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Posts Tagged writing style
Do you learn your storytelling from movies as much as from prose? Many of us do. While certain principles can be learned well from both media, others can’t.
I’ve already discussed a few points in previous posts – scenes with a lot of characters, short, choppy scenes and point of view and dialogue. Today I’m going to look at description.
Description in prose aims to give the reader an experience. It fills in the specifics. Description in scripts or screenplays – and novels by writers who don’t read a lot of prose – is often labels or generics. Let me show you what I mean.
The writer who is more tuned to movies might describe ‘1970s furniture’, or ‘a battered car’. But a great description in prose will talk about the chair shaped like a giant egg, the Toyota with a mismatched door and an unlevel fender.
The movie-fan’s description of a person might be ‘a man in his 60s’, or ‘a well-preserved lady’.
But what does that look like? In prose, it’s the writer’s job to show us – and not just the physical basics of blue eyes, age or a dapper dress sense.
A great piece of prose description will put the person in the room with you, with expressions and impressions that give them life.
Here’s John le Carre from A Small Town in Germany:
Bradfield was a hard-built, self-denying man, thin-boned and well preserved, of that age and generation which can do with very little sleep. *
A writer who doesn’t get a steady diet of prose tends to describe a street as ‘rough’ or ‘average-looking’ or ‘smart’. They might use place names, such as ‘Fenchurch Street’ or ‘Friedrichstrasse’. These names do add a certain atmosphere, but they are little more than labels. They don’t create the experience for the reader.
You need to identify what you want the reader to conclude about the street – and supply the specific details that will let them conclude it. The rough street might have overturned dustbins or litter on a balding patch of grass. The smart one might have front doors painted in expensive shades of sludge. If you want an ‘average’ street, decide what makes the street average and describe that.
That doesn’t mean you can’t also observe that it is ‘average’ – indeed, it might suit the personality of the narrative to add a judgement. But you have to qualify what ‘average’ is. My idea of average won’t be the same as yours – and might not suit your narrative at all.
Versatility of prose
And indeed, prose description can do more than just tell us what’s there. If you’re showing the weather, you can use it to add atmosphere – it can be like music to underline a mood. If you’re writing a description of a person from a character’s point of view, show what jumps out at them, and use it to illuminate their personality or situation. Perhaps he is meeting his girlfriend again after spending time away. Is it like seeing a tunnel back to their old life? Is she less glamorous than he imagined because he’s now moved on? Is she a poignant blast of comfort, showing how lost he now feels?
What’s in your head? Put that on the page
Many writers who make this mistake usually have an impression in their mind’s eye. So you have to make sure to put it into the reader’s imagination. Examine what you want them to see, and write it.
*There’s a longer discussion of this point in Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel 2
Thanks for the pic Daniela Vladimirova
Let’s discuss! do you find it tricky to write good description? Do you have any tips that helped you?
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I’m reading Jose Saramago’s Blindness, and its style is rather striking. It’s an omniscient narrator hopping between a lot of heads. The dialogue is run into the rest of the prose, with no punctuation to distinguish it from the rest of the prose. Yes, no quote marks. Not even a dash. Sometimes the dialogue has no tags to tell us who’s speaking – or indeed that it is speech. When the characters speak, it’s not even presented in separate sentences, let alone paragraphed.
A typical spread looks like this
Dense, long paragraphs. Rather offputting, isn’t it? It looks like the book will be a horrendous muddle and heavy going. Dave – who will give most styles a fair crack – tossed it down in disgust, muttering about pretentious gimmicks.
It’s certainly risky to mess with the conventions of dialogue. I frequently see novice manuscripts where all the dialogue is reported. This creates a distanced effect, as if no one in the book is really alive. It also creates a dense block of text that – as you can see – looks forbidding to the eye (although not many writers take it to the lengths Saramago has). But Blindness is enhanced by this style. Let’s look at why.
The society is the focus While there are certain characters who are central, Saramago’s interest is an event that breaks the normal structures of civilisation. The omniscient view and the technique of running the dialogue together in long sentences builds on this. It means they are part of a bigger picture. The focus can be on anyone – the person whose actions are the most interesting or urgent to watch at a given moment.
The main characters become more vulnerable There are key characters, and this style creates a sense that they are more fragile. In any story that follows just a few viewpoints, we’re aware that most of them must continue as consciousnesses until the end of the book. In the dangerous world of this story, anyone could vanish and the world will go on being narrated. So the threat to them is more real.
Nothing is confusing Despite the unconventional presentation, you can usually tell who’s talking. Where you can’t, it’s either not important – or the point is to experience confusion.
It’s set up carefully All stories have to introduce the reader to the rules of the world, and any quirks of the style. Saramago starts as he means to go on, tuning you in so you look carefully at the prose to see if someone’s talking and who it is.
He doesn’t throw us into this many-voiced chorus straight away. The first few chapters follow a limited cast, so we get to know them. This gives us figures who are anchors in the later chapters – if they survive. He assembles a large cast quite quickly, but they are connected with these originals by the establishing scenes so it’s easy to remember who’s who.
There is also a consistency of style, although this may not consciously be noticed by the reader. One paragraph – which may go on for many pages – is a scene.
The story has momentum The style may be unorthodox, but he’s keeping the story moving. Curiosity pulls us along. The stakes keep building, the situation is running further out of control. We keep reading to find where it is going.
I haven’t read very far so I’m looking forward to even more interesting effects, but my final point is this. The run-on presentation with few traditional markers is like hearing a lot of voices and being unable to tell who is who. Isn’t that like being struck blind? It is also panicky, as though things are happening too fast to take proper note of them. It feels out of control (although the writer is tightly in command). You might even say it’s breaking convention as the society of the book is disintegrating. It makes the characters disturbingly into a herd, stripping them of individuality. This clever style choice reflects the experience of the sighted people, who have quarantined the blind people for fear they will catch it. We are at once seeing the story two ways.
This style is creating and amplifying the experience of the world. Wow.
No spoilers, please, as I want to discover the book’s surprises in the proper way… but let’s talk about styles. Have you read a novel with an apparently challenging style that enhances the material?
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Whatever kind of fiction we write, most of us want to give our prose that extra flair and sparkle. How do we learn to do that? How casual can we be while still looking ‘correct’? When is prose powerfully poetic and when is it purple, stodgy and even ridiculous?
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I’m a 15-year-old high school student whose biggest dream is to be a writer. I’m a good writer, but there’s nothing special about my writing. I was wondering how I could start to practise my skills and to become better over time? How did you start off? Also, I have absolutely no idea how to start a novel, even though I’ve tried for years :)
What a lovely question. Let’s tackle it in stages.
It can’t be rushed
First of all, don’t be in a hurry. Styles don’t develop overnight. They soak into you from your reading. Which leads me to…
What are you reading?
You also mentioned in your email that you read a lot, but how varied is your diet? Are you sticking to just a few genres, eras, styles of writing? These will colour the way you express yourself and may limit you if you don’t cast the net as wide as possible.
As well as fiction, read poetry, and notice how words are more than just their literal meaning. Become fussy about nuance, moods, resonances, flavours; the mischief in ‘twinkle’ versus the hard edge of its cousin ‘glitter’. Relish the variety our language gives you.
Learn what you are made of
So how will you be distinctive?
Like analysing a compound in a chemistry lab, we learn what we’re made of from the things we react to.
What are the styles you like and why do you like them? Ditto for themes, characters, settings. Do you like the unconventional? Is there a genre that pushes your buttons (I’ll include literary fiction here for the sake of argument)? These will become part of your writerly signature.
When you’re with friends, notice what’s distinctive about the way they talk and think. How is that different from you?
Here’s another point. What do you want to do to readers? Unsettle them, amuse them, tie their brains in knots, awaken their political awareness, warm their hearts, chill their marrow, stir them with ambiguities, distil the human experience, resolve their troubles? All of these? These intentions – whether in an article, short story or a book – will be a hallmark of your style.
Try lots of ideas
Every now and again you’ll discover someone who blows a hole through your idea of what good writing is. Let it tenderise you to new influences; soak it up and see what it shows you. Try to emulate it, if you’re so inclined. It doesn’t mean you were wrong until this moment. Mimic their rhythms, their sentence structure, the types of things they would notice. Enjoy the workout. After a while your new passion will wear off and you’ll regain a sense of proportion. That doesn’t mean you’re lost again. You’ll have added a few genes to your writerly DNA.
How long does it take?
Our style develops through our lives. Some writers become distinctive early. Others blossom later.
Most of us don’t stop wishing we were a bit more special, or perfect. Every year, we might think we’ve finally ‘found it’ and chafe at the work we can’t undo. Evelyn Waugh often said he thought Brideshead Revisited was gluttonously overwrought.
I started by apeing other writers I adored. As a teenager, any good book would send me scurrying to my room to try a new voice or story style. My typewriter got a lot of exercise. After college, I began to try novels and I went through a very visible (to me) Graham Greene phase, then Vita Sackville West, then Jack Vance, then Gavin Maxwell. When I read those writers I could think of no more perfect way to express a story.
One day I realised I didn’t feel I had to imitate any more. I could write as me and that was okay. That doesn’t mean I am no longer poleaxed by Graham, Gavin, Jack or Vita, or all the other thousands of writers in whose company I take pleasure. I still learn from them, all the time. But I no longer feel the need to eradicate and start again.
This is personal, but for me, special writers have a quality of honesty on the page. It makes me comfortable in their company; willing to travel with them, to accept their voice as the companion to my own thoughts. Read good non-fiction and notice how authors do this, how they burrow for the truth even while they amplify, assert or exaggerate. Three of my favourites for this are Verlyn Klinkenborg, David Sedaris and Gavin Maxwell (I told you I liked him). Aim for that candid quality in your own work, even when you’re trying on other tics and techniques.
Some people just plunge in and write, muddle their way along. Clearly that hasn’t worked for you. In which case, are you looking to prepare material before you write? I have a book that will guide you through… (all together now…): Nail Your Novel – Why Writers Abandon Books & How You Can Draft, Fix & Finish With Confidence… (now recommended by university creative writing departments, which is nice)
What would you tell Lindsey? Let’s discuss!
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In part 1, I discussed how to get into the mental zone for writing dialogue. In part 2, I talked about the non-talking and action elements that also make a dialogue scene come alive. Which brings me to the natural conclusion of this trilogy of posts on dialogue – subtext.
What is subtext?
Put simply, subtext in dialogue is what’s between the lines.
I find it easiest to split it into two aspects – subtext for the characters and subtext for the author.
The former is the hidden agendas or feelings of the characters; these may be deliberate, unconscious or a mixture of the two. The latter is the author’s themes; the universe of the story influencing the language and tone.
Subtext and characters
Novel dialogue has to be more condensed and purposeful than real-life chattering. As writers, we need to pick the encounters that will show something significant about the characters, the way they interact, the way they view the story events.
Subtext is useful when we don’t want to show this significance plainly. Indeed, it might be jarring if a character says ‘I don’t think you love me any more’ or ‘I know you meant to kill Jane’. It’s more human if characters say things indirectly, or the reader can intuit that they are grasping at a thought – perhaps one they haven’t fully acknowledged.
Another use of subtext is to demonstrate that characters know each other well. They might make assumptions about what is said, answer what they think the other person meant, rather than the literal words. Perhaps they’re in a situation where plain speaking isn’t possible. This gives a layer of depth under the superficial conversation, like a kind of code.
So if the characters are having an argument about a washing machine, they might also be displaying what’s wrong with their relationship. Perhaps one of them is always leaving all the household tasks to the other, or is much fussier than the other. Maybe the characters are flirting but not wanting to admit it. If you explore what might be left unsaid, it’s a terrific way to build tension.
When subtext works well, we can feel these agendas vibrating – but it doesn’t look obtrusive.
Subtext and the author’s thematic intentions
Subtext can also be wider than just the characters’ little world. It can resonate with the whole conceptual problem your story is tackling. So in My Memories of a Future Life the narrator remarks that she feels as though she’s in a dream where she’s been thrown out into a hostile world with nothing to protect her. This states one of the themes of the story – the difficulty and pain of a major life-change. (It also arises naturally from the action.)
How to do it
Subtext has to look natural (unless you’re aiming for an artificial effect). You’re building it from a scene where characters need to talk to each other, so that’s where you start. Don’t do it the other way round or the reader will feel jarred out of the spell of the story. Figure out what the characters will say on the superficial level, then make it stand for more than that. As with all aspects of dialogue, you might need a few passes to really hone it. I find this kind of editing very creative and rewarding (but then, I do like editing…).
For character subtext, play with Freudian slips, misunderstandings, questions that one character might be avoiding, coded dialogue, tensions that can’t be expressed. Look for underlying harmony and agreement too; it’s not all negative or sinister.
For thematic subtext, pay attention to your authorly portrayal of the scene. Look for suggestive synonyms, imagery, a dark bird sitting on the skyline that makes an ominous shape, church bells that suggest a celebration. The characters probably won’t demonstrate they are aware of this kind of subtext – unless they’re a first-person narrator.
Does every conversation in a novel need subtext?
By no means. Although subtext is very satisfying, not every line – or scene – has to have a hidden meaning. Sometimes characters just chat. :)
There are more tips on character creation, character voice and dialogue in Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel 2
Thanks for the iceberg pic NOAA’s National Ocean Service
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Another Soundtracker returns this week, a new book under his belt. Andrew Blackman had set himself a steep challenge with his second novel. His story of love in the internet age had seven narrators, each needing their own voice and style. Early feedback from his agent said they weren’t distinct enough, and for a while, Andrew despaired of finding a solution. Then, as he always did in times of trouble, he turned to music. Which saved the day. He’s on the Red Blog with the Undercover Soundtrack to his second novel, A Virtual Love.
GIVEAWAY Andrew is offering a signed copy of A Virtual Love. For a chance to win, leave a comment on the post or share it on Twitter, Facebook, G+ or anywhere else (and don’t forget to leave a note saying where you shared it).
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How long does it take to write a novel? Years, months, a Nanowrimosecond? I’m riffing on this idea today at Beyondaries, the ezine of Port Yonder Press.
Port Yonder is one of those publishers whose remit I could have written myself. It looks for strong, original crossover books with award-winning potential. In charge is managing editor Chila Woychik, who recruited for her ezine a bunch of writers who like their rules thoroughly bent and kicked.
Among the other contributors is Dan Holloway, who often stops here with a challenging take on whatever I’m talking about. His video is about the music of words. Also at Beyondaries you’ll find Shannon Elizabeth Hardwick talking about finding poetry in the everyday, and Grace Bridges comparing Witi Ihimaera to Doctor Who. And of course, Chila herself on the stubborn, self-driven qualities that mark out a true creative.
If you fancy a trip beyond the usual, pull up at Beyondaries.
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One of the best proofing tricks – reading your work aloud – won’t necessarily help you spot repetition. A passage that irks on the page may seem satisfyingly emotive when read out loud.
(What’s more, you might even cheat, imagining different stress as you vocalise your prose, thus fooling yourself there is no need to change anything… Yes, I know the tricks.)
So how do you tackle it?
It helps to know where the danger areas are.
Look for the modifying words that don’t need to be there. Just, suddenly, actually, very, effectively, eagerly - these are frequently overused in an attempt to emphasise or add a different quality to a verb, but it would be better to find a more precise verb or description.
Certain verbs are easily overused too. Feel, see, think, supposed, hoped, wanted, tried all flow from our fingers without hesitation, or while our mind is on the hundred other things we need to juggle in a scene. But they usually have much truer alternatives.
A good way to spot your own verbal tics is Wordle. You can dump an entire novel into it (and honestly it will cope) and you’ll get a pretty – and alarming snapshot of your lazy words. And if you’ve got a few pet interesting verbs that appear too often with no justification, it will make you aware of those too. (Hold onto that thought of repetition being justified; we’re coming back to it later.)
We hear a lot of disapproving noises about Roget’s tome. What folks are objecting to is:
1 very obscure words
2 synonyms swapped in indiscriminately with no feel for connotation or rhythm.
To which I answer:
1 the thesaurus has ordinary words too – all of them
2 if you’re staring down an unbearable repetition and your mind is blank, where else are you going to find a better option?
I use the thesaurus all the time when editing, to remind me that more precise, more exciting options exist than the first word I thought of. I also use poetry, to encourage me to reach beyond the literal. (That might suit your genre, it might not. But Roget suits everyone’s.)
Repetition gets a bad rap because it’s usually a sign of unpolished writing. But it can be a powerful tool. Because it’s so noticeable - which of course is why it irritates – it can emphasise and echo.
It’s good if you have characters with distinctive phrases, or you want to intentionally echo a scene or a feeling. It’s especially good to underline themes and images, creating the sense of an ordering web that’s holding the book together. A repetition with well judged variation can send readers loopy with satisfaction – look at Richard Adams’s Watership Down, which opens with the line ‘The primroses were over’ and closes ‘The primroses had just begun.’
Use with a light touch
Readers are wired to be detectives. All readers are trying to fathom which characters they should look at, what the story is really about, what the moral and physical rules are. They look for and latch onto patterns, even if they’re not aware they are doing so. Repetition is one of those, and we need to be exquisitely tuned to it, use it deliberately and with care.
What’s your feeling about repetition? Do you have any tips for spotting it? And any lovely examples of where it works well?
…And have you any idea how few viable synonyms there are for ‘repetition’?
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I always find that when I’ve got the plot watertight, the physical consistencies sorted, there’s another pass I need to do to make sure I don’t lose the reader. I’m now making final tweaks to my second novel, Life Form 3, after an extensive rewrite and I thought I’d share the kinds of change I’m making before it goes back to my agent.
Making sure we stay with the main character #1
There are points where I haven’t allowed the reader a beat to catch up with the main character’s reaction to something important. While I don’t want to slow the pace down or overstate, there are moments when the reader expects a beat before the next line of dialogue or action. So every time there’s a significant revelation, I’m asking myself have we got a reaction?
Making sure we stay with the main character #2
The novel is third person, although the main character is in every scene. But sometimes when the action is centred on other characters we need to be reminded of his presence or he can seem like a passive observer. Or it might dislocate the reader by looking like I’ve drifted to a different point of view. So if, for instance, several characters are talking and my main character doesn’t have a line of dialogue or needs to listen to them, I add a beat of reaction from him.
When I write dialogue, I envisage it as a scene in a movie. For some dramatic scenes, I had the pauses and reactions in my head. On the page, the reader doesn’t have my head movie, so this can look sparse and the eye slides off it too easily. Also, this can be quite a distanced way to see a scene. Where I had sparse dialogue, I included the reader more by fleshing out some details.
Culling the fancy stuff
Can you hear that screaming? That’s me, drowning my darlings. I’m wailing at least as loud as they are. I am removing metaphors and similes that, although lovely, interfere with the reader’s immersion in the scene.
For instance, the main character finds an abandoned underwater room. On the floor are dead, dried fish – ‘like’ (I wrote) ‘soles that have dropped off shoes’. Yes it’s lovely, but the scene has so much sensory detail already that this stops the flow, like a record jumping a groove (I hope you’ll allow me that one). Out it goes (with me weeping a tear). This is what ruthless revision means.
Adapting my style for the demands of the book
In case you’re wondering, I didn’t even realise I’d written two novels with the word Life in the title. And no, I’m not planning a whole series of them. In fact, Life Form 3 has given me quite a different set of challenges from those in My Memories of a Future Life – and one of the biggest was writing style.
The main reason is the setting. Life Form 3 is set in a strange, unusual place, so I have had to curb my natural love for the flamboyant and weird. It’s all very well to describe the familiar in an unfamiliar way – that’s fresh and poetic. In My Memories of a Future Life I revelled in it. But in Life Form 3, the story is already flamboyant and extravagant. To add more weirdness, in terms of descriptions and comparisons, gets confusing. The moral? If you’re already describing the unfamiliar, don’t gild the lily by adding more oddness. Keep something simple.
We all do our last passes differently – what do you look for? Share in the comments!
For more tips on novel-writing, from first twinkling idea to final fix, you might like my book Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books And How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence or my multimedia course with Joanna Penn aka The Creative Penn
Thanks for the pic BryanKennedy
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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
deepen your story, fiction, genre fiction, genres, how to write a novel, literary fiction, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence, novels, polishing, prose, prose style, publishing, revising, Rewriting, Roz Morris, writing, writing a novel - Nail Your Novel, writing style
I post 4 to 5 useful writing links per day… and other stuffMy Tweets
- Science fiction – have we forgotten what it should be? October 19, 2014
- ‘Is there life after death?’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Christina Banach October 15, 2014
- Novels aren’t movies – how to write great description in prose October 12, 2014
- ‘A hushed, whispered jingle mimicking a drizzle of rain’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Anjali Mitter Duval October 8, 2014
- Voices and accents for your audiobook – how to choose the right narrator October 6, 2014
- ‘Skinny-dipping in greenish-hued waters’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Consuelo Roland October 1, 2014
- So You Want To Be A Writer? New radio show to get you started September 29, 2014
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