You are currently browsing the category archive for the ‘Techniques and Tips’ category.

I’ve heard this question floating around again recently. It’s good to see most people know the answer now, but a mix of “long enough”, “depends on the scene you’re writing” and “depends on your style” is not really all-encompassing or detailed enough to really identify the deciding factor. That’s what I’m here for.

So what does sentence length achieve? In a word: pace. There are only two tools a writer has to manipulate pace, and they are sentence structure (of which length is a major part) and diction. I’ve done a post on both pace and diction before in my 5 Tips to Improve Your Fiction Writing.

Advocates of long, elaborate sentences are often misguided by the misconception that good writing requires sophisticated language, which in turn requires length and adjectives. These people often make an appeal to authority fallacy and bring up Hemmingway or Tolkien (I mention these two because I hear them brought up the most often). I want to point out two problems with using these authors as examples. First, language has evolved over time. We no longer use Elizabethan English, for example, so it would be inappropriate to write a story with such language. In general, older books will feature much more elaborate sentence structures. This is just a reflection of the language paradigm of their time. Second, Hemmingway and Tolkien actually do use short sentences to create impact and pace. They may not use it as often but if you go flick through one of their books and specifically look for them, you’ll find the sentences I’m talking about.

Thus, we are now at a position where we must agree that sentence length is used to control pace. There is no argument in this. How you use it and how often you use it is entirely up to your own style, but the bottom line is that your decision should be based on what sort of pace you’re trying to achieve in a particular scene.

So, I mentioned that comments like “long enough” weren’t specific enough (though true). What answer would I give? Everything I’ve said so far, but the crux of the argument is that short sentences create more impact and give an impression of action and pace. Further, you can enhance the sense of action and adrenaline by putting more emphasis on action words (verbs – things the characters are actually doing). On the other side of the spectrum, an emotional scene is less likely to have short, action sentences than a fight scene. It would focus less on action words and more on inner thoughts, and emotional tells. Introspective and emotional sentences would be more appropriate than short, sharp sentences. Just an afterword, remember to use all techniques with an even hand. Don’t go lathering on the short sentences. Or. You’ll. Be. Narrating. Like. This.

In short, the length of your sentences should be dependent on the scene you are writing. I’ve identified the two ends of the spectrum: short sentences for fight/action scenes and long sentences for emotional/slow scenes. I’ve also identified certain types of words you should (or should not) focus on, such as action words and introspective words (words relating to inner thoughts and emotions). Now it’s up to you guys to fill in the blanks and add your own flavour to it.

P.S. I debated adding examples to this post to show you but I didn’t feel like it in the end. There’s an example in my 5 Tips to Improve Your Fiction Writing. Otherwise, just read any good book and you should be able to identify what I’m saying.

This is one that people often mix up, and for good reason! A parody is a type of satire. Satire is the umbrella term, and involves a wide range of satirical techniques. There’s no such thing as a “parodical” technique. I guess in this sense, you could be excused if you call a parody a satire, because technically that would be true, but specificity is a hallmark of true knowledge. If someone showed you a picture of a flounder and asked you if you knew what it was, and you said “yes, it’s a fish”. Well …

So, the difference? Well, the commonly accepted difference is that a satire is more subtle. How? It’s sort of like the difference between metaphors and symbols. A metaphor is explained and made clear in the very sentence it is introduced. A symbol is never explained and thus open to interpretation. Similarly, a parody is always self-evident. The best examples are parody movies like Scary Movie, Vampires Suck and Meet the Spartans. You know straight away what they’re imitating; it’s blatant and exaggerated, and it’s precisely that hyperbole that creates the humour.

But a satire? A satire is subtle. It’s the gentleman of the mocking genre. Often, the uninformed will not even realise the text is a satire and will just read the surface as if it were a story on its own. The example that comes to mind here is Animal Farm, a classic by George Orwell. It is a criticism of communism and its failings, and identifies the nature of greed and megalomania as inherent personality flaws that will always undermine any attempt at equality. Of course, there’s more to the story than just that, but those are the main overarching themes. However, the uninformed would just presume it was a story about animals on a farm that ended up trying to run the place by themselves and live like humans. A funny little fiction, but not something as deep as political and sociological commentary.

If you’re familiar with any of the texts I’ve mentioned, you should be able to identify a key difference between parodies and satires. While both engage in ridicule, the method by which they do so is different. If we were to classify the humour as a point of reference, parody would be slapstick. It’s in your face; it uses hyperbole to blow things to ridiculous proportions and it’s meant to be lighthearted. Satire on the otherhand is clever, witty, intelligent humour. It uses references, symbols, themes and similarity to create humour, but the humour is more of a dark chuckle when you get it. It’s not lighthearted, it’s usually something heavy and deep, the kind of stuff that makes you question the intelligence of your leaders in politics or the nature of human society or our shortcomings as a species. It’s a sad moment of realisation that causes the laugh. Sometimes, there’s no humour at all; just realisation.

Notice I’ve mentioned similarity and imitation. Here’s another key difference, one that’s far easier to remember for you guys to keep in mind. A parody will mimic something blatantly. The characters and plot will be very similar (if not exactly the same). If you’ve seen the underlying text, there’s no way you’d not realise it’s a parody. Even if you haven’t most of the time things are so overblown that you’d realise it was a parody anyway. Satires don’t mimic things; at least not blatantly. They copy scenarios and concepts but replace everything so that only the underlying skeleton remains. Take Animal Farm for example. You’d never be able to tell a bunch of talking animals who want things on the farm to be more fair to everyone were actually representative of communist society. At least not unless you read very deeply into it.

 

Do you suffer from procrastination? Never get around to finishing that novel? Spend more time imagining and jotting down every little detail of your fictional world than you do writing the story itself?

Then story outlines are probably not for you.

I know a lot of people will say to plan out your story and whatnot but I’ve always frowned upon this. For clarity’s sake, I consider outlines/planning to be anything related to the story that isn’t actually writing the story itself.

Ok, so planning stuff gives you an idea of where to go with the story, and keeps you “on track”, but consider this: have you ever stuck to your original plan? For me, that’s an easy no. As I write, new ideas come up and they are inexplicably more brilliant in their brief creation than anything I could have planned beforehand. Sure, my beginning and end usually stay the same, and maybe even some major plot points, but it’s a writhing, winding road between these.

Think of it this way. Nothing, and I mean nothing, you write in a plan or outline will ever be read by anyone except yourself. It doesn’t contribute to the story at all – the purpose of a plan is just a crude note to yourself to remind you of things. Despite this, I see people caught up in extravagant world building, from the terrain of the entire planet (when the story only takes place in a few cities), to religion, governments and other aspects that are not directly tied into the story. Worse, sometimes amateurs will consciously realise how much effort they’ve put into the plan and will try to incorporate it into the story somehow. This results in huge infodumps which are a big no-no in writing.

But I think the one thing that really epitomises the uselessness of planning is the use of “character profiles”. Really? Is it that important to know every character’s exact height to the centimetre? Their exact weight? Or, worse, their “likes and dislikes”. Let me tell you now, if you can capture your character in the brief confines of a profile then your character is weak and shallow. Further, the majority of your profile is literally useless and is really just a tool for wishful self-fulfilment to allow the “writer” to feel as if they’ve created a story with a set of strong characters when in reality the story is only in their heads. It’s not a story until you start writing it.

So am I saying everyone should stop planning? No, of course not. It works for some people because they know how to do it. However, I guarantee these people don’t sweat the insignificant stuff. A pre-writing outline should be a few key scenes jotted down. No detail – just the concepts. Your goal is to move the story from the beginning scene to the end scene, and I guarantee that along the way your plans will change more times than you can count. If you really are a dedicated writer, your story will plague your mind. Haunt you while you breathe and sleep. You shouldn’t need any plan to remember the important things in your story. At most, as you write, you should jot down specific numbers, features and directions so that you can keep them consistent throughout the story. You don’t want your characters changing hair colour half way through the story, or a city teleporting to another location. That’s about it.

Seriously though, just remember. Your plan is just to remind yourself of things. No one’s going to read it. Put your effort into the story itself.

I remember this was indirectly brought up somewhere (possibly on one of the writing forums I frequent). Personally, I’m an intuitive writer. I don’t plan beforehand, nor intentionally create symbolism; I just let the story unfold in my mind and tell it how it is. However, an understanding of writing techniques and features (as well as how they can be used effectively) allows for a subconscious/conscious (depending on what kind of writer you are) influence on your writing ability.

This post is about characters. Now, there’s a lot to characters. In certain story types, they are the driver of events. They are also the hub of activity, the unforgettable personality and the wishful self-insert. This post will focus on the role of the character(s).

Let me elaborate. Every character has to have some sort of personality (or it’s just a boring, two-dimensional name that gets thrown around in a story). There are two ways to achieve personality. The first (my favourite and the one I excel at) is the deep, complex personality that encompasses a wide scope of emotions and growth. The second is a personality that accentuates certain personality traits. While it would seem the former is the better choice, the latter is the one that is used most frequently, particularly in visual media (TV, films, etc.).

Let’s look at an example to make sense of what I’m saying. Take The Big Bang Theory, for example. Obviously, each character is a “person” with a wide range of emotions, but did you ever stop to think what their main role as a character is? Howard is the sexually frustrated, Rajesh is the inability to talk to women, Sheldon is the quirky smart and full of facts, and Leonard is the all-rounder who finds himself caught on that one special girl. Sound familiar? Each one of these characters represent a part of most people (guys). Because of this setup, the audience always has somebody to relate to – and this relation is important. Imagine, instead, that the entire cast was four Sheldons. Pure, obnoxious, in-your-face intelligent, and nobody to call him out on the weird stuff he does. Well, it would be a weird show. The audience would sit there and listen to a list of facts and snide remarks. Definitely not a successful formula.

Now think of any other TV show and I guarantee that you could do the same thing – identify a certain characteristic that is personified by one character.

So, what does this tell us? First, and most important, (good) characters must have something about them that the audience can relate to. If one single character doesn’t have it, then somewhere in the cast there has to be at least one that serves as a reference point. This reference point is what we judge everything by and what enables us to make sense of what’s occurring in the story. Without a reference point, the entire story is just an alien series of events with unintelligible interactions between strangers. The reason why option two (a full cast with each character personifying some personality trait) is more popular is because it’s much easier to pull off. When you get tired of one aspect, you can instantly reconnect with another. No one wants to hear complaints about how they can’t get girls all day, so when we’ve had enough of that, the story switches to something else. When you try to do this with option one (a single main character with a personality so complex that it can only be labelled “realistic”) you need to find that perfect balance between every aspect of the character’s personality. Further, it is very difficult to focus on more than a few main themes, so you tend to be limited towards some sort of overarching moral. If you do go for this method, the good ones to focus on are the ones that never fail to please society (perseverance under pressure, underdog story, selfless heroics, etc.).

Growth is another thing entirely. It’s very difficult to capture effectively and I wouldn’t recommend it to amateurs. I may do a post on it in the future.

So, what should you take away from this? Just keep in mind that your characters can’t just be super-perfect-overpowered (like a Mary/Gary Sue), nor can they just be a collection of “cool” one-liners and two-dimensional reactions to their surroundings. They need something about them that the audience can relate to – a reference point – and they need to assume a role (some aspect of the human psyche).

These two are easily confused with each other, and it’s no wonder why! The two are related to each other, blurring the line between. I was guilty of using the two almost interchangeably in my early years of high school, until I read this:

“A metaphor is not language, it is an idea expressed by language, an idea that in its turn functions as a symbol to express something.” – Susanne Langer

Let’s go through a quick definition. A metaphor is a rhetorical device in which the traits of something are attributed to something else, but not in a literal sense. It helps to understand that a simile is a type of metaphor, so let’s take a look at an example:

“But look, the morn, in russet mantle clad, Walk o’er the dew of yon high eastern hill” – Hamlet, William Shakespeare.

The coming of morning is likened to being clad in a “russet mantle” (where russet is a red-orange tinted brown). Now obviously, this is not literal. Morning does not wear any clothing. The russet mantle is a metaphor for the rising sun and the colour of dawn.

Let’s look at symbols now. These are not used in rhetoric or discourse, and is usually a specific thing that represents some other thing or concept. Symbols, unlike metaphors, are not specific or definitive in their interpretation. They carry a wide range of ideas through generations in an almost meme like fashion. Because of this, the symbol’s meaning must be inferred from context. For example, anything long and roughly cylindrical can be considered a phallic symbol; whether or not it was intended that way depends entirely on the context.

Definition aside, this is what really helps me remember the difference. Metaphors are like similes, they liken the principle term to something else (whether it be a thing, idea or process) to endow the principle term with characteristics reminiscent of that which it has been likened to. A symbol is much more succinct; it can be a single thing (usually an object but not limited to one) that is not directly given meaning through comparison (like a simile/metaphor) but whose meaning is created by the context in which that symbol is used. Basically, that means I don’t have to explain a symbol because that’s for the reader to determine for themselves based on what’s been written, whereas a metaphor must be directly explained by the text.

So there seems to be a bit of confusion on this topic but it is essentially quite simple (at least compared to irony versus coincidence, which is a highly subjective topic).

Sarcasm is a subcategory of irony. That’s the first thing you need to know and it makes a lot of sense when you understand this. The similarity comes from the root of the definition of irony – a subversion of expectations. Basically, anything said or done, or an event that occurs, which goes against expectations. Like if I set fire to a haystack and the wind blew the cinders on to my neighbour’s house, setting it on fire instead. I wasn’t expecting that to happen so it’s ironic. I could layer this irony with another level by adding some context – say that we were burning the haystack because it was a fire hazard to our houses. Irony can be verbal, situational or dramatic. The first two are self-explanatory. As for dramatic irony, that’s actual a technique often used by playwrights in which the audience knows a certain fact but the characters don’t. This can be applied to real life though is a stronger tool in literary texts.

Anyway, sarcasm is similar in that you are saying something that goes against expectations. There’s two key differences with sarcasm though; first of all, sarcasm can only be verbal (whereas irony can be situational or dramatic). Secondly, sarcasm is designed as an attack. Irony can be innocent but sarcasm is used with the intent to mock or hurt somebody. The degree to which you are doing this can vary. Friends can be sarcastic with each other because friendship can withstand a bit of good-natured barbing, but again, there is an intent to single out a person or persons and ridicule them when it comes to sarcasm.

As for the whole irony and coincidence debate, I remember the Oatmeal did a good post on it. The gist of it is anything coincidental can arguably be ironic because it is subjective on the observer’s expectations. Since irony is a subversion of expectations, anyone could argue that any coincidence is ironic to them. The only thing I would add to this is that people do use the word “ironic” too frivolously, and there are times where if you consider a coincidence ironic, it really just shows that you’re stupid.

I’ve seen this topic come up quite often among amateur writers and people tend to give a confuse mix of advice. So should you use a prologue or not? Well, that depends.

The biggest problem here is that the majority of people don’t know how to use a prologue, so the first step for us is to determine a working definition to use. There’s a variety of literal and technical definitions floating around the internet but I stand by my own (as I consider it the best amalgamation of the technical and practical). Before I give my definition though, let’s go through some history (so we can understand the technical side).

 

The term is from the Greek prologos formed by pro, meaning “before,” and logos, meaning “speech.”

 

In ancient Greek tragedy, the prologue was the part of a play that set forth the subject of the drama before the chorus entered.

Why is this so important? A lot of amateur writers are using their prologue to start telling the story. That’s not a prologue, that’s your chapter one. The prologue has to “set forth the subject”. What does that mean? It needs to introduce   the context of the story and it has to be separate to your story (otherwise it’s chapter one).

So what is a prologue? It is a distinct and separate entity that introduces a story by providing information necessary for the reader to understand the text.

By nature, a prologue should be a little bit of an info dump. To “set forth the subject”, you must provide contextual information. Other information acceptable in a prologue would be back story/history and any particular quirks of your world that will clarify things to the reader (if I start writing about angels, the reader would be confused why the floors of this city are puffy white clouds). It should never connect with your chapter one smoothly, if it does then your prologue is your chapter one.

Now, why are prologues bad? Well, first of all, if you’re using it the wrong way you cast doubt on your credibility as a writer. Not a good first impression. Even if you do use it correctly, since prologues are generally info dumps by necessity, your first impression still ends up being somewhat boring. Admittedly, I’m a fan of diving into the heart of things but that doesn’t mean you have to start off with an action scene, it just means you need to open with a hook – your reader has a plethora of other books they could read, give them a reason to read yours.

Finally, I’ve been informed by a few authors and editors that prologues are generally skipped by literary agents. Other readers also tell me that they skip prologues too (though personally I read them). The general consensus of the writing world is that prologues can and should be avoided where possible. If you don’t believe me, Google “prologue bad” and you’ll find lists of published authors, writing sites and editors supporting my statement.

Perhaps the most cogent example I can give is an example from the Greek tragedy “Medea” by Euripides. As prologues were basically invented at this time for these plays, this is a fitting example. The prologue to Medea features one of the nurses talking to herself (technically, to the audience through the fourth wall) and summarising the past events leading up to this very moment (Jason’s quests and how Medea has helped him, only to be met with betrayal). This back story is necessary for the audience to understand Medea’s grief stricken state, and the psychological damage required for her to eventually commit infanticide as revenge. Without this prologue, the play would just be about a psychotic child-killing mother, but with the prologue, we understand the emotional complexity at play, adding layers and depth to the story, climaxing at the point where Medea snaps under the pressure. The fact that the nurse is relaying this information as a soliloquy instantly sets it apart from the rest of the play, so we know it is a distinct, separate entity. This is what a prologue should be – so please, use your prologues correctly.

Purple and Beige Prose:

“Brevity is the soul of wit”

– William Shakespeare.

I’ve made a post before that overlaps with this but in the interests of keeping things tidy, I thought I’d make a more extensive post specifically on this topic.

These are the two extremes of a spectrum of broad stylistic writing styles. That’s not to say your writing style is encompassed entirely as either “purple” or “beige”, but your style will definitely lean towards one of these in some aspects.

Purple prose is the most commonly known one out of the two as it is often used as a derogatory comment on the writing style (whereas not many people write with beige prose, and even if you do, it’s not entirely a bad thing). Here’s a bit of history first; the term “purple prose” originates from a quote by the Roman poet Horace (Quintus Horatius Flaccus, 65-8 BC) where he likened writing in purple prose to one sewing purple patches on to one’s clothing. The implication is that purple prose is too flowery and dazzling to fit smoothly into a narration of a story. It’s just overkill, like cutting your bread with a chainsaw. My favourite description of purple prose is “it’s as if the author made babies with a thesaurus”, but the easiest way to demonstrate what purple prose is would be an example. I’m very bad at writing purple prose because my brain rejects it, so I took an example off the internet and spruced it up.

The disembowelled mercenary crumpled lifeless from this leather saddle ornamented with brilliant red rubies, and sank to the clouded sward, sprinkling the parched ochre dust with crimson droplets of his precious escaping life fluid.

If you can’t see the problem yet, I worry for you. Let’s assume this needs explanation, for the sake of analysis. First of all, there are enough words in that sentence to make three sentences. Second of all, there are too many unnecessary adjectives and it just feels like you’re trying too hard (life fluid is hilarious). The true artist makes the difficult look easy – if you’re struggling to depict a man falling off his horse, you’re struggling as a writer. Finally, this sentence takes too long to read, destroying all sense of pace in the story. When you have a scene of someone dying so dramatically, you want as much impact and pace as possible, not a ridiculous essay about his death.

Beige prose:

At the opposite of the spectrum we have beige prose, which is really defined by a minimalistic style of writing – often with sentence fragments. It delivers short sentences with high impact, but over-use can lead to fragmented and disjointed narrative.

Beige prose? Witty when effective. Otherwise, dull. Use carefully.

Consistently writing in purple prose will allow the reader to adjust – typically the reader will just skim over your sentences for the general gist of what’s happening. Trust me, not many people will belabour every individual word. With beige prose, it’s not as easy to adjust. An entire book written in disjointed sentences will be jarring to the reader. I only use short sentences during scenes that require pace, such as action scenes.

The Sue couple are a negative feature in writing used to describe a poorly crafted character (where Mary Sue is the female character and Gary Sue the male – obviously). I just say Sue because it’s easier. Anyway, people are a little divided over the true definition of a Sue. I think the main reason there’s so much disagreement is because people are trying to identify specific traits that are representative of a Sue. It doesn’t work that way because writing isn’t so flat and two-dimensional that you can just say a group of traits is bad. Before I tell you my definition (which I think is – if not better – then at least more encompassing), let’s get some history down.

From: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/MarySue

The name “Mary Sue” comes from the 1974 Star Trekfanfic “A Trekkie’s Tale”. Originally written as a parody of the standard Self-Insert Fic of the time (as opposed to any particular traits), the name was quickly adopted by the Star Trek fanfiction community. Its original meaning mostly held that it was an Always FemaleAuthor Avatar, regardless of character role or perceived quality. Often, the characters would get in a relationship with either Kirk or Spock, turn out to have a familial bond with a crew member, be a Half-Human Hybrid masquerading as a human, and die in a graceful, beautiful way to reinforce that the character was Too Good For This Sinful Earth.

From that passage we can identify two things, a Sue is too perfect and is an “author avatar”, which basically means a character through which the author inserts him/herself into the story (most commonly in fanfiction). As a result, Sues have been categorised as having traits such as “too strong, too beautiful, too whatever”, which can collectively be considered as being too perfect. Others argue that Sues are when the author projects themselves into their story (refer to Twilight rant). By projecting themselves, I mean a writer who creates a character representing certain aspects of his/her own personality, and makes good things happen to that character to compensate for a feeling of inadequacy in real life.

These are very subjective measures though, hence the debate over the meaning of a Sue. The problem is that sometimes, your character may have traits that would normally be considered a Sue trait, but is not when placed in context of your story. Here’s how you can prove what I just said – take your most original character and do this test: http://www.springhole.net/writing/marysue.htm. You’ll find that you get a far higher Sue score than you’d think (try and be objective here and admit if you’re overpowering your main character).

Here’s a clearer explanation from me (the Sue test is just for fun – I make a lot more sense than it does). Just because your character has some traits that liken to Sue traits does not make it a Sue – it all depends on your story. For example, if you’re writing about a pickpocket-turned-hitman from the slums of a medieval setting, having him/her being ridiculously good looking, charming and the most sought after sexual target in the story is sort of pushing it. Not only is that ignoring the setting (hygiene was no where near current levels in medieval times), but it’s ignoring the fact that the character is from the slums. Even if you made the setting a modern day society, things get questionable when your character is far too attractive. If you throw in a few too many good traits, you’ll have a Sue. Next example: what if you’re writing about the political side of heaven, where angels debate whether they should interfere with the devil’s work on Earth or let things run its course? Well, it makes sense if your character is good looking because he/she is a freaking angel – they’re all meant to be good looking. 

As for Author Avatars, well, it’s one thing to take out your insecurities on a character and it’s another to base your characters off real human emotions. The distinction can be blurry to a reader, but I think the latter makes for a much stronger and more believable character. They key here is to include both good and bad traits – perfection is your enemy (unless you’re writing about angels)!

So, what is a Sue then? My definition is: A character that is unrealistic within the reality and mechanics of your fictional world. Unrealistic encompasses both perfection and a lack of emotional range. Realistic characters will have strengths and weaknesses. As a writer, you need to make your story engaging, and it isn’t when your character is unbelievable. This definition does not limit your ability to use supernatural abilities, magic, sci-fi technology or anything else “unbelievable” in modern day terms because these things are explainable within the reality and mechanics of your world. If you write a sci-fi, then technology is explainable. If you write about magicians, then magic is explainable. They are not unrealistic in your world. But if you write about cavemen, except your main character has a giant robot mecha suit and uses it to conquer the stone age, then yes, you’ve gone too far.

Preamble:

Writing fiction, whether it be fanfiction or original fiction, is a hobby that has experienced a recent resurgence in popularity. I might attribute this spike in popularity to the recent success of some mediocre and terrible books, but that’s a rant I’ll have to save for later. Another factor influencing this trend is the ability to self-publish. Unfortunately, self-publishing has no quality control, and is really just the dead-end for a deadbeat writer, like a basketball player resorting to coaching primary school kids. The ultimate goal has, and always will be, to be published by a real publishing house with the means to distribute your book and pay you royalties (as opposed to self-publishing where you pay to get your book published).

Anyway, I’m a regular on a number of writing forums and have given quite a few hopefuls some advice ranging from advanced writing concepts to simple techniques. Since it’s inevitable that there will be a large increase in self-proclaimed writers (or god-forbid, authors), I figured that it was in my best interests to compile a quick 5 tips so that the stuff I’m reading in the future will – hopefully – be a little less crappy. Keep in mind these tips apply for all fiction but not necessarily academic writing – so those of you who need to do short stories at school can also boost your marks with these tips.

Fiction Writing Tips:

1. Grammar: Surprised? You wouldn’t believe how many stories are plagued by basic errors. Well this actually includes all basic English syntax. Please, if you’re going to write, make sure you have a high level (if not perfect) of spelling, punctuation and grammar. It’s infuriating trying to read something that looks as if it belongs to a primary school student with an F in English. It’s worse when you call yourself a writer with that kind of English. Not only does poor syntax distract from the story, it is really just a sign that you don’t care or are not good enough to be writing.

2. Consistency: This one is more applicable for longer stories (like novels) but should be a logical aspect of any piece of writing. Keep it consistent. If you say your main character is a red-headed girl, don’t turn her into a blonde. That should be obvious. The hard bit comes when you have a world and landscape that you need to keep consistent. Directions, environment and physical features need to be the same throughout the text. For this, I like to keep a little document that quickly summarises these things (for example: City X, west of City Y, Forest of the Lost in between, mountains to the north, etc.). Even more difficult is your characterisation. You need to be firmly aware what kind of character you’re creating so you don’t end up with the melancholy introvert being the party animal – and so you don’t end up with an entire cast of characters that are exactly the same. This relates to the category below.

3. Characters: Some of you may have heard the term “Mary Sue” before. A Sue is basically a character that is unrealistic within the mechanics of your fictional world. The more things your character has that defies reality, the closer it is to a Sue. For example, in a medieval world, your character would be pushing it if he was a cyborg with laser weapons. If your character is a beautiful girl who is good at all sports and a professional in all fields of science and knows how to overpower trained hitmen whilst also being loved by every guy she meets, then yes, you have a Sue and you’re also probably projecting some of your insecurity on to your own character.

The key to characterisation is focusing on a few key personality traits and making that character unique. Your story will be more realistic and there’ll be more depth to the environment if there’s a wide range of characters with their own unique identity. This is very difficult to achieve and is something I’ve always had to struggle with, but your goal is to avoid having a cast of characters that are identical to each other. If you remove the names of your characters and judge them solely by how they act and talk, can you tell the difference? Mannerisms and key personality traits are an advanced set of writing techniques that you can incorporate into your characters to make them stand out from the others.

Remember, humans are unique, you need to demonstrate this through your characters.

“If everyone is Han Solo, then nobody is Han Solo” – Cleveland Brown Jr.

4. Pace: There’s a term in writing known as “purple prose“. It basically means over-the-top flowery writing. I remember an amusing quote from a writing website that described purple prose as if the writer had made love to a thesaurus. The reason why purple prose is bad is because it kills all sense of pace in your story. You can’t capture the heat of a battle when you’re describing birds chirping and what not. Let me demonstrate:

“The soldiers formed up ranks and stared each other down across the no-man’s land. Two veritable walls of steel and flesh were about to collide in a bloody clash, but Hero couldn’t feel any fear as he only felt beauty. A swallow dipped across the divide and, as if sensing impending danger, pulled up quickly in a graceful arch. As they men charged, Hero could see the morning’s dew glistening on the grass, and the little shimmering lights that were flung through the air as the soldiers trampled past. The gentle kiss of the breeze was a direct contrast to the blood curling war cries and the sounds of death, and as he drew his elegant long sword, he could see deer bounding away in fear.”

Ok, so I’m not very good at purple prose because I instinctively shy away from it, but the point is – why is Hero noticing all this random crap when he’s about to enter a life-or-death situation? Wouldn’t it be more realistic and appropriate for him to be noticing his emotions and those of the terrified men around him? There’s no sense of urgency when you’re describing random things that are irrelevant to the matter at hand.

So, how do you create pace? Well, first avoid irrelevant details. If you’re writing a scene, focus on the purpose of that scene and write in a way that builds the scene and makes it stronger. If the purpose of this scene is for Hero to end up surrounded by the enemy and the corpses of his friends, then go for gritty and write the damn scene. No one cares that there was a gentle breeze kissing him, but they do care what kind of emotions were rushing through Hero, as well as the fighting itself. Second, play with sentence length. Length can play a huge role in creating pace, and even using sentence fragments is acceptable (though technically incorrect English, sentence fragments are a writing technique to generate pace). For example consider this: (By the way, “c.f.” means “compared to”)

“He could smell smoke and turned to see fire bursting through the windows to blossom out across the walls, consuming the manor in a blazing inferno.”

c.f.

“He could smell smoke and turned to see fire bursting through the windows. Flames blossomed across the walls and consumed the manor in a blazing inferno.”

c.f.

“He could smell smoke. Turning, he saw fire burst through the windows. It blossomed across the walls and consumed the manor in a blazing inferno.”

c.f.

“He smelled smoke. Turning, he saw fire burst through the windows. It blossomed across the walls and consumed the manor.”

Hopefully you can see the difference, if not between each example than between the first and last. Essentially, short sentences create impact and a sense of urgency. The first example feel as if the character is just standing there observing this fire whereas the last example has a sense of urgency. Sometimes this means going easy on the adjectives. Just remember, sometimes pace is more important than description.

5. Diction: In writing, diction is essentially your choice of words. You can make a huge difference by avoiding obscure, generic words. Examples of these words are: good, happy, take, read, walk, look, thing, and book. Now let me explain – first, these words are often unavoidable and are perfectly good words in the right context. However, when you’re trying to add that extra sheen to your writing, you should attempt to substitute these words where applicable. The reason is because these words lack detail and emotion. What kind of book? How does she take the book? Is there any emotion when she takes it? When she reads it?

Here’s an example from one of the forums: “She took the pieces of paper and read over them.” Now I’m going to transform this sentence, step by step, keeping in mind the main concepts in diction – focus on detail and emotion.

“She took the pieces of paper and read over them.”

c.f.

“She took the papers and read them.”

c.f.

“She snatched the papers and read them.”

c.f.

“She snatched the papers off his table and began to read them.”

c.f.

“She snatched the treatises off his table and began perusing.”

c.f.

“With keen anticipation, she snatched the treatises off his table and began perusing.”

As you should be to see, we’ve turned a generic sentence with no detail or emotion into one that conveys a sense of urgency and excitement. “Snatch” instead of “take” creates pace and anticipation. “Treatises” instead of “papers” tells us the nature of this anticipation is probably due to an academic discovery. “Peruse” instead of “read” tells us how absorbed the character is and heightens the sense of excitement, as well as conveying a bit of disbelief.

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 184 other followers

Blog Stats

  • 269,687 hits