Posts Tagged writing style
My dance instructor is an editor in her more sensible hours, like me. She deals with precision, facts, boiling ideas down to their exactness. How things work and what they are. The world of the literal.
But when she wriggles inside a piece of music to choreograph a routine, she speaks a different language. One of moods, emotions and universal connection. Her style is jazz, a discipline that gathers moves from just about anywhere. Not just the formal steps of ballet, salsa, contemporary or hip-hop. It might be a woman in high heels walking across a room, a covetous glance with the head tilted just so. Simple moves, but when put with the music, they reveal more about it than you ever dreamed was there.
Writers have to do both these things. We construct the literal – who does what and when. What that leads to. Whether everything is logical and how many Tuesdays are in a month. We set up surprises.
It comes in two ways:
- how well we snare the reader in the experience – the moment-by-moment writing
- why it feels so much more important than ‘just a story’
For the first point, so much comes down to how we use our prose. The break of every paragraph, the glint of every verb, the run of every sentence, the open eyes of a word’s vowels or the quirky wink of a letter clash. Like the jazz choreographer, you don’t have to be fancy or formal – walking across a room is just as effective as a formal metaphor, often more so. You can charm the reader with every mark on the page.
Of course every genre has different expectations of its prose, and every individual writer has different sensitivities too. But all stories have a degree of performance and need to put on the right kind of show. When you’re doing a final polish, look beyond the steps and make the story dance.
Which leads me to the second way a story charms a reader. When they finish, the best stories somehow make sense as a metaphor in retrospect – for life, love, the human condition, whatever.
And here the dance comparison is of no use whatsoever.
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What do you do to make a story dance? Share in the comments
You know one of the best ways to irritate someone? Keep telling them how wonderful a person is who they don’t know – and never say why. ‘She’s so lovely.’ ‘She’s great.’ ‘She’s terrific.’ Result? After a while, you think ‘she’ is anything but.
I’ve been reading a novel where the author has been doing exactly this. The main character has been separated from a girl he has fallen in love with, and for long periods is wondering if he’ll ever see her again. The author did a grand job of setting up the romance earlier. The problem was when he was separated from her and the yearning began.
Tell me again, I can’t bear it
We have endless screeds of ‘he loved her so much’. ‘She had a certain something.’ (What did she have? Three ears?) ‘He felt a pain whenever he thought of her.’ (In what way was he thinking of her?’) It was unsatisfying, empty – and pretty soon very irritating.
Why? Readers (in general, not just heartless old me) don’t like being told what to feel. We want to feel it too. Or we actually react the other way. (Which is fine if that’s what you want. In this book it wasn’t the case.)
Besides, it’s not truthful. Perhaps that’s why we resent it, because it seems empty and insincere. When someone’s really missing their dear one, they don’t remember their summary of the emotion. They’d get an exquisite flashback of the time they got lost together walking back from the bus stop in the pitch dark. They’d find themselves snagged by faces in a crowd, because their foolish brain was saying ‘wouldn’t it be lovely if she was there’.
Show not tell
This is, of course, showing, not telling. And it’s so powerful. Showing makes the reader feel what the character feels. It casts a spell of experience. It is not analytical. It is not a summing-up. It presents the truth and lets the reader make up their mind.
Show not tell is one of the hardest things for a writer to remember. The example that provoked this post is actually from a published novelist of otherwise impeccable accomplishments. Show not tell requires the most imaginative effort and all the writers I know slip unintentionally from time to time.
I’ve often wondered why this is. Maybe it’s because our analytical brain is saying ‘in this scene he missed her’ and it’s easy to write that. Showing it means we have to submerge into the character’s experience – which isn’t always easy. But showing intimately what a character feels is one of the most gripping things a writer does. Good writing isn’t words. It’s an experience. And experience is not analytical.
Don’t write the analysis. Write the experience.
Let’s play a game. Find an example you like and leave it in the comments – and afterwards show how you’d squash it flat by telling instead of showing. I’ll kick off.
‘Once he had been strong enough to lift a carousel horse in each arm. That was a long time ago.’ Mitch Albom, The Five People You Meet in Heaven. Telling version: ‘He used to be so strong’.
Take it away, guys
Thanks for the pic Philip Morton
Last week I was interviewed by Joanna Penn of The Creative Penn, and one of the questions that attracted the most discussion is how to develop our use of language in our novels. It was the hardest question to answer in a short time, so I thought I’d give it more space here.
First of all, what is good language?
I see many writers who seem in thrall to their school English teachers, as if they are on a sponsored exercise to use the thesaurus as often as possible. We’ve all seen writing that waxes far too lyrical, and looks self-conscious and overdone – the dreaded purple prose.
But at least these writers have understood there’s an aesthetic involved. And I want to applaud them for trying to unpeel what’s in their hearts. Worse is the writer who goes for tortuous obfuscation (sorry), as if they want to scare the reader into feeling dumb. Just for a giggle, look at The Philosophy and Literature Bad Writing Contest. Here’s a taster, from an English professor:
‘If, for a while, the ruse of desire is calculable for the uses of discipline soon the repetition of guilt, justification, pseudo-scientific theories, superstition, spurious authorities, and classifications can be seen as the desperate effort to “normalize” formally the disturbance of a discourse of splitting that violates the rational, enlightened claims of its enunciatory modality.’
Now that’s criticism (as far as I can tell), not fiction, but I sense this writer imagines he is being profound and much more clever than his readers. This kind of writing is an act of superiority, not communication.
Tip 1: Be clear
Good prose doesn’t try to put up barriers. It might make interesting word choices and deploy an image stylishly, but it wants to be understood – deeply and completely.
So before we write a good sentence we need clarity ourselves. What do we want the reader to feel?
Let’s take an example – describing characters. These are probably some of the most complex descriptions we might attempt as writers. Try these:
‘Someone advanced from the sea of faces, someone tall and gaunt, dressed in deep black, whose prominent cheekbones and great, hollow eyes gave her a skull’s face…’ Daphne du Maurier
‘He was a snub-nosed, flat-browed, common-faced boy enough, and as dirty a juvenile as one would wish to see, but he had about him all the airs and manners of a man.’ Charles Dickens
There is not a difficult word in either of those descriptions; the effectiveness comes from the writer knowing first what he wants to say.
Tip 2: Develop an ear
Note also that those two examples are long sentences, but easy to read. The writer has a sense for how the words beat in the reader’s mind.
’It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents—except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.’
It’s not a bad concept but the writing is full of tripwires:
- ‘Except at occasional intervals’ destroys the storyteller’s spell by wresting the reader’s attention away and sounding like a news bulletin.
- ‘When it was checked by’ is another leaden construction, and indirect for no good reason.
- ‘Fiercely agitating the scanty….. blah’ – there is too much going on here for me to stay with the thread. ‘Scanty flame of the lamps…’ does it even matter if the flames are scanty, fat or orange (which he forgot to put but I didn’t mind)? And do we need to derail the reader by pointing out that life is hard for the lamps? Only if it adds to the experience, which this doesn’t.
As I said, there’s nothing wrong with the concept of the sentence, following the wind and rain through the streets. But the writer’s thinking is cluttered, clogged and complicated.
Tip 3: Suit the material
The language dictates the way a story is experienced. It’s the filter over the lens, the music on the soundtrack, the way the shots linger or race across the screen. For instance, thriller writers would like you to be gripped by a pacy beat.
More than that, the language operates other senses. Patrick Suskind’s Perfume begins with a description of Paris purely through its smells. Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker is told in its own post-apocalyptic pidgen English to connect you deeply to the narrator’s mind.
Both these choices of language are deliberate and serve the material.
Tip 4: Using notebooks
In my interview with Joanna, we discussed how to develop our sense of language and an individual style, especially making notes as we read. One commenter afterwards said he used to feel self-conscious about what he wrote down, but now it’s part of his normal process of reading. Joanna says she’s got heaps of notebooks, which she doubts she’ll look at again. I don’t make physical notes but often find myself trapped by a marvellous phrase and reread it over and over, trying to decode the magic.
Thanks for the pic, StephenMitchell on flickr
How do you develop your literary ear? Do you keep notebooks? Do you ever look at them again? Does that matter? Share in the comments
My Memories of a Future Life is now available in full, undivided form on Kindle (US and UK) and also in print (and Amazon have knocked USD$4 off the price so grab it now). The price of the individual episodes will stay at the launch offer of 0.99c until 15 October, and will then go to their full price of USD$2.99. They’ll always be available, but if you want to get them at the launch price, hie on over to your Amazon of choice (UK, DE, rest of world) now. You can also listen to or download a free audio of the first 4 chapters over on the red blog.
In Hitchcock’s film Torn Curtain, there’s a scene where the protagonist kills a taxi driver. Normally you’d expect scenes like this to be presented in close up. We’d see the struggle, the driver’s desperate fight and the hero’s anguish in taking someone’s life. We might wonder what the outcome will be.
But that’s not what Hitchcock does. The scene is shot from a distance, as though it is happening to someone across a road. Almost as if it’s not even happening to the protagonist.
There are no questions about whether the MC will succeed. The driver is killed, and that is that. The MC doesn’t even pay a price by getting hurt. He doesn’t flinch from what he has to do. The distance of the camera plays with our empathy, representing how the characters distanced themselves from the deed. And so we see a normal, married man forced to kill an innocent stranger in cold blood. We see the resources he has in his soul that will ensure he survives. What does it do to the viewer? It makes us complicit in an uncomfortable world. As if we have made that choice too.
In Persuasion, Jane Austen shows the final reunion between the lovers as though she’s filming it at a distance. It’s surprising, but allows the characters privacy in their moment – which is all the more touching.
Of course, you need to use distance carefully. I often see scenes where writers duck out of showing a key event, possibly because they didn’t feel up to writing it. There is a strong likelihood that if you pull the prose camera away, the reader will feel cheated. You have to make a careful judgement call. If there are any questions lingering, the reader needs to see what happened. But if the reader can fill all the blanks and be just as satisfied, it might be powerful indeed.
Every event we share in a story has an effect beyond just showing what happened. And distance can sometimes lend more power than a close-up. Like Hitchcock, you could create an interesting complicit effect, show characters turning a corner. Result? The audience is disturbed in a way that is far more complex and chilling. Jane Austen had spent so long keeping her lovers apart that we wanted them to be together. When they finally were she went one better – she allowed them to be totally alone. Result? Reader satisfied.
That’s just two examples. Give me yours and tell me why you think they work!
Oh, and (spoon tapping glass). My Memories of a Future Life is getting great reviews. Episode 2: Rachmaninov and Ruin, is limbering up for release on Amazon at midnight as 4th September turns into 5th. You can find episode 1 here and you can try the first four chapters on a free audio here