Posts Tagged prose
I’ve had a request from EJ Runyon (who you might recognise as an Undercover Soundtrack contributor). She’s asked me, quite simply, to talk about writing emotions and feelings.
Emotions and feelings are the nucleus of a story. The whizziest plot events will have nil impact unless they matter to a character – and to us.
Put the other way round, a character’s feelings about an event are as important as what happens. And this emotional tide is the force that sweeps the reader out of their own world and binds them into the story.
So how do we communicate these emotions?
Here’s a big hint: don’t be guided by movies.
I say this because many writers unconsciously learn from movie storytelling. That’s good in many ways – a lot of us get an innate sense for structure and pace from movies. But movies are not a good model for involving a reader in emotions and feelings – because the mechanics are totally different in prose. Movies show emotions from the outside – with faces and performances and actors’ personas, plus atmospheric enhancements like lighting and music. If you try to do that in prose – which I see a lot of writers do – that’s not very effective.
But prose has a great strength of its own. It can go inside. Into the characters’ heads, motivations and thoughts. This is the real core of emotion and feeling – and prose can put us right there.
Emotion in descriptions
Let’s examine a common maxim – write descriptions that ‘use the senses’. This is usually interpreted as sensory input – sights, sounds, tastes, smells. But this misses a more fundamental sense, the one that governs it all – the inner sense, the consciousness. Consciousness is how we experience the world – through our evaluating and emotional faculties, our thoughts and gut reactions.
Film can only approximate this. But prose can transplant us into the character’s heart. Into moments of anxiety, elation, fear, dread, boredom, amusement, the tingle of hope. Prose can stretch time so that it emphasises an important experience – slow the seconds down so we relish an experience – or receive it in agonising detail. It can speed time up so that years pass in a paragraph.
To return to EJ’s challenge, if we connect with emotions and feelings, we can transform mere words into the illusion of real experience.
How do we convey this experience? By far the most powerful tool is internal dialogue.
Internal dialogue can give us context. Suppose your character does something apparently random, like ripping a poster off a wall. Why did she do it? The internal voice fills the gaps. Perhaps the poster is for a political party she disagrees with. Or perhaps it is connected with someone she has fallen out with, and they have posted it on her garden gate. (‘It was Peter’s silly little residents’ group. Well I wasn’t having that on my property.’) Without these details, the act looks random. With them, it is understandable. We know what it’s like to be her. (Of course you might want the act to be puzzling. If so, do that as a deliberate choice.)
This sounds obvious, but I see a lot of writers present such scenes as though they were imagining them in a movie. They intend the moment to express something about the character, but they fail to give us the character’s narrative – so the action just looks baffling. Or they try to convey it with external, visible signs, as though describing an actor’s face – wide eyes and a tightening of the mouth. This is even more baffling. In any case, a facial expression is much more polyphonic than an eye-pop and a scowl – it’s very difficult to describe them precisely enough for them to make sense. Nevertheless, I’ve seen writers tie themselves in knots with gurning and grimaces, as they try to demonstrate their characters are emoting. And still, we might not grasp what that emotion is.
But internal dialogue is much easier – put the reaction into the character’s thoughts. ‘Crikey, I’m not having that abomination on my gate. Not after what he did to me.’
Stronger doses – handle with care
A final point. Emotion and feeling are cornerstones of storytelling. But beware. Strong doses can leave us cold or even be off putting if not handled carefully.
Quite a few writers begin a story with characters in a strong negative emotional state – a character who’s angry with the world. This can work very well to get us on the character’s side, but only if there’s something less hostile to catch hold of. Otherwise, it’s like watching a stranger rant – we’d run away as smartly as possible. So if you’re going to open with a character ranting and raging, add another dimension – a flash of humour, or vulnerability, or maybe regret. Or write it so beautifully that the prose keeps us enthralled.
So … to sum up
1 Context is everything – the ‘why’ makes sense of the ‘what’
2 When writing description, don’t forget the consciousness ‘sense’
3 Use internal dialogue
4 Soften angry protagonists with something less hostile
Woody’s scream pic by Aldoaldoz. Neon scream pic by Cathy Cole.
There’s more on writing internal dialogue – and angry characters – in my characters book.
I could go on for longer. But I want to hear what you guys think – or even feel – about this. And thanks, EJ, for a great assignment.
character motivation, Description, emotive prose, how to write emotions, how to write feelings, internal dialogue, learning writing from movies, prose, why characters do things
Do you learn your storytelling from movies as much as from prose? Many of us do. While certain principles translate well between the two story media, others don’t.
I’ve already discussed a few general points in a previous post – scenes with a lot of characters and shifting point of view , dialogue and description. Today I’m going to look at passage of time (modelled here by Dave).
When is it?
One of the key questions when we come into any scene is this: when is it happening?
Movies and prose handle this in different ways.
Suppose your story features a man who’s refurbishing a derelict bar. In a movie, it’s shown with a sequence of scenes. In one, he is getting to work, pulling old cupboards off the walls and uprooting obsolete appliances. In the next scene, it’s clean, the floorboards are sanded and he’s opening for business.
Because film is an external storytelling medium (we watch it from the outside) we accept that this cut is telling us several days or weeks have passed. We know we don’t stay with the characters for every second of their experience.
But in prose, a cut like this might feel too abrupt. Because prose is internal, and we walk in the characters’ shoes, a sudden jump in time can feel like too much of a lurch. We need a linking sentence or two to ease the way, drawing attention to what’s changed. Many writers who are weaned on movies leave these details out.
A sense of time
As well as evidence that time has passed, we also need a sense of it passing. If you have other characters or storylines, you can cut away to them, then return to your bar, which is now finished. This might create the gap you need.
But if your story follows just one character, you need to create the passage of time in your narration.
If we watch a movie we’ll do this ourselves. We’ll assume the character spent a week or a month working on the bar non stop. In prose, we need you to add this element, even if it’s only two lines, saying ‘I had no time to worry about anything. I was sanding, sawing, painting, ordering crockery. I flopped into bed at night and rose with the dawn.’ Indeed this is the prose version of the movie technique of condensing a sequence of events into a montage. (See, there are some techniques that translate well!)
Prose fiction has to fill more gaps than a movie does. In prose, we need to keep the connection with the reader’s mind, rather than chopping the experience into pieces.
What examples of passage of time have you liked – both in movies and in prose? Let’s discuss!
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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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Do you learn your storytelling from movies as much as from prose? Have you cut your writing teeth on the wisdom of the hallowed screenwriting gurus (McKee, Field and Goldman)? Are you a screenwriter who’s making the switch to novels?
If so, you’ll certainly know some great storytelling tricks, but the two disciplines are different. Some movie techniques simply don’t translate to the page.
Indeed, if you’re writing your novel as though it’s a movie in your head, your ideas might not work as powerfully as they should.
I’ve already discussed a few general points in a previous post – scenes with a lot of characters, short, choppy scenes and point of view. There are other crucial differences between screen and page, so over the next few posts I’m going to look at them in detail.
Film is a visual medium. If we’re watching a scene in a movie where two characters were talking, the words they say are not as noticeable as the characters’ expressions, their actions and the way they do things – whether it’s picking a lock, walking home late at night, sharpening a sword or getting progressively and endearingly sozzled. And so the actors’ moves, the camera angles and the emphasis of the lighting are telling the story just as much as any words the characters are uttering. Indeed, you could probably watch a well-made dialogue scene with the sound off and still understand the thrust of it. An argument, a reconciliation, etc.
On the page, however, the prose does everything. But what I often find with writers who are tuned to the screen is that they don’t realise how much more work a dialogue scene in prose has to do. They haven’t got actors, or a lighting crew, or a set designer, or a composer who will add the other pieces to take the story forward.
They’re good at getting their characters talking, and sounding natural, but their dialogue scenes lack half the information they need to move the story on. They’re imagining it on a screen, and they’re writing what the characters would say and do, but they miss out the impact of the scene’s actions, realisations, changes in mood and plot revelations. All this is part of the story – and it has to come through the characters’ lines and your narration.
If you’ve learned your writing from movies, add these tips to your arsenal for good prose dialogue scenes:
Banter and quips In a movie, atmospheric natter and irrelevant quips are a great way to create a sense of a mood or character. On the page, this quickly looks aimless. Also in a movie, you can have them breaking into a bank vault while bantering – the story is happening at the same time as the visuals. On the page, we can only see one thing at a time. When using inconsequential chat, social niceties and companionable remarks, keep it concise, or find a way to make it purposeful.
Internal reactions The screenplay-tuned writer often doesn’t use internal dialogue, because an actor would add the expressions. Also, most films show a story from a third-person point of view. But in prose you can show what a character thinks and feels. Either you can do this with a close third-person point of view, or a first-person point of view, or by showing reactions through a physical act like clenching a fist. If a character is keeping their reactions hidden from the other characters in the scene, make sure we see they are seething – or celebrating – under the surface.
Silence, pauses and non-verbals Remember we see dialogue as well as hear it – don’t forget to include the characters’ reactions and non-verbal responses in your scene. Use your narration to create pauses. Make them sigh, look out of the window. Let them change their expression.
Prose is your background music Take charge of the scene’s environment. Create atmosphere through your description of the setting. A dripping tap in a moment of silence might increase a sense of tension. Rain might echo a character’s sadness or make a happy moment seem deliriously unreal.
There’s a lot more about writing good dialogue scenes in Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel 2. And Nail Your Novel 3 will concentrate on plot – so if that sounds like your cup of tea, sign up for my newsletter to get word as soon as it’s available.
Let’s discuss! do you find it tricky to write good dialogue scenes? Do you have any tips that helped you?
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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?
Today I’m at Multi-Story.co.uk, exploring what makes an effective prose style – and the knots we can get ourselves into as we try to develop it. Do come over.
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‘Tell me about pace,’ said one of the panellists in my video interview at John Rakestraw’s. If we hadn’t had a time limit I’d still be talking now.
A well-paced story is like an act of hypnosis. It has a travelling beat that takes control of the reader’s attention. It proceeds at just the right speed to trap the reader a little longer, urge them to turn another page.
How is it done?
With constant development and change.
You might assume pace is only a concern in fast-moving plots, such as thrillers. Not so. Every story will benefit if it is written with an awareness of pace; even a leisurely character journey.
Indeed, pace is a fundamental in most dynamic artforms – not just storytelling.
Video and music
If you’re making a video, you want to change something every 15 seconds. The change might be subtle, such as fading a colour, or panning a picture so the view reveals more. Or it might be obvious, such as switching to a different image or bringing in new music. Listen to a piece of music and you’ll hear how it’s being constantly modified. Even a simple verse/chorus/verse structure, which appears predictable, is developing. Other instruments are joining, variations are being made with the phrasing, note patterns or rhythm.
Singers do it too. When I used to take lessons, I was told that if a lyric is repeated, it must have different emphasis or emotion. (‘I get a kick out of you’ ‘I get a kick out of you’.) Listen to an actor repeat a line. The repetitions will not be the same (unless for a deliberate effect).
Law of physics
So audiences need change. This is, if you like, a physical law of any dynamic art. They need to be kept attentive while we have our wicked (or wonderful) way with them.
How can we do this in stories?
1 In a story, pace comes from change. Always be developing. In every scene. The change doesn’t have to be big. It can be tiny, such as the reader’s perception of a situation or a shift in a character’s attitude. But every scene should take the reader somewhere they didn’t expect. Scenes with no change lie flat on the page.
2 Remember the singers and actors. Look for repeated lines, emotional changes and plot events. If you repeat something, develop it or make sure it will be read differently – perhaps with new significance. (Unless you intend deliberately to keep it static.) Another type of repetition is the function of a scene – in My Memories of a Future Life, I jettisoned a scene that repeated an emotional beat I had already covered. Here’s the post that explains. This kind of repetition is hard to spot. The surest way I’ve found is by making a beat sheet, where I summarise the entire book by writing the purpose of each scene. This reveals the kind of repetition that will spoil the forward momentum. More about the beat sheet (left) in NYN1.
3 Don’t be slow but don’t rush. An ideally paced story keeps up with the reader’s need for change. Although we want to pull them along, we don’t want to overtake them. Paradoxically, if you do this, they might feel the story is slow. So when your trusted critique partners tell you a scene flags, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have to cut material. Try writing a version where you enlarge a moment, explore it more. See if that does the trick.
4 Use variety. Readers get numbed if too many successive scenes have the same tone (except at the climax). Vary the feel of each scene. Give readers a breather after major revelations. Give them a lighter moment or regroup around the campfire after you’ve put them through the wringer. Another way to use variety is to cut away to a subplot. The contrast will intensify the impact of all your scenes. Again, the beat sheet will show you this at a glance.
5 Become aware of your prose. Pace can come from your style. Not from show-off words or sparkling metaphors, but at a basic, moment-by-moment level. Virginia Woolf said ‘style is a very simple matter; it is all rhythm’. What might she mean? I like to think of it as the fall of syllables in a sentence. This is independent of length; a well-paced long sentence is as easy to read as a short one. But often we use more syllables than an idea needs; we cram in adjectives, adverbs and similes when we’d be better to choose a more vivid verb. (‘She shouted in a harsh voice’ or ‘she roared’.) A smooth sentence, though, makes every syllable count and uses them with grace. It has a quality of control, which keeps the reader in surrender to the writer’s mind.
Pace keeps a story alive and restless, makes it grow in the reader’s mind. It sets up an imbalance, a need for resolution. When this stops, you let the audience go. And the proper place for that is …
thanks for the runner pic Jacobo Garcia
Well that’s my take on pace. What’s yours? Let’s discuss!
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Never begin your story with weather. This we hear for many good reasons. For example, Joe Konrath, who is spitting bolts of lightning after judging a story competition.
So I started reading The Rapture by Liz Jensen, and she begins thus:
That summer, the summer all the rules began to change, June seemed to last for a thousand years. The temperatures were merciless: thirty-eight, thirty-nine, then forty in the shade. It was heat to die in, to go nuts in, or to spawn. Old folk collapsed, dogs were cooked alive in cars, lovers couldn’t keep their hands off each other. The sky pressed down like a furnace lid, shrinking the subsoil, cracking concrete, killing shrubs from the roots up…’
It’s weather. Or is it? I rather liked it, so why does she get away with it?
1 It’s interesting
Weather is usually not interesting. Most of the time in real life, weather is a conversational gambit used by those who wish they had something better to talk about. It’s throat clearing. It’s asking for permission for a conversation. It’s perhaps a plea for the other person to think of something less dull to talk about. In writing, it’s often a hesitant moment as the writer wonders exactly how to introduce everything. ‘Er, there was a blue sky…’
But here, Liz Jensen has made extraordinary weather. It’s hardly even weather, in fact – it’s a dangerous setting, a war with the environment that makes living perilous. It skews the familiar – like that off-kilter opening from George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four:
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.
2 It’s about people
We’re more curious about people than we are about things. Which would you rather hear – a story about a chair or a story about the people whose attic it ended up in?
In The Rapture, Liz Jensen makes her opening paragraph about the people and how their lives have been changed. Where normality is disrupted, a story is bound to happen. (In fact, this excerpt has a double dose of people because it turns out to be first person – but that’s not apparent here.)
3 A storyteller is luring us in
Opening paragraphs aren’t just about the events. Like the opening bars of a song, they’re an introduction to the writer’s voice. Liz Jensen’s piece is assured, phrased with pizzaz, visualised with an eye for the interesting. It persuades you to lie back and be charmed.
The writing world is full of rules and taboos and it’s easy to take them too literally. Beginning a story with weather isn’t the problem. Neither is looking in a mirror, describing a character, waking up or getting dressed. The problem is failing to be interesting, failing to show us characters, failing to convey a state of unease or instability and failing to cast a spell over the reader.
Thanks for the pic Larry Johnson
What else makes a good beginning? Let’s discuss examples… especially if they involve some of the traditional taboos
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We all have words and phrases we unintentionally use too often. They’re very conspicuous to readers – and virtually invisible to us.
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.)
Using a thesaurus does not make you a dinosaur
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 – the good side
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.
Thanks for the pics CarbonNYC and sim, youn jim
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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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.
Important as that is, the charm of a story lies beyond this.
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.
Thanks for the pic of Momix Giandomenico Ricci
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What makes good writing? Victoria Mixon and I are fearlessly grappling with this question in this week’s editor chat, over at her wood-panelled lacy writing nest. Highlight? Victoria threatens to shave her head and move to Tibet Om your way over and see if you can stop her…
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