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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).
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.
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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“She took the papers and read them.”
“She snatched the papers and read them.”
“She snatched the papers off his table and began to read them.”
“She snatched the treatises off his table and began perusing.”
“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.