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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.

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Again, a short story in warm up for my novel. Again, first draft; excuse any errors. Experimenting with repetition in this one. Please let me know if you feel it’s too overdone.

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Rain

There was a lone man walking in the rain.

It was the well into the night and she would never have seen him if she hadn’t been gazing aimlessly out the window. Raindrops hammered the house relentlessly, filling her ears with a sound like static. Her vision was hampered by the crisscross of the rain outside, driven at different angles by the wind. But a small patch of illumination struggled bravely under a streetlight and surely, there was a man walking through it.

What was he doing out in that kind of weather? It was getting dangerous.

The man reached the edge of a faint circle of light and melded into the darkness. She waited breathlessly for him to reappear at the next light.

As she waited, her eyes began to widen and her heartbeat began to race. It was so mysterious and exciting, and so very surreal. Surely, he knew what he was doing. Nobody in their right mind would walk through such dangerous weather.

Just as the man reappeared, a strong gust blew a sheet of rain into him. He staggered as she heard a crescendo in volume. By the time the sound faded back to its usual static, the man had disappeared again.

She felt uncertain now. Maybe he needed help? She couldn’t see him clearly but what reason could anyone have to be out at this time in the middle of a storm? What if nobody else had seen him except her? She could be the only one that could help him right now.

As she hesitated, a flash of lightning lit up the darkness. She saw the man hunched over a bundle in his arms. He was wide eyed, as if he were in panic, but determined to protect whatever he was holding.

He disappeared then promptly reappeared again at the streetlight right outside her house. She could see a tiny hand reach out of the bundle as he struggled on. The road was ahead of him; she lived on the corner of an intersection. He didn’t slow a beat as he continued on his path.

A peal of thunder crashed overhead, making her jump. It rang and crunched and crashed in her ears. It drowned out all sound for two long seconds as she saw a pair of headlights appear out of nowhere. They collided with the man and just as suddenly, both were gone from sight.

She screamed.

Running out of her room, she crashed into her mother who was coming in to check on her.

“What’s wrong sweetie?”

“There was a man! Outside, in the rain! He’s dead. He just got hit by a car!” Inexplicably, tears overpowered her and she couldn’t breathe. As she struggled to regain control of her heaving throat, her mother pulled her close.

“Even after all these years you still can’t forget how your daddy died?”

A moment of surprise hit her. Her dad had never crossed her mind. “No! I mean it; there really was a man outside!”

“It’s ok baby, it was a terrible experience for you. And it happened on a night just like this.”

Angry now, she shoved her mother back and ran to the window. It was too dark to see anything, so she pressed her cheek against the cold pane and craned her neck for a better view.

“I swear … I really did see him.”

Her mother shook her head sadly. “It’s just the rain, dear. It’s a horrible, strange rain that brings back bad memories.”

She heard her door click shut behind her but she kept peering out the window. Nothing. No sign of anything.

Maybe it really had been just the rain.

With exams over I’ve been trying to get back into writing. It feels bad knowing I’ve neglected my magnum opus for so many months so I’m trying to get back into the swing of things by writing a few shorts to warm up my creative mind. As usual, I don’t bother editing stuff that’s just meant for practice so excuse any errors you may find; it’s just a first draft.

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Sanity

He couldn’t see it, but he knew it was there. He could feel it – a warm, sticky sensation that hung thick in the air. It weighed heavily on his lungs, and even worse on his mind. It was oppressive and paranoid. It was fear.

Footsteps tapped in the background, distracting his senses. No, the sound of footsteps did not scare him. What hunted him could not be heard. It had no feet.

Trapped in a moment of respite, he tried to think of an escape but he couldn’t focus. His mind jumped from one thing to another in a frenzy of disjointed thoughts. As the panic burgeoned, he began seeing in brief flashes and blurred impressions. Each vision that appeared in his mind’s eye shook violently as it was quickly replaced by the next until he was stuck watching a cacophony of muted colours. But one thing solidified, right in the centre of his vision. The outline of a familiar man.

He muffled a scream as he opened his eyes. Without realising, he had closed them against the swirling images. He could feel the sweat on his clammy skin but it was still dark. What if it had come closer? How could he be so stupid! To close his eyes at such a dangerous turning point? Absolute stupidity.

Rising from the corner he had been crouched in, he quickly scanned his shadowy surroundings. Nothing moved but the footsteps got louder. They were approaching.

A cold shiver teased his skin and he started at the sensation. It was getting closer, but he had no escape!

The footsteps stopped and there was a metallic grind of something being slid aside. Brilliant white light poured in. Illumination, hope and salvation beckoned. The chilling sensation tingled through him again, somehow more urgent. He could see the outline of a man again. But his eyes were open!

Fear blossomed in his chest and his mind fixated on the only thing it could identify. The light. It promised escape.

He ran, full speed, towards that glorious square of hope. The man got bigger, closer, but he couldn’t stop. He was almost there.

Something crashed into him, solid and cold, stopping him dead in his tracks. Metal bars. Holding him back, keeping him away from the light. Trapping him in the room with the man. He could see the man clearly now. There was a mirror on the opposite wall showing a man behind bars in a dark padded room. It was the man that haunted him. One last burst of courage shot through him and he slammed the bars but they would not budge. Then all he could see was an explosion of colour – images and impressions flooded his mind and whispers echoed in his ears. All remaining strength in him fled, and he sank to the floor laughing.

“As you can see, the patient has lost any remnants of his sanity. His condition has progressively worsened upon arrival at the asylum, so we recommend a full lobotomy. For his own good.”

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).

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.

Foreword: So I was getting bored of writing my novel and wanted to blow off some steam. Short stories are definitely not my thing. I have a huge inability to confine a story to a small word limit as I feel it restricts me too much. Worse, this is only the second time I’ve tried a horror. I don’t believe monsters and killers are scary any more so I try to focus on the psychological side a bit more. I’m not sure how it turns out, but writing this did make me feel a bit paranoid (maybe because I was writing past midnight in the dark).

Anyway, this is just a throw-away to mix up my thoughts a bit for my novel. It’s a first draft and probably doesn’t resemble what was going on in my head. I tried to avoid using character names so the reader wouldn’t have to associate with a name and would be forced to focus more on his/her own psychology rather than that of the characters. Doubtful whether it works; teasing the mind requires time – something you don’t have in a short.

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Portrait

It was the strangest crime scene he’d ever seen. There was no blood, no corpse, no apparent problem at all, and yet they had been treating the case as if it had the markings of a psychopathic serial killer.

There was a victim though – or rather, there were two, but only one was at the scene.  The other? According to the unusually calm young lady, they had been sucked into a painting, but only she had made it out. The whole case would have been ridiculous if it wasn’t for the fact that the painting did indeed feature the missing girl, sprawled across the floor in a puddle of her own blood. The detail was incredible – too accurate to be a coincidence. It was undoubtedly her, but how?

A great man had once told him that detectives were not allowed to believe in coincidences. It was a sentiment that was beginning to prove unnecessary. Police had been on the scene for two hours now and many of them were beginning to show signs of distress. Tension hung thick in the air, charging it with an electric feel, as if the slightest disturbance would cause panic to erupt.

Why were all these trained officers scared? Because the more they figured out, the more the victim’s story seemed true. She had indeed entered the abandoned manor with her friend, and forensics identified their footprints in the fine layer of dust on the wooden floorboards. They led straight up to a large, gilded painting, but only one set of prints led away. There were no signs of a struggle; the girl had just disappeared. Except, her body was in plain sight. It was in the painting.

The only witness, the young girl who had ventured into the manor with her friend, sat wrapped in a blanket on the back of one of the ambulances. He approached her, grim and sceptical.

“Tell me again,” he said gruffly to the girl. “What happened after you got … sucked into the painting?” The last part was difficult for him to add. It sounded ridiculous coming out of his mouth, but at the same time, saying it somehow made it more true.

“The painting changed,” she replied, her eyes vacant but her voice unshakably calm. “Words appeared, scribbled across the surface, and then the picture turned into a picture of me. Like a portrait, except I was screaming. I wanted to take a step back but for some reason I stepped forward, right through the painting. Next thing I knew, I was right in front of the painting again, but facing away from it, and the house looked different. There were random words all over the walls and floors like graffiti. That’s when I realised that we had been sucked into the painting – there’s no way that could have been the real world.”

“Try not to let your own ideas affect your story,” he said curtly. He was disappointed. It sounded like complete delusion, but he still couldn’t explain the painting. Why was the missing girl in it? Reluctantly, he kept probing. “So, what happened to your friend?”

The girl didn’t object to further questioning. She seemed sluggish and devoid of any strong emotions at all.

“We walked around a little, trying to figure out what was happening. That’s when the door opened and a man walked in. He had a very welcoming smile and looked very proper. We started asking him questions as he walked towards us, but then I noticed he was carrying something in his hands. A small axe.”

He felt stunned silence descend around him as everybody within earshot froze. Forensics had taken a look at the painting of the missing girl and had concluded that the wounds in the picture looked to be inflicted by a heavy bladed weapon – most likely an axe.

The tension in the air was straining and he had to do something about it. He put on his most irritable, unconcerned face and barked orders to those nearby, sending them away. Soon it was just him and the girl.

“Please, continue.”

She looked up at him with a sudden jerk, a fast movement that completely contrasted with her vacant, languid movements earlier. Instinctively, he reached for his gun, but all she did was smile at him –insane and maniacal.

“Most people think the house is haunted. They’re wrong! It’s that painting. He’s in it. He kills them. Makes them disappear. We weren’t the first. We saw corpses, graves, dismembered limbs. They’re all over the grounds, near the trees. I left my best friend in the world, while he killed her, and ran back through my portrait. I got away.”

He’d heard enough. The girl was clearly crazy but the painting needed some more investigation.

“Take the painting down, I want it back at the station so we can have some people examine it more closely.”

As people hastened to obey, he heard a commotion. Rushing to the scene, he found himself skirting the trees near the entrance. A circle had formed around something, and he had to shove through to see what they’d found. It was a pale, lifeless arm, reaching up through the dirt where the dogs had been sniffing. Some officers were still digging, and they unearthed more and more body parts.

He needed to see that painting again. As he rushed into the atrium, he found himself already considering burning it. Goosebumps rose on his flesh and an incessant chill teased his skin. It was a feeling of danger.

There were men removing it from its hooks now. It was a large piece of work and the gilded frame made it very heavy. As he watched them take it down, he thought he saw movement near one of the windows in the painting. A man shaped shadow, observing. Cursing to hide his surprise, he waved the men off, yelling at them to load it into his truck. They hastened to obey, not even questioning his irrational agitation.

He looked at the wall one last time, now naked without the painting. There was a square of lighter, dust free wallpaper where the painting had been. The edges continued down in what he had first thought to be a purely aesthetic pattern, but with the painting removed, it looked a bit like a door. Could there really be somebody inside? A smiling axe murderer? He approached the wall cautiously, and touched the line. I was too perfect, too fine. There was barely a gap and no hinges in sight. He tried shoving at the square but it didn’t budge. Never mind, he was just being paranoid.

Thoughts, questions and answers chased each other around his head chaotically as he walked back to his truck. Try as he might, his logical deductions all carried an undertone of fear. He knew he couldn’t explain it but he kept trying. He clambered into the driver’s seat, feeling irrationally nervous and breaking into cold sweat. Finding an answer was so important to him because he didn’t want to accept the truth. That there was a killer somewhere, and he was most likely here, right behind him in the back seat.

He couldn’t let that thought go. Reaching up, he adjusted the rear view mirror to get a look at the painting. Within that gilded, square frame, his face stared back at him. Screaming. His name was scratched all over it along with the word “Portrait”.

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.

This is for katlaire who requested I make this post. As promised, this will offend some die-hard fans so if you can’t stomach objective criticism, you’re better off not venturing down this dark alley.

I actually had a hard time coming up with a title for this post because I don’t want it to be just a rant on crappy books that get published. Ranting would imply a subjective opinion. I like to be a coldly logical person with an objective view, so instead of ranting I’m going to mention a few books (all of which were published by a proper publishing house) and analyse why they were successful and whether they deserved to be published. To keep things orderly, I’ll divide this post by book titles, but I’m only going to go in-depth with Twilight. The other books I’ll mention are just for comparison (some of them also suck).

Twilight:

This is, of course, borderline ranting about some of the junk that’s out there, and how could anyone do that without mentioning a crowd favourite? Now it’s Twilight’s turn to shine (or sparkle), something the writing in this book never did.

Honestly, I haven’t read any of the books cover to cover (it’s unbearable even to think about it). I have watched some of the movies though (not my choice) and have done some research into the matter so I don’t end up giving an uninformed analysis. Based on the examples I’ve seen and the common consensus of the writing world and my own opinion, this book is (by writing standards) absolutely atrocious. There is, however, a valid reason for why it became popular, which I will mention later. I’d just like to point out a famous quote that’s relevant here:

“Harry Potter is all about confronting fears, finding inner strength, and doing what is right in the face of adversity. Twilight is about how important it is to have a boyfriend.”

Many of you think Stephen King made this quote but he didn’t. This quote has never been sourced back to him and based on a quick Google search, it’s quite obvious the originator of this quote is Robin Browne (who was quoted by Andrew Futral in a tumblr post and later confirmed that he got the quote from Browne). However, despite not coming up with this quote, Stephen King is quite a vocal critic of Twilight. Here’s a quote he actually did say when asked to compare Harry Potter and Twilight (during an interview):

“The real difference is that Jo Rowling is a terrific writer and Stephanie Meyer can’t write worth a darn. She’s not very good.”

I disagree slightly about Rowling being “terrific” but I’ll get to that in the Harry Potter section.

Anyway, let’s get to the point shall we? Why is Twilight such garbage? Well, for one it’s plagued with purple prose and a huge lack of pace and excitement. Twilight is something that you lose interest in the moment you gain a shred of maturity. In fact, the series would never have survived if it weren’t for the “hot guys” acting in the movies, because it’s a terrible book/movie series.

Not only is Bella a Mary Sue (more on this later), the plot is focused around the most mundane and ridiculous stuff that only a narcissistic pre-pubescent girl would find interesting. Ohhhh noooo, which of these two mythical hunks is Bella going to pick? Ohhhh noooo, should she become a vampire to be with Edward? Ohhh noooo, Bella has special smelling blood so there’s a sexy feeling of danger whenever she’s around vampires.

Wow, seriously? You have vampires and werewolves in an eternal conflict, living amongst regular humans whilst waging their silent war on each other and the only thing you can focus on is the most prosaic crap about Bella? That’s like Homer writing about two mud-crabs fighting over a rock whilst the Battle of Troy was raging in the background. In fact, this is a particularly apt analogy (that I came up with on the spot) because the Battle of Troy had a love triangle at its very heart too, except look at the difference; Homer’s work has gone down as one of the greatest love stories ever written and has convinced historians and archaeologists to spend their entire lives’ work dedicated to trying to prove the story true.

Now, back to Bella. I mentioned she was a Mary Sue. I can’t be bothered explaining what this is again, so I’m going to put an article on it in the English techniques section later – but I’m sure many people already know the definition. In this case, Bella is a normal girl (albeit with “special smelling blood”) who has the two hottest male characters in the book fighting over her for no apparent reason. Wait, let me recant that. She’s not normal, she’s boring. Not only is she a boring person, she has a horrible, depressive, suicidal, fickle, insecure, narcissistic personality that any real man in the real world would look at and tell both Edward and Jacob “don’t stick your d**k in crazy”. She has absolutely zero redeeming characteristics to make her a likeable person that is in any way deserving of any of the special treatment she is given.

What’s worst though, is that despite being a purple prose (another term I’ll define in English-techniques later on; Google it if you don’t know) infested text, there is a suspicious lack of description regarding Bella – the main character. Want to know why? Because Bella is not a real character – she’s an insertion of Stephanie Meyer’s own personality and is her own pathetic little “John Everyman” for insecure girls. She is basically a gaping white blank in the world of her writing so that any other teenage girl with the same insecurities and personality flaws can just insert themselves into Bella’s place and fantasise about being popular and special for no reason at all. And I can’t stress enough how much this series is focused on this “love triangle” – she even butchered the concept of vampires to “emphasise” how good looking Edward was so that it would be all the more desirable for any girl who inserted herself into Bella’s shoes. So much for Bram Stoker’s Dracula – a hunter of the night, manipulator of the human heart and a dark, gothic villain whose only weakness were the elements. Move over Dracula, we have good-looking, sparkly playboys to represent vampire-kind now. The only aspect of vampires that Meyer got right was the connection between vampires and female sexuality (as Stoker’s Dracula had a strong underlying message of forbidden sexual tension), but I’m almost certain this was purely by mistake and coincidence.

So why did this book become popular? Well, I’ve already mentioned the reason. The book is a tool for girls to insert themselves into this sexual fantasy of self-importance. Since your teenage years are a tough battle to find self-worth, identity and “love” (or what you think is love and will later learn was something stupid), the book really kicked off. In fact, based purely on the target market (insecure young girls), there was even a bit of a snowball effect in which non-readers were pressured into becoming readers so that they would “fit in”. Kind of sad how youths don’t realise that “fitting in” is the opposite of finding your identity, but that’s just something you’ll have to learn over time.

Because of the above reasons, I don’t blame the publishing company for publishing Twilight. They knew it would make money and they were right. I don’t even blame the readers for supporting such a crappy book. It’s natural to want an escape from reality, and when you’re young and immature, your idea of a perfect roleplay is when you get to be Bella. Don’t worry, as you mature your dreams become bigger and more meaningful.

Harry Potter and the Hunger Games:

                        

These two books are common comparisons with Twilight because they became popular during roughly the same period of time. I’m going to dispel a common misconception right off the bat here. Harry Potter is not the greatest series of books ever written. To be more specific, the first three books were mediocre.

I’m crazy right? I told you I’d offend people. Harry Potter has a huge fan-base of zealous supporters just like Twilight does. There’s a problem with books – usually only the mass marketed, viral books get read and people who don’t read regularly just assume that these are the best books out there. That’s way off the mark. There’s a treasure trove of good books that a lot of people have never heard before. Back to Harry Potter though – the overarching plot for the seven books was very creative and original and unlike Twilight, there were actually morals encouraged by the story. The characters were solid and the main cast was characterised very well.

Why then do I not worship the books? Well, as much of a fan as I am, I have to concede that the first three books are sort of mundane, unexciting and most of all, written poorly. The first book in particular is atrocious. The language and writing style that Rowling uses for The Philosopher’s Stone is something I would expect of a high school student who’s doing badly at English. If you don’t believe me go and read the first three pages of The Philosopher’s Stone and then go and read the first three pages of The Deathly Hallows. There’s a HUGE difference. That’s where I respect Rowling, as I read the Harry Potter series, I can feel her skill as a writer growing. The only other aspect I would have liked her to improve on was the world-building. There was a nice contrast between the Muggle world and the Magical world, but it was focused almost entirely on the same setting. It would have been nice to get more into the politics and the different countries and cities.

Harry Potter was popular for the setting and concept. The writing was not originally great (although it did become good), but the idea of a magical society living amongst us and their fear of a powerful evil wizard who could only be destroyed by an unremarkable young boy is a huge underdog story set in a very interesting world. Not only that, the school environment is a popular because it provides a realistic frame of reference for the audience and is a cultural meme that invokes a wide variety of emotions.

Similarly, the Hunger Games was quite average but was popular because the main character featured a strong female role where the majority of fiction books feature a male in the leading role. The story is not entirely original, being a twist on the ancient Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur (I’ve said this before and someone didn’t believe me so you can go Google this yourself – the author said as much herself during an interview). I have nothing against unique twists on existing concepts (as I write high fantasy, I pretty much live by making my own twist on existing concepts), but the point is the strongest feature of the Hunger Games are the characters, and this is why the series became popular – though the plot isn’t bad either.

Sasha and some other book whose name I’ve forgotten:

I’m going to end with another two books that I found were terrible. The first is Sasha – A Trial of Blood and Steel. I saw this in book stores a long time ago and the title caught my attention, so when it became available at my library I borrowed it. Wow, what a disappointment. Sasha is a huge Mary Sue (in the opposite direction of Bella). She’s not only a princess but a master swordswoman too. She’s beautiful and far too strong. The few chapters I read were just her killing people with absolutely no effort and being widely respected and sought after because she’s basically perfect. Boring. Not only that, the pace was inappropriate (butchered by some purple prose at the wrong times) and the plot so mundane that I can’t remember much about it besides that it wasn’t interesting. Maybe the book got better (and come to think of it I may not have started reading from the beginning) but all I know is that this was one of the few fantasy books that I’ve picked up and haven’t finished. Usually, I’ll stick with it until the end.

The book that I forgot was a historical fiction where this girl went back in time to medieval England (I think) and changed history. She brought her taekwondo skills with her and beat down all these fully armed and trained knights, did the sideways monkey dance with the prince and turned out to be a Goddess. I don’t have to make it any clearer – she was a Mary Sue, and as a result I can’t even remember the title of that book. See what bad writing does? Admittedly, the book was a bit interesting at first (she became a Goddess later on), but it wasn’t very accurate for a historical fiction and the main character was ridiculously overpowered.

Anyway, that’s that. I gave a pretty objective analysis of why some popular books are popular, and why some of them are horrible books so this is slightly more informative that a simple rant. Hopefully nobody is too offended that I called out Harry Potter, I admit that I’m a huge fan and it’s one of the few books that I’ve read more than once – so the very fact that I pointed out its flaws should demonstrate that I’m giving impersonal, objective critiques.

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