Eco-Fiction: What Readers Get From It and How to Prevent Polemic

Mary Woodbury on Dragonfly.eco recently shared a survey of over a hundred readers to determine the impact that eco-fiction had on them. What did environmental fiction mean to readers? What about it appealed to them? What were their favourite works? And did it incite them to action? The answers were both expected and surprising. Given the sample size and some study limitations on audience and diversity, the results are preliminary still. However, they remain interesting and enlightening.

theoverstorySome of the most impactful novels according to the readers surveyed include Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior, Richard Power’s The Overstory, Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Edward Abbey’s Monkey Wrench Gang, and Ursula K. Le Guin’s Hainish Cycle series.

Readers gave Woodbury several reasons why they enjoyed and found eco-novels impactful:

  • Realism or compelling account of or reflection of society, scary or not
  • Goes beyond readers’ culture–expands minds
  • Humorous
  • Story focused on characters versus an issue
  • Learned something new
  • Opened readers’ minds
  • Captured imagination
  • Positive endings
  • Good storytelling
  • Interesting characters
  • Suspense and/or psychological burn

One reader mentioned that what appealed to them about Emmi Itäranta’s Memory of Water was the style of writing. It provoked “feelings of utter beauty but also unease.”

One reader enjoyed Cormac Mccarthy’s The Road “for its spare post-apocalyptic world where even language seems to run out.”

Of Cherie Dimaline’s The Marrow Thieves a reader wrote that “The dystopic beginning felt so real, and then the positive ending was so good. I loved it and it made me think about how climate change can possibly have impacts beyond just our physical and mental health, but also our dreams!”

A reader of Frank Herbert’s Dune wrote that “it was the first time I’d seen a literary rendering of an ecosystem that felt real. The ideas of ecology are woven into this story in a way I didn’t think was possible for fiction. Interconnection is hard to think about, hard to grasp, and Dune showed me that fiction, done well, can really help with this.” The same reader acknowledged that in Annihilation Jeff VenderMeer “mastered the technique.”

FavTopics Eco-Fiction

Graph from Environmental Fiction Impact Survey by Mary Woodbury

When asked the question “Do you think that environmental themes in fiction can impact society, and if so, how?” 81% agreed and qualified their answers:

  • Fiction can encourage empathy and imagination. Stories can affect us more than dry facts. Fiction reaches us more deeply than academic understanding, moving us to action.
  • Fiction can trigger a sense of wonder about the natural world, and even a sense of loss and mourning. Stories can immerse readers into imagined worlds with environmental issues similar to ours.
  • Fiction raises awareness, encourages conversations and idea-sharing. Fiction is one way that helps to create a vision of our future. Cautionary tales can nudge people to action and encourage alternative futures. Novels can shift viewpoints without direct confrontation, avoid cognitive dissonance, and invite reframed human-nature relationships through enjoyment and voluntary participation.
  • Environmental themes can reorient our perspective from egocentrism to the greater-than-human world.
Awareness in Fields

Graph from Environmental Fiction Impact Survey by Mary Woodbury

In summary, Woodbury writes:

“The sample size (103) seems to be a good one for people who are mostly familiar with the idea of eco-fiction (and similar environmental/nature fiction genres and subgenres), though I was still hoping to get a larger, more diverse group of participants. The majority of respondents were highly educated middle-aged women. The majority of the group read from 1-29 novels a year. Favorite novels represented mostly North American or European authors (male and female about equally, with J.R.R. Tolkien, Barbara Kingsolver and Margaret Atwood consistently a favorite), with the majority of readers enjoying literary fiction the most, followed by dystopia/utopia and then science fiction.”

Woodbury notes that the genres of science fiction and fantasy were well represented in the survey, “both as favorite and most impactful novels, despite literary fiction being the favorite genre among the participants.” Of novels that respondents enjoyed, “readers were most impacted by good storytelling.” Polemic was not well regarded.

 

Achieving Impactful Eco-Fiction & Avoiding Polemic Through Use of Metaphor

The key to impact and enjoyment for a reader lies in good storytelling. The very best storytelling uses metaphor and oblique description to achieve a deeper meaning. The greatest art must be left to interpretation; not directly dispensed. Great art is felt and experienced viscerally; not just taken in intellectually. Great art shows; not tells.

EcologyOfStoryIn my writing guidebook The Ecology of Story: World as Character, I discuss the various ways that the use of metaphor achieves depth and meaning in story, particularly in eco-fiction. One impactful way is in the choice of setting. In the chapter on Place as Metaphor, I write:

Everything in story is metaphor, Ray Bradbury once told me. That is no more apparent than in setting and place, in which a story is embedded and through which characters move and interact.

Metaphor is the subtext that provides the subtleties in story, subtleties that evoke mood, anticipation, and memorable scenes. Richard Russo says, “to know the rhythms, the textures, the feel of a place is to know more deeply and truly its people.” When you choose your setting, remember that its primary role is to help depict theme. This is because place is destiny.

What would the book Dune be without Arrakis, the planet Dune? What would the Harry Potter books be without Hogwarts?

Metaphor provides similarity to two dissimilar things through meaning. In the metaphor “Love danced in her heart” or the simile “his love was like a slow dance”, love is equated with the joy of dance. By providing figurative rather than literal description to something, metaphor invites participation through interpretation.

When I write “John’s office was a prison,” I am efficiently and sparingly suggesting in five words—in what would normally take a paragraph—how John felt about his workplace. The reader would conjure imagery suggested by their knowledge of a prison cell: that John felt trapped, cramped, solitary, stifled, oppressed—even frightened and threatened. Metaphor relies on sub-text knowledge. This is why metaphor is so powerful and universally relevant: the reader fully participates—the reader brings in relevance through their personal knowledge and experience and this creates the memorable aspect to the scene.

Metaphor is woven into story through the use of devices and constructs such as depiction of the senses, personification, emotional connections, memories, symbols, archetypes, analogies and comparisons. Sense, and theme interweave in story to achieve layers of movement with characters on a journey. All through metaphor.

Symbols and Archetypes

In Emmi Itäranta’s Memory of Water—about a post-climate change world of sea level rise—water is a powerful archetype, whose secret tea masters guard with their lives. Water, with its life-giving properties and other strange qualities, has been used as a powerful metaphor and archetype in many stories: from vast oceans used as a powerful metaphor and archetype in many stories: from vast oceans of mystery, beauty and danger—to the relentless flow of an inland stream. Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad is one example:

Water does not resist. Water flows. When you plunge your hand into it, all you feel is a caress. Water is not a solid wall, it will not stop you. But water always goes where it wants to go, and nothing in the end can stand against it. Water is patient. Dripping water wears away a stone. Remember that, my child. Remember you are half water. If you can’t go through an obstacle, go around it. Water does.

In my short story The Way of Water (La natura dell’acqua), water’s connection with love flows throughout the story:

The Way of Water-COVERThey met in the lobby of a shabby downtown Toronto hotel. Hilda barely knew what she looked like but when Hanna entered the lobby through the front doors, Hilda knew every bit of her. Hanna swept in like a stray summer rainstorm, beaming with the self-conscious optimism of someone who recognized a twin sister. She reminded Hilda of her first boyfriend, clutching flowers in one hand and chocolate in the other. When their eyes met, Hilda knew. For an instant, she knew all of Hanna. For an instant, she’d glimpsed eternity. What she didn’t know then was that it was love. 

Love flowed like water, gliding into backwaters and lagoons with ease, filling every swale and mire. Connecting, looking for home. Easing from crystal to liquid to vapour then back, water recognized its hydrophilic likeness, and its complement. Before the inevitable decoherence, remnants of the entanglement lingered like a quantum vapour, infusing everything. Hilda always knew where and when to find Hanna on Oracle, as though water inhabited the machine and told her. Water even whispered to her when her wandering friend was about to return from the dark abyss and land unannounced on her doorstep. 

In a world of severe water scarcity through climate catastrophe and geopolitical oppression, the bond of these two girls—to each other through water and with water—is like the shifting covalent bond of a complex molecule, a bond that fuses a relationship of paradox linked to the paradoxical properties of water. Just as two water drops join, the two women find each other in the wasteland of intrigue. Hilda’s relationship with Hanna—as with water—is both complex and shifting according to the bonds they make and break.

Using the Senses 

Readers don’t just “watch” a character in a book; they enter the character’s body and “feel”.

How do writers satisfy the readers’ need to experience the senses fully? Description, yes. But how cold is cold? What does snow really smell like? What color is that sunset? How do you describe the taste of wine to a teetotaler?

Literal description is insufficient. To have the sense sink in and linger with the reader, it should be linked to the emotions and memories of the character experiencing it. By doing this, you are achieving several things at the same time: describing the sense as the character is experiencing it—emotionally; revealing additional information on the character through his/her reaction; and creating a more compelling link for the reader’s own experience of the sense.

Senses can be explored by writers through metaphor, linking the sense to memories, using synesthesia (cross-sensory metaphor), linking the sense psychologically to an emotion or attitude, and relating that sense in a different way (e.g., describing a visual scene from the point of view of a painter or photographer—painting with light). How a sense is interpreted by your protagonist relies on her emotional state, memories associated with that sense and her attitude.

Using Personification

TheWindupGirl Paolo BacigalupiEnvironmental forces—such as weather, climate, forests, mountains, water systems—convey the mood and tone of both story and character. These environmental forces are not just part of the scenery. To a writer, they are devices used in plot, theme and premise. They may also be a compelling character, particularly in eco-fiction, climate-fiction, and speculative fiction. Dystopian fiction often explores a violent world of contrast between the affluent and vulnerable poor that often portrays the aftermath of economic and environmental collapse (e.g., Maddaddam Trilogy, The Windup Girl, Snowpiercer, Interstellar, Mad Max). In any fiction genre it is important to get the science right. Readers of fiction with strong environmental components, however, expect to learn as much from the potential reality as from the real science upon which the premise depends.

In Memory of Water, Emmi Itäranta personifies this life-giving substance whose very nature is tightly interwoven with her main character. As companion and harbinger, water is portrayed simultaneously as friend and enemy. As giver and taker of life.

Memory of Water Emmi ItarantaWater is the most versatile of all elements … Water walks with the moon and embraces the earth, and it isn’t afraid to die in fire or live in air. When you step into it, it will be as close as your own skin, but if you hit it too hard, it will shatter you … Death is water’s close companion. The two cannot be separated, and neither can be separated from us, for they are what we are ultimately made of: the versatility of water, and the closeness of death. Water has no beginning and no end, but death has both. Death is both. Sometimes death travels hidden in water, and sometimes water will chase death away, but they go together always, in the world and in us. 

Personification of natural things provides the reader with an image they can clearly and emotionally relate to and care about. When a point-of-view character does the describing, we get a powerful and intimate indication of their thoughts and feelings—mainly in how they connect to place (often as symbol). When this happens, place and perception entwine in powerful force.

Donald Maass writes in Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook: “The beauty of seeing a locale through a particular perspective is that the point-of-view character cannot be separated from the place. The place comes alive, as does the observer of that place, in ways that would not be possible if described using objective point of view.” The POV character’s relationship to place helps identify the transformative elements of their journey. Such transformation is the theme of the story and ultimately portrays the story’s heart and soul.

Connecting Character with Environment

Strong relationships and linkages can be forged in story between a major character and an aspect of their environment (e.g., home/place, animal/pet, minor character as avatar/spokesperson for environment [e.g. often indigenous people]). In these examples the environmental aspect serves as symbol and metaphoric connection to theme. They can illuminate through the sub-text of metaphor a core aspect of the main character and their journey: the grounding nature of the land of Tara for Scarlet O’Hara in Gone With the Wind; the sacred white pine forests for the Mi’kmaq in Barkskins; The dear animals for Beatrix Potter of the Susan Wittig Albert series.

The immense sandworms of Frank Herbert’s Dune are strong archetypes of Nature—large and graceful creatures whose movements in the vast desert sands resemble the elegant whales of our oceans:

It came from their right with an uncaring majesty that could not be ignored. A twisting burrow-mound of sand cut through the dunes within their field of vision. The mound lifted in front, dusting away like a bow wave in water. 

Misunderstood, except by the indigenous Fremen, the giant sandworms are targeted as a dangerous nuisance by the colonists—when, in fact, they are closely tied to the ecological cycles of the desert planet through water and spice.

Barkskins Annie ProulxAnnie Proulx opens her novel Barkskins with a scene in which René Sel and fellow barkskins (woodcutters) arrive from France in the late seventeenth century to the still pristine wilderness of Canada to settle, trade and accumulate wealth:

In twilight they passed bloody Tadoossac, Kébec and Trois-Rivières and near dawn moored at a remote riverbank settlement … Mosquitoes covered their hands and necks like fur. A man with yellow eyebrows pointed them at a rain-dark house. Mud, rain, biting insects and the odor of willows made the first impression of New France. The second impression was of dark vast forest, inimical wilderness.

These bleak impressions of a harsh environment crawling with pests such as bébites and moustiques underlie the combative mindset of the settlers to conquer and seize what they can of a presumed infinite resource. By page seventeen, we know that mindset well. René asks why they must cut so much forest when it would be easier to use the many adequate clearings to build their houses and settlements. Trépagny fulminates: “Easier? Yes, easier, but we are here to clear the forest, to subdue this evil wilderness.” He further explains the concept of property ownership that is based on strips of surveyable land parcels—an application of the enclosure system. For them, the vast Canadian boreal forest was never-ending and for the taking: “It is the forest of the world. It is infinite. It twists around as a snake. swallows its own tail and has no end and no beginning,” Trépagny claims.

Leaves dead litter-long sh TNS

Leaf litter in Ontario forest (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Annie Proulx’s Barkskins chronicles two immigrants who arrive in Canada in 1693 (René Sel and Charles Duquet) and their descendants over 300 years of deforestation of North America; a saga that starts with the arrival of the Europeans in pristine forest and ends with a largely decimated forest under the veil of global warming. “Barkskins” (woodcutters) are, in fact indentured servants who were brought from the Paris slums to the wilds of New France to clear the land, build and settle. Sel is forced to marry a native woman and their descendants live trapped between two cultures; Duquet runs away to become a fur trader and builds a timber empire.

The Mi’kmaq are interwoven with the land and the forest. Missionary Pere Crème, who studies language makes this observation of the natives and the forest:

He saw they were so tightly knitted into the natural world that their language could only reflect the union and that neither could be separated from the other. They seemed to believe they had grown from this place as trees grow from the soil, as new stones emerge aboveground in spring. He thought the central word for this tenet, weji-sqalia’timk, deserved an entire dictionary to itself. 

The foreshadowing of doom for the magnificent forests is cast by the shadow of how settlers treat the Mi’kmaq people. The fate of the forests and the Mi’kmaq are inextricably linked through settler disrespect for anything indigenous and a fierce hunger for “more” of the forests and lands. Ensnared by settler greed, the Mi’kmaq lose their own culture and their links to the natural world erode with grave consequence. In a pivotal scene, Noë, a Mi’kmaw descendent of René Sel, grows enraged when she sees a telltale change in her brothers:

The offshore wind had shifted slightly but carried the fading clatter of boots on rock. They were wearing boots instead of moccasins. Noë knew what that meant but denied it … The men should be setting out to hunt moose, but because of the boots she knew they were going to work for the French logger.

 

Other Articles on Environmental Fiction, Eco-Fiction and Climate Fiction 

Can Dystopian Eco-Fiction Save the Planet?

Science Fiction on Water Justice & Climate Change

Windup Girl: When Monsanto Gets Its Way

Eco-Artist Roundtable with Frank Horvat on Green Majority Radio

 

Thanks to Mary Woodbury for the permission to share her survey results here. Much of the second part of this article is excerpted from the “Story” section of  The Ecology of Story: World as Character.

grape leaves in fall-halifax copy

Grape leaves on fence in Toronto, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

nina-2014aaa

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. 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. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Waterwas released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

To Expose or Not to Expose…That is the Question

CreditRiverWalk-oct2018

Walking the path along the Credit River, Ontario (photo by Nina Munteanu)

In fiction, exposition breaks away from the ongoing action of a scene to give information. It can be a paragraph or go on for several pages. Exposition often provides contextual information critical for the reader to buy-in to character-motivation or the ideas promoted in the story. It gives a story its perspective and larger meaning by linking the reader with the thematic elements. If scene is action and plot, exposition feeds reflection and theme. Exposition can appear in the form of background, setting, back story, or overview. It is most often expressed through a POV character’s reflection and observation.

There are points in almost every story where exposition is necessary. Most stories would suffer without information that adds past, context and overview.

WardIsland wall in forest

Ward Island, Ontario (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Exposition in writing lets you:

  • Describe a person in detail
  • Describe a place for more than a phrase or two (important especially if a place serves as a “character”)
  • Skip over periods of time when nothing important or compelling is happening, without a jarring break in the narrative
  • Draw back from a close-focus action scene to give the reader a meaningful overview (and to say how things got that way)
  • Give some background and history of characters, location, event, etc.

You need to balance the show and tell part of your narrative and to maintain a rhythm in your pace and tone. This means doing several things, including:

  • Restrain yourself and keep your notes to yourself: I’ve seen excellent writers add too much exposition on a subject that obviously excited them but didn’t necessarily excite me. This often occurs when a writer feels impelled to share their invention or discovery at the expense of story-telling. Doing your “homework” in writing (e.g., research) also includes keeping it to yourself, no matter how much you want to share it. Doing your homework is the “iceberg” and the story is the “tip”. Many genre books (e.g., science fiction, thrillers, mysteries, etc.) must be supported by solid research. The writer takes what she needs for the story and keeps the rest.
  • Arouse then explain: introduce your character by letting her act and show herself and engage the reader’s curiosity and sympathy, then explain how and why she got there.
  • Build exposition into the scene: get creative and include expository information as props in a scene. This is a great way to add information seamlessly.
  • Put exposition in between scenes: instead of interrupting a scene in action, exposition can be used to give the reader a breather from a high paced scene to reflect along with the protagonist on what just happened. This is a more appropriate place to read exposition, when the reader has calmed down.
  • Let a character explain: have your characters provide the information by one questioning and the other replying. There is a danger in this kind of exposition, in that the dialogue can become encumbered by long stretches of explanation. Take care to make this realistic and enjoyable to the reader. If done well, this type of exposition can also reveal things about the characters.
  • Use interior monologue: use a character’s inner reflections to reveal information, which also reveals something of the character herself. Be careful not to turn this into polemic, however.

Now, go and have fun exposing!

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.

Ten Things to Consider When Revising Your Novel

Log patterns 6

Spalted log (photo by Nina Munteanu)

No piece of writing is complete without submitting it to the scrutiny of revision. A colleague of mine once shared the story of what a student of hers had said about revision: it’s “like beating up a nice friend. Why would I want to do that?” Because, my colleague replied, without a little pummelling all you have is a “nice draft”.

Here are ten things you can do to revise your first and subsequent drafts into something stellar.

  1. Let Your Work Breathe

Once you’ve completed your draft, set it aside for a while. This is key to helping you make objective observations about your writing when you return. The longer you leave it, the more objective you will be. Don’t worry about losing momentum or interest; they most certainly will return. But if hey don’t, then you didn’t have a story in the first place—and that, too, is a good thing to discover.

  1. Dig Deep

Now that you have the whole story in front of you, you’re in the position to restructure plotlines, subplots, events and characters to best reflect your overall story and its main theme. Don’t be afraid to remove large sections or even whole characters; you will likely add others.

  1. Take Inventory

Take stock of how each chapter and scene/sequel contributes to plotline and theme; root out the inconsistencies as you relate the minutia to the whole. You may decide to merge two characters into one or add a character or change a character’s gender or age to better serve your plotline and theme.

  1. Highlight the Surges

Some passages will stand out as being particularly stunning; pay attention to them in each chapter and apply their energy to the rest of your writing.

  1. Purge & Un-clutter

Make a point of shortening everything; this forces you to use more succinct language and replace adjectives and adverbs with power-verbs. Doing this will tighten prose and make it more clear. Reading aloud, particularly dialogue, can help streamline your prose.

  1. Check Point of View

This is the time to take stock of whether you’ve chosen the best point of view style for your story (e.g., first person, third person limited, omniscient). Many first manuscripts by my students have suffered from shifting or inconsistent point of view. Ensure that yours is consistent. You may wish to experiment with different points of view at this stage (e.g., changing your narrative from the third person to the first person, for instance); the results may surprise you.

  1. Make a Plot (Story) Promise

Given that you are essentially making a promise to your readers, it is advisable that you revisit that promise. Tie up your plot points; don’t leave any hanging unless you’re intentionally doing this. But, be aware that readers don’t generally like it. Similarly, if you’ve written a scene that is lyrical, beautiful and compelling but doesn’t contribute to your plotline, nix it. You can file it away for another story where it may be more applicable.

  1. Deepen Your Characters

The revision process is an ideal time to add subtle detail to your main characters: a nervous scratch of his beard, an absent twisting of the ring on her finger, the frequent use of a particular expression. Purposefully adding unique qualities to your characters, like vernacular, body language, and inflections grounds them in reality and makes them more personable and memorable. However, if you want a particular character trait to stick with the reader, you should repeat it a few times throughout the story. This applies to minor characters as well. When you paint your minor characters with more detail, you create a more three-dimensional tapestry for your main characters to walk through.

  1. Write Scenes (show, don’t tell)

Use the revision process to convert flat narrative into “scene” through dramatization. Narrative summaries often read like lecture or polemic. They tend to be passive, slow, and less engaging. Scenes are animated by action, tension and conflict, dialogue and physical movement.

  1. Be Concrete

Ground your characters in vivid setting and rich but unobtrusive detail. Don’t abandon them to a generic and prosaic setting, drinking “beverages” and driving “vehicles” on “roads”; instead brighten up their lives by having them speeding along Highway 66 in a red Carmen Ghia while sipping a Pinot Noir.

Remember to pace yourself when revising; otherwise you may become overwhelmed and discouraged, even confused into incessant rewrites. Your story needs to settle between revision stages. As my colleague said, “you don’t need to beat up your nice friend all at once.”

 

 

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.

 

 

Simplify Your Writing

Log patterns 6

Spalted log (photo by Nina Munteanu)

One of the best ways to have less clutter in your writing is to simplify it. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to be a Spartan and write sparingly like Hemingway. You can use rich language like Jacqueline Carey but apply that language with purpose. While Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Dart contains rich narrative description, the language is appropriate for the time period and always portrays motion. But you wouldn’t use that “voice” and narrative style in a contemporary thriller, say.

Fluid writing lies at the basis of uncluttered prose. The seven suggestions below will help.

Reduce Extraneous Words 

When constructing a scene, it is wise to pay attention to cadence, rhythm, number of phrases or clauses and general length of sentences. Sentences in early works tend to be full of extra words (e.g., using “ing” verbs, add-ons like “he started to think” instead of simply “he thought”) that slow down narrative. Try reading your sentences out loud; this practice often helps you to find the “clutter”.

Use Active & Powerful Verbs

Active verbs are the key to vivid writing; and, ironically, to uncluttered prose. The very choice of active verbs helps you minimize the use of clutter-words. Consider, these two example paragraphs, which describe the same scene.

Example A: Joe walked slowly into the room. His lip curled in disgust as he looked around the room. There were empty beer bottles all over the filthy floor that was covered with stains and garbage and there was a naked couple in the bed. They were almost buried under the rumpled covers. They now struggled to get up and Joe saw the big man staring up at him angrily.

Example B: Joe sidled into the room, lip curling at the stench of empty beer bottles and garbage strewn on the stained floor. A naked couple struggled out from the rumple of clothes and blankets. The man reared up and glared at Joe.

Example A contained 68 words while Example B contained only 41 words. It is obvious which paragraph is more vivid.

Cut Down the Words in Your Paragraphs

Cut down your words by at least 20%. Be merciless; you won’t miss them, and you will add others later in your second round of edits. Find the most efficient way to say what you mean.

Reduce Redundancy

The introductory sentence of a narrative paragraph is often paraphrased unnecessarily in the very next sentence, as though the writer didn’t trust the reader to get it the first time. Say it once and say it right the first time.

Embrace Anglo Saxon over Latin Words

For every three syllable word of Latin origin there is a simple Anglo Saxon word. Consider these examples:

 

Latinate                                   Anglo Saxon

 

assassinate                            kill

emotion                                  feeling

diminutive                              small

consternation                        fear

juvenile                                   young

originate                                 begin

masticate                                chew

prevaricate                             lie

abbreviate                              shorten

perspire                                  sweat

assuage                                  soothe

emancipate                           free

diffident                                 shy

Latinate words slow down narrative and often arise from supercilious luciferous logolepsy; if overused, such effulgent emanations may render your promulgations cumbersome and will likely exacerbate acataleptic obfuscation and promote embulalia.

The simpler Anglo Saxon term is often more visceral in both meaning and sound. Consider the first example: “kill” evokes a much more powerful and immediate response than “assassinate”. And how about those “f” words for sexual intercourse? Fornication has a whole other nuance than its Anglo Saxon four-letter cousin. I’m not advising that you avoid Latinisms altogether. Latinate words, when used judiciously—and sparingly—provide cadence, lyricism and points of interest in narrative. If you use them sparingly and purposefully, they provide color and texture to your narrative landscape. The key—as always—is achieving a balance.

I once suffered from luciferous logolepsy… and profusely overused Latinate syllogisms, particularly in my line of work as a scientist. When I saw the light, not only did my fiction benefit; but my consulting reports and technical papers were more joyfully read by my clients.

Balancing Show and Tell

Let the characters and scenes speak for themselves through action and dialogue, rather than using narration to explain what happens. Embracing this way of writing may be the single most effective way to reduce clutter and enhance the vividness of your writing at the same time. While “showing” may in fact add more words than simple “telling”, the way it is read (mostly in the form of action) makes up for the added words. Telling also has its place in narrative; for instance, when you wish to let the reader know about an event or action that you do not want to describe in vivid detail. Simple and succinct telling works effectively as transitional narrative, serving as a bridge for critical showing scenes.

Don’t Overload Your Metaphors

Some novice writers fall into the trap of using metaphor overload (some call it “purple prose”). Overuse of metaphor diverts the reader from the story with “clever” turn-of-phrase and distract them from the most important words in the writer’s toolkit—verbs. Here’s an example from one of my favourite shows, Farscape:

Example 1: John strode into the aft deck and caught Aeryn and Crais embracing. He stopped, heart slamming like the staccato percussion of a demon frag cannon on his wounded soul.

If you eliminate the simile here’s what you get:

Example 2: John strode into the aft deck and caught Aeryn and Crais embracing. He stopped, heart slamming.

Removal of the simile activates the verb and focuses the reader’s attention on John’s visceral reaction. Which version is more powerful? If the verb is powerful enough, you don’t need to pad it with metaphor. The verb “slamming” already provides what the metaphor suggests, making it redundant. If the writer has set everything up properly then the reader will provide the context. In the Farscape example, if the writer hasn’t already established a precedent for John’s reaction, she is missing more than appropriate metaphor.

 

Nina 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.

Using the Subtext of Body Language in Storytelling

Maple-sugar spring-LR

Sugar maple leans over the Little Rouge River, Ontario (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Kinesics is the study of “body language”, which explores how movements and gestures project a person’s hidden thoughts. Blushing is an obvious reaction. But more subtle ones can be used. When body language contradicts verbal expression, tension, conflict and interesting scenarios increase. This is a great opportunity for writers.

According to Janet Lee Carey, author of Dragon’s Keep, body language:

  • Shows the subtle undercurrent of communications between characters (of which either may not be consciously aware).
  • Shows the comic or tragic elements behind the dialogue.
  • Reveals the character’s true feelings (regardless of what he or she is saying).

In order to accomplish this, the writer must learn to accurately interpret the subtle signals of body language and translate them into the written form. One way is to look at yourself. Ask yourself: what do you do when you’re nervous? Excited? Thrilled? Sad? Angry? How do you do housework when you’re angry? When you’re happy? It helps to look at the same action under different moods to distill out the finer nuances of gesture and movement.

Pay attention to your own body, suggests Carey. “How do you sit? How do you move? How do you breathe?” Pay attention to your moods and what your body does then. For instance, what do you do with your hands when you’re nervous? How do you speak when you’re impatient? How do you cook when you’re happy? How about when you’re mad?

Carey lists the areas of the body where emotions can be detected by other characters. These include: skin, breathing (swallowing), eyes, eyebrows, ears, lips, jaw, neck, shoulders, arms, hands, back, sexual organs, legs and feet. On the other hand, physical areas where a character may feel an emotion but not show it is: pain in the body, skin, tongue, throat, heart, stomach, sexual organs, and pulse.

You can use body language imaginatively in several ways. Here are a few:

  • Amplification and contradiction: use body movements and facial expressions to either enhance or contradict the verbal expression
  • Reactions to invasion of personal space: show signs of restlessness, such as hunching of the shoulders, tucking in of the chin, backing up
  • Masking: this is when a character defends personal spac by showing indifference or confidence while masking their true feelings (e.g., remember when Like faced the Emperor in that last battle aboard the Deathstar? Despite his quiet show of confidence, he swallowed [his fear]).

Body language can either amplify or contradict what is said between two characters. The latter, of course, is usually more interesting, because it sets up tension and underlying conflict.

The following is an example of amplification:

“So, what happened?” Jenny asked, leaning forward and gazing directly at Mark.

Jenny’s body language matches her dialogue, amplifying her genuine concern. Here’s an example of contradiction:

“Hey, great to see you,” Dave said, crossing his arms and edging back to slouch against the wall.

Tom wandered to the fridge and opened it to look inside. “Can I have a beer?”

Dave fixed a hard smile at Tom. “Sure.”

FictionWriter-front cover-2nd ed-webIt’s obvious that Dave isn’t happy to see Tom, and his body language contradicts what he said. This makes for compelling reading. Subtext (beneath the surface of dialogue) adds interest and intrigue, particularly when it contradicts or complicates the verbal message.

 

References

Munteanu, Nina. 2009. The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now! Starfire World Syndicate. Louisville, KY. 266pp.

 

Nina 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.