Moving From Prosaic to Spectacular

woman-writing-a-bookWhat makes some writing stunning and other writing lackluster? Mostly, it’s the language—the words—you use. And, it isn’t just what words you use; it’s how you use them. Here are a few things you need to consider when translating your work into something that “sings”.

Use Active Verbs and Reduce Modifiers

Many writers, not just beginners, slide into the pattern of using passive and weak verbs (e.g., were, was, being, etc.). Then they add a modifier to strengthen it. It doesn’t. Actively look for strong, vivid verbs. This is the key to good writing. Active and powerful verbs move a story forward. For instance, which version is more compelling?

Jill was walking quickly into the room.

or…

Jill stomped into the room.

The second example not only more quickly and efficiently demonstrates how Jill entered the room, but demonstrates with what attitude. There is no substitute for the use of powerful, appropriate verbs in sentences.   

Avoid Excessive & Meaningless Prose

Novice writers often use too many words to describe an event, action or scene. An overabundance of words slows down the story and obscures plot and action. Excessive prose includes:

Repetition: many beginning writers will often first tell then show in a scene. You don’t need to do both; trust the reader to get the “show”.

Extraneous words: e.g. “he started to think” instead of “he thought”; use of the obvious such as “she saw the big man lying on the bed” instead of “a big man lay on the bed” (“she saw” is implied through her POV). This second example also demonstrates how you can shift the readers’ attention from “her seeing” (in the first phrase) to “the man lying” on the bed (in the revised phrase). This simple change can create a much more powerful sentence through the seamless shift in reader attention.

Dull description not related to plot: I recently edited a writer’s over 400-page urban fantasy that contained far too much ordinary detail. Detail that, in small doses, may have enlightened the reader on the qualities of the protagonist; but in larger doses ground the narrative to a boring halt.

When you look for a more efficient and purposeful way to say something, you cut out unnecessary detail. Remember that virtually all description should be related to the plot and theme of the story.

Alliteration, Metaphor, Simile, Personification

These devices bring lyricism and cadence and powerful imagery to your prose. However, as with anything powerful, you need to use these judiciously. Use them where you wish to convey a strong image and to punctuate your prose.

Be Mindful of Word Accuracy

More often than you might think, a writer inadvertently misuses a word to convey an idea or emotion. For instance, let’s consider the following sentence, which describes a character’s reaction to a dog being cruelly mishandled:

“What are they doing?” Jack said crossly.

The modifier crossly suggests that Jack lacks compassion; it infers petulant annoyance.

“What are they doing?” Jack scowled.

Scowled still suggests the same icy disdain, though it may have been delivered with false bravado or through genuine discomfort from a hidden compassion. If the writer wished to convey shock, disgust or compassion, the following would better represent that sentiment:

“What are they doing?” Jack said, eyes wide.

Or:

“What are they doing?” Jack stammered.

Avoid Using Words like “Felt” or “Seem”

These “telly” words prevent the reader from directly experiencing the story by imposing a level of interpretation. For example, “he felt himself falling” can be improved to “he fell”. If you want to spice up the phrase, use another verb: “he toppled” “he stumbled” or “he crashed”.

Read your Writing Aloud & Punctuate Your Pauses

It isn’t just a clever metaphor when they say your writing style is called your “voice”; because your readers “listen” to what you write. Reading out loud helps define cadence, tone and pace of your prose and streamlines your writing. When you read aloud, pay attention to where you naturally pause. You may wish to put in a comma, semi-colon or period there.

Size and Vary Your Paragraphs  

Paragraphs are visual elements that help people read; they break up text on a page in logical places to provide white space for reader ease. I’ve heard people quote the “two-inch” rule for maximum paragraph length and I concur. This is one of the reasons some passages are harder to read than others; long paragraphs are more tiring to the eye. Find those logical breaks and put them in. Varying paragraph length creates a more interesting story “landscape” for the reader. Don’t be afraid to go to some extremes like using the one sentence – or even one word – paragraph.

Size and Vary Your Sentences  cool texture

As with paragraphs, overly long sentences can try a reader’s patience and you may lose them entirely. Too many short choppy sentences can also reduce your prose to a mundane level. Varying your sentence length in a paragraph creates the lyricism and cadence that makes prose enjoyable to read.

 

 

nina-2014aaNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Read Nina’s climate/eco-fiction Darwin’s ParadoxAngel of Chaos and Natural Selection.

 

 

Revising: Improve Your Story Using Paragraphs

old beech in forest-enrico fossatiEnhance Reader Ease by Addressing Paragraphs in Your Revision.

Ever so often I get a story from a student that reads like one long run-on sentence… A James Joyce special of stream-of-conscious… In fact, what the writer had done is write many sentences without breaking up the narrative into paragraphs. You might be laughing at this point. “I don’t do that,” you might be saying to yourself. “I haven’t done that since high school!” But go take a look at that first draft you’re working on; there it will be: a page-long paragraph. Oops.

We can’t help ourselves. When immersed in the creative process, we often don’t think about structure. That’s OK; that kind of thinking is more appropriate during the second draft revision process, when you are more objectively assessing the “storytelling”. That’s when you want to pay attention to storytelling devices like paragraph breaks.

Paragraphs are defined by a main point or expression or an idea, not by any specific length. Strong paragraphs contain a sentence or several sentences that are unified around one central, controlling idea. A paragraph may be a single sentence or occupy half a page of sentences.

What a Paragraph Does

Paragraphs do several jobs in stories. They: 1) provide a break from long stretches of text both in content and in space on the page, and 2) they help clue the reader in to key changes in your story. The second point is often subtle and can be assigned almost arbitrarily if the need of the first point must be met. This is because the rules are not hard and fast and, ultimately in fiction, an author can “break” them according to their judgment of style and flavor.

Before you start “breaking” rules, you need to understand what paragraphs are meant to do. They:

  • Introduce something new
  • Define a shift in something already there
  • Mark a movement in a sequence

Each of the above is definable and interpretable in many ways from very subtle alterations to very obvious changes. Because of this, it is important to pay attention to the visual role of paragraphs; that is, how they create a more attractive and easeful text for readers. There’s nothing more “slowing” than seeing a page of narrative without any breaks.

Fiction writers use paragraphs much like punctuation to create a visual flow of narrative that varies in cadence, tone and flavor for readers. This is accomplished in several ways.

Vary Paragraph Lengths

Varying paragraph lengths in text provides diversity in the narrative that adds interest for the reader. Long paragraphs unify a more ponderous and serious mood in a reader. Interspersing these with short paragraphs will break up the reader’s tendency for complacent reading and livens the narrative. The short paragraphs, by default, provide areas of emphasis within a sea of longer text. The fiction writer may use these to make a subtle point.

Using Dialogue

Dialogue effectively breaks up paragraphs and provides a lot of open white space that is attractive to readers and increases pace of narrative. However, even dialogue requires variation. Variation can take on the form of 1) dialogue interspersed with descriptive narrative vs. the use of straight back and forth dialogue, and 2) one-line dialogue vs. dialogue containing several sentences (the one line dialogue serves to punctuate).

Paragraph Checklist

In their 2008 book, The Little Brown Handbook by Pearson Longman (Toronto), H. Ramsey Fowler, Jane E. Aaron, Murray McArthur, Deane E.D. Downey, and Barbara H. Pell provide a general checklist for revising paragraphs that is adapted here for fiction writing. This consists of asking the following questions:

  • Is the paragraph unified? Is it tied to one general idea or narrative direction?
  • Is the paragraph coherent? Are the sentences linked and do they follow a clear and consistent sequence?
  • Is the paragraph developed? Is there a logical beginning and end that “frames” a whole idea or thought?old beech in forest-enrico fossati

Hope this helps. Don’t forget the one line paragraph.

Very effective.

 

nina-2014aaNina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.