Posts on Writing

Posts on Writing

These are excerpts from a guide in progress. I address the writing process on this page in terms of large to small, from the general structure and shape of a novel, to a review of word choice. And a fair amount in-between. This may be of use to writers in the the process of writing a novel, and particularly those writing their first novel, or those who have received feedback about previous works needing improvement to structure, format, or grammar.

General Notes on Story

Sentence Structure

Word Use and Punctuation

General Notes on Story

 

FreytagMountain

Events aren’t a story. A story is structured in such a way that there is a progression. “Progression” is a vague term, so to clarify, in a story, events build upon each other, leading toward the point of highest drama (the climax) and a conclusion.

A woman walks down the street and into a store to buy a sandwich.

This is an explanation of some events that occurred. This is not a story. Find out what is, on “Events are Moments, Stories are Progressions.”

Novel vs Screenplay

In Novel vs Screenplay, Round One, we review why descriptions of Ray nodding his head excitedly with his long, unkempt hair shaking around on his head, then turning to Lucy to stare quizzically into her eyes, and finally walking across the conference room to sit down in one of the comfortable chairs at the far end of the richly-varnished mahogany table at the back of the room, are story-killingly boring.

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Descriptions of physical actions are nothing more than stage directions, and adverbs and dialogue are quite similar in that sense. Learn why relying on dialogue and adverbs is another story-killing habit that needs to be kicked, in Novel vs Screenplay, Round Two.

Writing is an art, and a craft

“I’ve spent most of the day putting in a comma, and the rest of the day taking it out.” -Oscar Wilde

This isn’t about comma usage! Ceci n’est pas une virgule! It’s about knowing what a comma does to the meaning of a sentence. Writing is about putting words on a page. Conscious writing—the kind I recommend—is about deciding which words, in which order, best serve your story.

Know your “Arts and Crafts”

How Readers Assemble The World

There were two bikers standing outside the bar.

Did you see two men in leather jackets, jeans, and black boots? Beer bellies? Was the bar dark inside? Did one of the bikers have a shaved head? Do they both look tough? Would you expect that they are armed with knives or maybe a pistol? Are there choppers parked outside?

The reader assembles a world based on the information given. Use this to your advantage, and focus more about the story, rather than spending too much time on minor details. Read more here, in “Reader Templates.

Name That Name

Charles, Lana (“Lans” as we call her) and Sanjeet work at Carlton Industries in an office with Berthold, Christie, Sharon, Ray, another Charles (Badgerton, funny name, huh?), Crystal, Nessa (short for Vanessa), and Jake Masterton, the section chief….

There is such a thing as name overload. Don’t focus the reader upon things they don’t need to remember. Read more on “You Name It!”

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Names aren’t the only details to avoid when they’re unnecessary. Focusing on specific objects if they’re not going to play a part later on in your story is another way to frustrate your reader, who is trying very hard to remember everything you put in your story. No dead end plot points, please! Avoid too many “Details, Details.”

Overinsertion of Character in Narrative

Keep in mind that your reader has a split personality when reading. The reader tags along with the main character, and often engages in the story as the main character. The reader is pulled out of the experience whenever the writer notes the character’s reaction.

Read more on “Character See-saw.”

And while we’re on the subject, have a read:

I sat down and I opened the book, then I closed it because I was tired and I couldn’t concentrate, so I could think about what I was going to do in the morning.

I-yi-yi! Enough with “I”!

It’s an Explosion, We Know He’s Watching It!

When writing, keep in mind that when you’re in any character’s POV, there are assumptions the reader makes about the characters actions and condition, and there’s no need to fill prose with explanations of what the reader already knows.

Read more “Assumptions About the Character”

“Show, don’t tell.”

If you haven’t heard that phrase before, it’s great you’ve come out from under the rock! Consider the following telling:

I was depressed that she was gone.

And this, showing:

She’d been everything to me, and the agony at her loss wasn’t going to go away anytime soon, if ever.

Presenting three posts on the difference between showing and telling. The first post is “Glint on Broken Glass,”  the second is “More About Broken Glass,” and the latest is “Shoot The Glass!” Start at the very beginning–a very good place to start.

Them’s The Breaks

If you’ve been wondering how to transition between scenes and when changing character point of view (POV) in a chapter, check out “Gimme a Break!” But learning the difference is only half the battle, and you want the other half of the battle as well, don’t you? Learn how to make effective transitions in my followup post, “Lost In Space.”

Speaking of Breaks

Writers sometimes try to dramatize things using visual tricks.

Like this one.

A sentence by itself.

For emphasis.

Over.

And.

Over.

First, you’re wasting space this way. Second, you’re dramatically overusing a trick that can be useful on rare occasions, and overuse kills a good trick. Third, sentence fragments are grammatically incorrect. Read all about it in “Fragmented. Totally.”

Seriously, Keep it Short

You must watch out for all cases in which you put padding and excess explanation in your novel’s sentences.

There’s a lot of padding in that sentence. Here’s how it can be edited:

Watch out for padding and excess explanation in your novel.

Read “Enough with the Fluff!”

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And speaking of fluff, here’s something to consider:

“Let’s go to the store together,” he said to her, asking her in so many words to go to the store with him, then turning to go to the store with the expectation that she would be coming with him to the store.

Remember the context of the scene, and avoid repeating information unnecessarily. Read more on “Stop Right There!”

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Coming Up Next!

Jerri walked into the old curio shop. Little did she know what fate had in store for her inside.

And little did the reader know the writer would be foreshadowing! There are a few important reasons to avoid this form of foreshadowing. One is that most readers doesn’t want to know there’s a surprise ahead–they want to be surprised while reading.

Find out more here: “That’s Telling!”

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That being said, on occasion, the technique is still used. There are specific criteria involved, but Caleb Carr’s The Alienist is a good example of a situation where it’s used successfully. Find out how and why, in “Reading Notes: Foreshadowing.”

Dialogue and Dialogue Tags: My Neverending Story

“Hello,” he said.

Pretty straightforward, sure, but how many back-and-forths can a writer get away with before needing a dialogue tag? And where do tags fit best? Find out on “Tag, You’re Dialogue!”

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“Hello.” He decided not to say anything else.

Period? Comma? When does a dialogue tag take one, and when the other? It has to do with what kind of verb you’re using. If the character is saying, shouting, screaming or whispering, a comma connects the tag to how it was said. Read more on “Tag, You’re Dialogue: Punctuation Edition.”

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“I don’t want to go to the store.” I decide not to argue. 

Can you guess how many characters there are by looking at that piece of dialogue and (what seems to be a) tag? And what if I told you that’s not a tag, but a thought placed incorrectly after a piece of dialogue? A tag always comes from the same character who is speaking the piece of dialogue. If it’s not from that character, it shouldn’t be on the same line. Read more on “Pull That Tag!”

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Dialogue tags can be used to show who is talking. But overuse of simple “XYZ, he said” type tags is lazy and disappoints your reader. Worse yet, “XYZ, he said, ABC-edly” compounds lazy writing by glossing over character emotions and thoughts. Learn why adverbs in dialogue tags are a poor substitute for good writing in “‘Dialogue Tags,’ He Wrote, Adverbedly.”

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Looking for a list of speaking verbs you can use in dialogue tags? Not only do I provide that, I also cover what you can’t use as a dialogue tag. Read all the gory details in “Dialogue Tags: List To One Side Edition.”

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Hi.

Oh, hello.

What’s up?

Nothing much, you?

Nothing, just filling space in this book with useless chit-chat.

Oh, okay.

Seriously, stop filling your writing with dialogue that doesn’t do anything for your story. Read why, in “Cut the Chit-Chat!”

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And for variety, there’s variety! simply ending each piece of dialogue with “XYZ said” is deadly. It’s monotonous, and it’s lazy. Find out what you can do to make your prose more lively, in “He Said, She Said.”

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Are you making sure the reader knows who is saying what? Dialogue tags serve a number of purposes. One important task is to make sure your reader is sure who is saying what in the dialogue presented. Confusing your reader is never a good thing. But more importantly, you should be writing each piece of dialogue for a reason. The dialogue and tag should provide the reader with some sort of insight about each character. Read more, on “Who Said That?”

 

Sentence Structure

What is an Elegant Sentence?

How is it that a writer can start a wildly successful novel explaining that the main character is not beautiful? By putting more into that first sentence than simple descriptions and by using words well. The first sentence of Gone with the Wind is a perfect example of good writing. Find out why, in “Was Not Beautiful is Beautiful.”

A Sentence is a Paragraph is a Chapter is a Story

Think about your paragraphs as mini-stories, with a beginning, middle, and conclusion. Whether you’re putting together an essay, a short story or a novel, sentences and good paragraphs are part of the foundation to good prose. Get your story working at this level, and you’re well on the way to success for the story as a whole. Read more here: “Paragraphs: Waves on your Story’s Sea”.

S+V+O

Subject, verb, object. There’s nothing wrong with a simple sentence structure.

The terrain over which Claudia traveled eastward for five days wasn’t, for the most part, too difficult.

We can only hope Claudia’s travels weren’t as difficult as reading that sentence! At worst, your writing should be invisible. Readers don’t want to have to stumble over bunches of commas and convoluted phrases. Bring your writing back to basics.

Read about “Simple Sentences: Subject, Verb, Object Lesson”

Clause and Effect

If you’re a writer, saying you’re uninterested in grammar is saying you want to write but don’t want to know how to put words together. Earlier posts on sentence structure include an overview of why the Subject + Verb + Object structure should be your default, but before I go further, let’s do a quick review of clauses. A clause is a piece of information. Here are some examples:

A large car

Jayne’s knitted cap

Under the bed

What are dependent and independent clauses? Find out, in “Writing for a Good Clause.”

Length Matters

How to write calm moments and action scenes? Well first of all, keep sentence length in mind. Short sentences convey rapid action, long sentences work better for painting idyllic scenes. Find out more, in “The Long and Short.”

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What Were You Doing When….?

The guests were having a splendid time at the party celebrating His Lordship’s birthday, when a large group of tigers burst into the room and ate everyone up.

What’s the difference between present and past tense? One is ongoing, and the other is finished. For this reason, “I am running” is fine by itself, but “I was running” needs something else to explain what happened next. Learn how to use past continuous in “V-ing There.”

Lessons were learned.

The passive voice is not a novelist’s friend. Learn why you need to keep your characters in the picture, in “Be An Activist!”

Word Use and Punctuation

I’ll Get to the Point

The group got to town around six that night, got some dinner then got down to business of discussing the strange jar they got at the flea market.

Get it? “Get” is not your friend. Read more on “Get Rid of Got!”

“Get to” and “get down” in the above sentence are examples of compound verbs. Getting rid of “get” is a start, but there are more compound verbs out there, and for the most part they should be avoided. Why? Find out in “Compounding Problems.”

Kill All Adverbs Dead

Don’t take away from the verb’s glory with unnecessary distractions. A few other examples:

Sharon decided to change the subject a bit.

(Doctor McCoy never said, “He’s a bit dead, Jim.”)

The innkeeper actually looked somewhat amused by this new turn of events.

(Actually somewhat? That’s double trouble!)

She opened the package and happily grinned at what was inside.

(People who are not happy do not grin.)

Always keep in mind, verbs are fearless. They are not afraid to stand on their own. They do not need puny adverbs to stand around trying to look good next to them!

Read more of “Suddenly! A Post About Adverbs!” And when you’ve had your fill, check out the smash best-selling sequel: “Suddenly! A Post About Adverbs: Industrious Writer Edition.”

Actually, I wrote a third post on the subject of adverbs. It’s about how much I hate “actually.” 

A Game of Adjectives

 A dark, heavy silence filled the room.

Hmm. As opposed to a light, heavy silence? “Dark” and “heavy” indicate an oppressive atmosphere in the room, so using both is repeating very similar information. Find out more about the “As Opposed To”? game.

Comma Comments

What are commas good for? How about to avoid being a cannibal, for example?

Let’s eat Grandma!

This is a very different activity from:

Let’s eat, Grandma!

Find out more about commas in “Let Us Pause a Moment.”

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5 Comments

  1. Thanks for posting this John. But I don’t think I’ll ever get all my commas right. 🙁 Luckily I can get you to help me out with editing. Because beside a great author, you’re a terrific editor.

  2. Looks like a valuable assortment of essential reading for an aspiring writer such as myself. I intend to go through and read most of them. Many of these cover topics I certainly need to revisit! Thanks John! : )