Larry Brooks, stated that a novelist should show only ten percent of his character’s backstory — the “iceberg principle” he called it. Suspense author and writing instructor Brandilyn Collins holds herself to a firm rule about backstory — none in the opening chapters.

Why such categorical statements about backstory? But perhaps our first question should be, what is backstory?

Mr. Brooks succinctly identifies backstory as “what went before and behind the actual [storytime] event.” Brandilyn’s definition is a bit broader: “backstory is anything that isn’t current action,” possibly including description.

Quite frankly, all that before and behind and not action is boring. Until the reader has a reason to know the “what happened before” information, backstory comes across as superfluous. It isn’t moving the plot forward, but rather, holding it back. Some readers might even be tempted to skip backstory.

Old style fairy tales usually began with backstory, and novels of yesteryear often did as well. Today’s faster-paced fiction, however, requires a different approach.

Brandilyn gives a clear rule of thumb: use backstory “only when it is absolutely needed for the reader to understand the current action.”

Let me illustrate this with the opening of the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale “The Emperor’s New Clothes” retold by Rohini Chowdhury. As written, the story begins this way:

Once, long ago, there lived an Emperor who loved new clothes. He loved clothes so much that he thought of nothing else all day and spent all his time and money in acquiring more and more, ever more beautiful clothes.

The emperor’s love for clothes was well known. Traders, merchants and weavers from far and wide would bring fine silks, flowered brocades and softest satins to sell to the Emperor, knowing he would buy even the most expensive cloth if it caught his fancy. One day two men, claiming to be skilled weavers, arrived in the Emperor’s city and asked to meet him. The men were not real weavers at all, but crooks.

‘Sire,’ they cried, bowing low before the Emperor, ‘the cloths we weave are special – not only do they have the most beautiful colours and elaborate patterns, but the clothes made from them have the wonderful property of remaining invisible to everyone who is unfit for his office or unforgivably stupid.’

‘These are clothes worth having,’ thought the Emperor to himself. ‘If I had such a suit of clothes, I’d know at once the men unfit for their office, and be able to tell the wise from the foolish! This cloth must be woven for me immediately!’ The Emperor gave orders for the men to be provided with every facility, and commanded them to start their work at once.

The Emperor in his imaginary new clothes.

I marked the backstory in reddish brown. The actual inciting incident was the arrival of the two con men.

But, you may be thinking, the reader needs to know the facts in those opening paragraphs. Yes, and no. The reader doesn’t need to know all of it right away.

Nor does the backstory need to appear together in one lump sum. Instead, the facts detailing what came before (the emperor spending his days thinking about and buying new clothes) or what is behind the story (the two men are crooks) can be sprinkled throughout as they are needed. Hence, the opening of this fairy tale could go something like this:

One day two men, claiming to be skilled weavers, came to a city ruled by an Emperor famous for his love of beautiful clothes. At once they asked to meet him.

‘Sire,’ they cried, bowing low before the Emperor, ‘the cloths we weave are special – not only do they have the most beautiful colours and elaborate patterns, but the clothes made from them have the wonderful property of remaining invisible to everyone who is unfit for his office or unforgivably stupid.’

‘These are clothes worth having,’ thought the Emperor who spent all his time and money in acquiring more and more, ever more beautiful clothes. ‘If I had such a suit of clothes, I’d know at once the men unfit for their office, and be able to tell the wise from the foolish! This cloth must be woven for me immediately!’ The Emperor gave orders for the men to be provided with every facility, and commanded them to start their work at once.

Clearly there is more backstory that needs to be included. Based on this opening, the reader would not yet know that the two men are crooks, but that’s one of the advantages of weaving backstory in rather than delivering the goods ahead of time.

The reader is left to wonder if the two men claiming to be weavers have some magic ability or if they are duping the unsuspecting emperor.

The question makes the story more interesting and creates curiosity. The reader will want to continue reading if for no other reason than to find out the answer to the questions the missing backstory creates.

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Vocabulary And Word Choice

An author’s vocabulary and word choice are closely associated, as I recently realized when reading Stephen R. Lawhead‘s newest release, 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, weekly sharing a new set of words on her blog, Forensics and Faith (see for example her most recent vocabulary post) and daily tweeting Today’s 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. He could choose words that fit with the narrator persona or with the main character of each particular scene.

In summary, an author when making word choices from the wealth of his vocabulary must consider how clearly his words communicate as well as how consistently they represent his characters.

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Who Are These People? – Making Characters Come Alive, Part 3

The site for the Clive Staples Award for Christian Speculative Fiction includes novel evaluation standards, one section dealing specifically with characters. The first one is this:

    Does the main character have clear internal and external goals?

Any number of writing instructors emphasize the need for characters to have objectives. I tend to think the presence or absence of goals is a key factor in whether or not a reader identifies with the protagonist. Identifies in the sense that he cheers for the character or pulls for him emotionally.

It’s hard to hope for a character’s success if the character is aimless. Even when crisis comes and the character reacts, a reader might hope the efforts are successful, but in the back of her mind, she knows they will be, at least early in a book, or there would be no story. So tension is low. Unless the character is taking the lead and initiating a plan. Then the reader wants to see if it will work, and invests emotionally in the process.

Goals won’t necessarily be static. A character might have one goal early, only to learn and therefore adjust the goal or even take off in the opposite direction.

If a book is to have a lasting impact, the objectives need to be multi-pronged, with an internal as well as external dimension.

Brandilyn Collins did an excellent series on character objectives, or desires, as she names it, on her blog Forensics and Faith. (The link takes you to one excellent article, but if you’d like to read the whole series, go to her archives and start with July 25, 2005.)

The point is, during the revision process, if not during the planning stage, be sure your character has a goal, objective, desire, and not just a reaction to crisis.

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