Friday, September 28, 2018
Back when I was in high school, a friend informed me about how I slurred certain words. Not like a speech impediment, but more of a dialectic thing. Instead of properly sounding out the words wouldn’t, shouldn’t, couldn’t, and didn’t, I dropped the “ld” part, making them woun’t, coun’t, shoun’t and din’t. I had no idea I was doing this, but apparently I was known for it. I had a reputation, as it were. Not the worst kind of reputation to have in high school, but not a proud one either. Was it better to be known as a South Side yokel with a slack-jawed drawl, or not be known at all? Hard to say.
I bring this up because this odd speech pattern was a memorable part of my otherwise-forgettable high school career. That part stood out, and for better or worse, it stuck in people’s minds. For all of those stories about the various sins of my youth, the rumors of stolen cars, vandalism, and other local unsolved crimes, this one little quirk became indelibly associated with me.
Now consider this on the written page. Anything we want to tag to our character, we do through words. All our visual cues, all the behaviors and mannerisms have to be specifically brought up to direct the reader. However, our character’s way of speaking comes out in dialogue every time, whether we like it or not. And this creates an opportunity for the writer to give that character a unique, memorable quality every time they speak without breaking from the story flow.
One of the great missteps of storytelling is when the narrating voice sounds like the voice of all the characters. Technically, it is not wrong. A reader should be able to tell the difference between narration and dialogue without any special prompts. However, without variation, the characters have a difficult time rising up from the narrative voice.
There are simple ways to make a character’s voice stand out, but if they are applied without context, they feel obvious and clumsy. If the character has an accent, a drawl, a regional twang to their words, then that can showcase a character. However, if that manner of speaking serves no other purpose than to separate the character from the others, it could feel forced and unnatural. Anything that sets the character’s voice apart from the rest should also contribute to our understanding of the character.
Think of the most obvious stand-out tool used to define a character: The catch phrase. These are popular not because they can fit on bumper stickers and create free promotion, but because the character with that phrase now stands above the rest. Now, not every character needs to have their defining phrase or their marketable saying. However, a character with that regular, predictable word or phrase, can also show part of their personality.
Most of my friends frequently debate things – sometimes too much. However, one of them does not like getting into all of that back-and-forth, because in his opinion, nothing gets done and it wastes a lot of time. So whenever some topic starts drifting toward a potential debate, he will shut it down with, “Whatever.” One word that says he has no interest in this. And yes, that one word is basically his catch phrase. Is it worth a bumper sticker? Not one that I’d buy. However, when that one word shows up in dialogue, we are instantly reminded of that character’s lack of interest in debating and his assertiveness in changing the subject. At that point, he rises above the others.
Another quick little tool that makes voice pop out is habitual words or patterns, which can be applied in a simple, rule-based manner. How many people do you know who start off sentences with words such as like, well, basically, or some other grammatical filler? Do they close sentences with “or maybe not” or “I’m just saying”? Do they slip into these habits in response to questions? This is stand-out voice material, and we can apply it through a simple rule. The writer can remind themselves that whenever the character has to answer a question, start and end the answer with their usual filler. By following rules like that, the character becomes a unique element.
Whatever tools you use for making one character stand out, they only work if they are used with purpose and consistency. If a character throws around five-syllable words when a simple one will do, make sure that it matches with their personality and need to show off their big vocabulary, and use it whenever possible. If someone likes placing Shakespeare quotes in everyday dialogue, make sure the reader knows the character is well-read and keep a stack of usable phrases in east reach. Once the purpose is clear and the usage is consistent, the character will stand out.
As for me, I finally kicked the bad habits of my South Side drawl. However, my next post will talk about my other bad habits, and how I used those to my advantage in the narrative voice.
Monday, September 24, 2018
One of my favorite characters to write about is the city of Chicago. From my first home just north of 79th Street to my days in Little Italy, Tri-Taylor, Ukrainian Village and the Loop, and even now as I live in the suburbs, Chicago has always resonated with me. It lives within me, providing a warmth like a slice of deep-dish pizza and following me wherever I travel, making sure that no matter where I am, I never put ketchup on a hot dog.
|How can you not love this city?|
Deep reservoirs of affection like this are what writers need to tap into constantly, transferring that bond to whatever they connect with, then smearing it all over the page. Maybe it isn’t an intimate connection to Chicago – I can accept that. But whatever they react to, that needs to be their conduit into writing passionately. Saul Bellow, Studs Terkel, Carl Sandburg and countless others wrote stories and essays that were love songs to the Windy City, and every other city has plenty of writers romancing every street.
But how do we turn this love of something into anything more than an essay or poem on how much we care for the subject? My love of Chicago is very strong, but unless all my stories take place in Chicago, is it really going to work?
The best route to take when using a place or time as a metaphor for the character is to find the traits that they have in common and draw parallels between the two. This both personifies the place and bonds it with the character, while allowing the reader to see additional features of one in the other – features maybe the author never noticed.
So let’s go back to my love of Chicago. If I place that into a character, it needs to be communicated as that character’s love, but in a way where the city claims its own identity. In this piece from a working manuscript, I merge this love of the city with a guy named Tom:
Stepping onto Michigan Avenue, the city grabbed Tom as no other place could. All his senses came alive from Chicago’s firm embrace. He merged in with the steady flow of commuters marching toward the Loop, industrious soldiers moving forward to turn the wheels of commerce. All the aftershaves, perfumes, lotions and body scents fused into a grand aroma of the working masses. Thousands of feet stepped in time with honking horns and rumbling buses, this powerful workforce shaking the very sidewalks in perfect rhythm with Tom’s heartbeat. Skateboarders bounced over the crosswalks, grinding off the railings and bus-stop benches, effortlessly weaving through the structured chaos of the morning commute. Tom was back in his city, and for the first time in too long, he felt alive. One skateboarder swept by Tom’s side before looping around the newsstand.
“That kid’s going to be famous someday,” Tom thought. That’s what Chicago did for people.
Chicago becomes Tom, Tom becomes Chicago. From that point forward, any mention of the city and its characteristics becomes something we identify in Tom. An entire metropolis now contributes to our character, and all to the reader’s benefit. And Chicago itself becomes alive, vibrant, and real.
The additional benefit of this tool is that once we establish this relationship, we can portray changes of mood by changing the character’s perspective toward that which he is bonded to. If we revisit Tom after a bad weekend, we portray his bad mood through his outlook on the city:
Chicago’s heavy air assaulted his senses, confronting him the moment he stepped onto Michigan Avenue. Commuters marched toward the Loop, mindless cattle walking toward the economic slaughterhouse that cut away their souls one paycheck at a time. The air reeked of the chaotic riot of perfumes and colognes trying to mask the nauseating stench of condemnation. Everyone droned forward, thousands of people each in their own little bubble of self-concern, crossing streets against the light as if traffic owed them special consideration. So many people, so little consideration even for the souls bumping shoulders with them. The morning skateboarders sliced and cut in front of every commuter possible, more concerned about the railings and bus-stop benches than people. A skateboarder lost his balance, his board landing at Tom’s feet. He watched at the twenty-something guy with blond dreadlocks get up from the sidewalk.
The guy laughed. “Sorry about that.”
“You’re sorry?” Tom picked up the guy’s board, looked back at him, then flung the skateboard into Michigan Avenue traffic. “Now you’re sorry.”
Same city, same morning commute, but the different description creates an entirely new environment and sketches a different mindset for Tom. The passion for the subject matter is the same, as is the connection to the city. But love is no longer the emotion of the day.
Maybe your romantic interest in life isn’t Chicago. That’s okay. A part of finding your voice as a writer is finding that thing (or things) that you really connect with, then exploring that bond. Think about it, write about it, connect yourself to whatever it may be. As you draw these connections, you develop the language that will allow your characters to show the same passion for the things they connect with. They will see the unseen energies, feel the pulse of the city, or accept the warm embrace of the world around them.
But hopefully they won’t throw that guy’s board into rush-hour traffic on Michigan Avenue. I still feel a little bad about that.
Friday, September 21, 2018
I loved my first car. She was a hideous 1976 AMC Pacer, as gray as old, tired eyes, lined with rust-worn trim, doors like battleship hatches, and enough glass surrounding the driver to make the car an honorary fishbowl. I bought that beauty for three-hundred dollars when she was ten years old (that’s like a senior citizen in 1970s car years), poured a bunch of cash into getting her healthy, and probably spent more time pushing her than driving. And when she died in a terrible wreck on a foggy back road, my heart broke a little (along with three vertebrae – different story.) I’ve had many cars since, but she was my first.
|The enigmatic 1976 AMC Pacer|
This is not an uncommon story. As much as I loved that AMC Pacer, the same can be said for most people and their first cars. However, when it comes to writing, expressing that love is not as easy. After all, loving another person is different than loving one ton of Detroit steel. To make our readers understand these deep feelings for a car, a house, or any other inanimate object, we need to use our tools in a new way.
The first tool is our, “show, don’t tell” rule, which we should use all the time. When we use this in showing one’s feelings toward an object, it can be easily accomplished through one demonstrative technique. Offer a simple scene: the main character washing the car in the afternoon sun, meticulously putting extra wax over the rust spots in a vain effort to hold off decay, picking bugs off the grill one-by-one. We now know there is something special between car and character.
This becomes even more effective in dialogue. When a character talks about their car, imagine that character talking about their significant other, or someone they have a huge crush on. Think of the times you felt that way, let those emotions build up, then write them down as dialogue about the car. The best compliment you can get in those situations is when a reader later says, “I had to reread that to see if you were talking about a person.”
And this leads us to the best tool we can use to turn an object into a character – personification. In the simplest description, this is giving personal attributes to inanimate or non-human objects. In life we do it all the time. We describe our pets with human traits, we give emotions to the weather, and even symbolize nature itself as a woman.
The simplest personification is through pronouns. Look at the first paragraph of this post. My car is referred to as a she. This is commonplace with cars, boats, planes, and most any other vehicle. (Unofficial rule: When we trust our life with an object, it automatically becomes a she.) I also referred to my car’s health, compared her age to a senior citizen, and described her loss as a death. These little tricks bond items to their owners as far as the reader is concerned, and the relationship is solidified.
Of course, this does not have to be an affectionate relationship. Read Stephen King’s Christine or From A Buick 8 to see how ties to a car can have a downside. The point is that exploring ways to turn objects into characters creates another very relatable facet for your writing. Furthermore, watch what happens to your story if that character loses the object of their desire. The reader should feel just as bad as the character does, or as bad as I did when I lost my beautiful Pacer.
Monday, September 17, 2018
A fellow writer presented me with a very interesting question about character description: “Should I always mention the color of the character’s skin?” A simple question but with a lot of deep subtext, so I decided to discuss it here.
The simplest answer to that question is yes… and no, and often but sometimes maybe and other times not.
Make sense yet?
Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man to see a great exploration of race without being socially preachy.) But offering flexibility on the matter brings us into immediate conflict with the idea that the characters should be constructs of the reader just as much as the writer. Should race be defined as a part of that construct?
Perhaps it’s beneficial to first tease out some of the obvious scenarios from the main topic. If race is a key source of tension throughout the story, then description is mandatory and should be reinforced. If a character’s race is an important part of their situation – living in a new and different culture, experiencing things as an outsider, or merely the struggle to fit in to a new world – then not only is it important, but the contrast between that character and others is also a priority. Those are the easy cases.
In The Book of Cain (self-promotion), I was very deliberate in offering racial cues to describe Cain, but only to set him apart from the rest of his environment. His details were ambiguous to any particular race – fair skinned, black hair with an uneven wave, eyes matching his skin – and only tell the reader that he is different. However the reader defines him is now their decision. The only thing they know for sure is that he is not like everyone else, or anyone else.
Now that we’ve cleared the easy hurdle of using race for obvious purpose, things get a little tricky. Race and skin color become more nuanced, and the writer must consider whether they are important factors in the story. In the real world, few things are more personal than one’s race, but if it does not play a role in the story, is it worth mentioning? If the story is about a kid on a dock trying to reel in a big catfish, does the kid’s race matter? The struggle of boy versus fish is understood across the racial spectrum.
When the story goes beyond a catfish to social interaction, things can be as easy or as difficult as the writer wishes, but there is no hard-and-fast rule. If we have a story involving three characters discussing the weather, maybe it makes no difference. Now, if they talk about sports, perhaps arguing over who was the best baseball player ever, does race become a part of their decision? Is it necessary? Do the characters bias their pick based on their own race, or think other people are biased in their decision? If the debate is between Roberto Clemente, Barry Bonds, and Mickey Mantle, do those choices correlate with the people in the debate? Or is that even important? The writer makes this decision, but needs to be aware that this can play a role in how the reader interprets the story – whether the writer intends it to be a factor or not.
As the writer makes this decision, they must keep in mind those things the reader may assume before reading the first word. Readers tend to imagine characters based on their own traits unless otherwise prompted, and often build them around the author’s identity as well. This works out fine in most cases, and rarely disrupts a story. Neutral racial descriptions allow the most readers to identify closely with the characters, though there is an argument to be made that this kind of compromise can take away some of the story’s depth of character.
In the astounding American Gods, author Neil Gaiman took a very clever descriptive liberty. The main character, Shadow, is very engaging and relatable, with qualities that make him very enjoyable to read. It’s only well into the book that we realize he’s black, and by that time we have invested ourselves into Shadow’s personality rather than any racial qualities. For any readers who imagined Shadow as looking like British-born Mr. Gaiman, well… surprise.
Also, I cannot do this post without firm recognition to the groundbreaking work of Ezra Jack Keats' The Snowy Day. The simple story of Peter in this children's picture book takes this discussion to a whole new level, and I feel it is assigned reading when children are first entering their picture-book stage.
While race always has the potential to bring controversy to a story, it is ultimately the writer’s call on including it. There is no clear-cut answer as to what is appropriate, or whether the relative importance of a character’s race should determine if it is or isn’t included. There could be an entire post discussing the political correctness or social justice of emphasizing race (there won’t be one.) And in the end, it would still be the writer’s decision.
How did I answer that writer’s question? “Write about what you feel is important – for the story and for you. If the story requires racial definition, that’s fine. If you want to include it, that’s fine too. Just be mindful of the route you choose.”
I think that last part could be a life lesson too.
Friday, September 14, 2018
We all have that friend. You know that friend very well. That friend who says, “Hey, I got to tell you this story!” You settle in, expecting to hear a story worth your time. You listen, following along, going with the build-up to that big payoff, and… nothing. Your friend has told you about something that happened, but you ask yourself whether or not it was a story. Worse yet, you ask yourself whether you can get back that part of your life. The answer to both questions is “No.” Storytelling is more than just telling something.
|The USS Indianapolis|
A friend in a writing group told us about the plight of the USS Indianapolis during World War Two. This was the ship assigned the top-secret mission of transporting the atomic bombs across the Pacific. As the ship returned from its delivery, it was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine. At least three-hundred souls went down with the ship, which sank in twelve minutes. The survivors had to wait for rescue, many floating in the water. But since this was a secret mission, nobody knew the ship’s location or its sinking for days. These sailors spent five days adrift in the Pacific before their chance rescue, dying from exposure, exhaustion, dehydration, delirium, and worst of all – shark attacks. Many of the nine-hundred men who survived the initial sinking died in the Pacific in some of the worst ways possible.
With all due respect to those brave men, that last paragraph is not a story.
For a story to engage the reader, it has to be more than a recollection of events. Without touching upon the personal, relatable side of those events, the story becomes a detached documentary, with all those souls lost in the Pacific little more than statistics. A real story personalizes that experience, brings into focus an intimacy the reader is able to envision, feel, touch in their minds. When this becomes a story, the reader becomes one of those survivors adrift in the Pacific.
I’ve never been on a battleship, but according to my research, they are big. A heavy cruiser such as the USS Indianapolis was two football fields in length – a fifty-story office building on its side, sailing at over thirty knots. Living on such a thing is more than I can relate to, so it is the storyteller’s job to bring this into more intimate focus. Once we shift into a perspective from one sailor’s experience, now we are in story mode. Even if it takes the vantage point of a few different crew members and what they endured, we are now telling a story. A 600-foot-plus heavy cruiser now becomes a world of dull gray metal surrounding the reader. The details can come out, the emotions can pour in, and the reader can climb through those narrow hatchways and feel the hot Pacific winds.
Now, for those of us who have never talked to a survivor from the USS Indianapolis, been on a military vessel or even sailed the Pacific, do not be alarmed. Depending on what part of the story we want to tell, we don’t need every detail. We don’t need to know the name of every crew member or the shift our character took that day. We need to convince the reader that the experiences we write about are believable.
If I write about a hypothetical sailor who managed to get off the ship and not drown as the vessel went down, but finally died just as the rescue planes flew overhead, I need to focus on experiences that reinforce the narrative. The chaos of the ship going under, the bodies of all those lost souls floating by the few lifeboats that survived, the hot sun, the lack of food. Let’s also not forget being adrift in an ocean full of water but dying of thirst because nothing around is drinkable. This suffering becomes a human experience.
This is where the story becomes intimate, and those details drag in the reader. The story is now refined and sharpened from a tale from World War Two to a story of trying to survive in the ocean while sharks swim off with the dead and the living, sailors die from hypothermia in the middle of the hot Pacific sun, and some drink saltwater in desperation only to go mad and swim toward a hallucination on the horizon. We now have the drama, tension, and human elements critical to any story.
If it helps your writing process, do a little research into whatever subject you are writing about. Check the Wikipedia page for the USS Indianapolis, read a few stories written by Navy veterans, maybe even tour a battleship. The most important part, however, will always be conveying the relatable element of the story. All the military details in the world will not match the simple story of one person’s struggle. And in this particular case, every bit of knowledge about the USS Indianapolis will not be as important as showing the heroism, bravery, and humanity of those brave sailors, most of whom never came home.
Monday, September 10, 2018
One of the first things we are taught in any writing class is to focus on description and detail. Beginning writers start off very weak with these, then quickly use them to painful excess. These descriptions and details go from non-existent to annoying to confusing to many other places, but the important part is that we learn to use them effectively. We don’t always need to use them, but we need to develop them as tools so we can bring them out when necessary.
As we progress as writers, we learn there is no one way to use description. William Faulkner used the technique of the compounding sentence to create long, elaborate descriptions – and by long, I mean thirteen-hundred-word sentences – that are surprisingly engaging. F. Scott Fitzgerald worked his way from elaborate discussion to the more efficient descriptions, while Ernest Hemingway went from compact, powerful sentences to more drawn-out discussions of simpler things.
The reason they all became famous is because they started with basic description, learned techniques, then developed styles that quickly became their own, and we are no different. My earlier writing went through all the stages of development, and hopefully has further to go, but I learned a few tricks along the way that really offer variety and depth to any narrative – be it a novel or a simple character sketch.
My favorite is to “show” a personality through a narrative that uses visual cues to describe a personality. This brings the reader into the description because it is not just an explanation of a character’s looks or their manners, but a switching of the senses that creates a visual impression while offering a sketch on the person themselves.
Here’s a description of a character I will call Matt (this isn’t based on anyone named Matt):
“Everyone knew Matt from his eyes; they never stayed still. Even when he faced you, drinking, laughing, joking, those eyes slipped around like vipers, targeting everything from under the shadowy brim of his low-riding hat. Even during the lonely moments, two guys drinking cheap whiskey at the back of an empty chop shop, those eyes explored every angle, every feature, everything but the person before him. Were those eyes constantly searching for hidden secrets that never existed? I believe they tried to escape the reality before him. I knew everything about Matt because every time I looked at him, he never looked back.”
Technically, this is a discussion of why Matt’s appearance is so memorable, but it offers no visual cues about Matt’s appearance. The only thing we know about him is that he has eyes – we know as many details as we know about his hat. The mannerisms, however, create a story about his character. They set a stage to where we can select an adjective or two and make him into anything from a paranoid man to a thug to a scheming monster or maybe a slick con artist. And while the physical description is minimal, we end the scene knowing the character in our mind.
Conversely, being strictly visual can convey a deep understanding of how we want that character to be fleshed out. Visual cues alone are tricky to work with, but active verbs can complement them to elegant effect:
“I could watch the sun play in her hair forever, the blond locks lighting up in a radiant glow. The warmth of the day made her wide smile blossom while her long arms stretched high into the air as if in joyous worship to the heavens. Her light skin never burned; the sun would never be so cruel to such a loyal patron. When the breeze passed she craned her neck forward, leaning into the wind, drinking it in like a healthy serving of nature’s bliss. She embraced days like these with open arms, a willingness to drown in the beauty around her.”
While the visuals are there, the verbs carry a language and tone that provide us with an image of someone truly content. At this point, we do not need to worry about offering other details – through the visual, we have created more than just an image.
Our details work best when they have meaning. Our descriptions carry the most impact when they explain more than just their target. Using these to their fullest effect does more than just develop our scene. They develop our writing tools, and get us that much closer to understanding our writing style.
Friday, September 7, 2018
In my last post, I promised to offer the words that really get writing to move. These magical words are not specific, like George Carlin’s “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television,” because then everyone would use the magic words and they would lose their power. This is about making a few words stand out – and this is best done through description.
In an earlier post, I discussed how to describe things efficiently. The key was to not use a bunch of words to describe a character’s hair, eyes, skin tone, teeth and so on if they are not important to the plot, but rather give the attention to that one feature that is worth mentioning. This is where the good words come in. We make things memorable by a quick, efficient description that uses only a few words to bring out a huge amount of information (This is why I wrote about haiku in a recent post – efficiency of words is a building block for description.)
|Jim Henson's Yorick, in all his macabre glory|
In his pre-Sesame Street days, Jim Henson had among his puppets a purple skull-like creature named Yorick (based on the jester’s skull scene in Hamlet, I assume). When Yorick entered a sketch, he would start eating whatever was present – scenery, props, other puppets, anything. He would slowly, relentlessly gobble down the entire scene (this classic sketch on YouTube says it all.) I have spent a lot of words describing Yorick, and hopefully they filled in the scene for you.
Jim Henson described Yorick as, “a living hunger.” That’s it. That’s all. And yet, those three words did more justice than my whole paragraph. Even though Yorick did not go on to Sesame Street (and likely for good reason,) those three words make him a memorable puppet.
The stand-out part of that description is that it took a quality – hunger– and attached a modifier that would normally be useless in describing someone. If I called myself a living author, the living part is noticeably useless, even distracting. But when attached to something not even considered living, it becomes memorable. It stands out.
This is the form of narrative description referred to as the salty-sweet style. It may not seem like a natural blend at first, but the combination of two different forms makes one memorable item (try bacon and vanilla ice cream if you don’t believe me.) We use these sensory mismatches all the time – so much so that we might not even notice them. A colorful outfit can be loud, a sound can grate on us, a taste can be sharp. Gradually these become commonplace, even boring. But as a writer, it is our job to explore new ways of mixing things up.
Descriptions become memorable when they utilize any of these simple tools:
- Sensory mismatch
- Personification of emotions/senses
- Attaching items to events
- Interchanging verbs and nouns
Little techniques such as enhancing a description make items, characters, and scenes stand out and stay in the reader’s mind. More importantly, a quick description lets the scene continue at its usual pace and not get bogged down as the author takes a timeout from the narrative. With particularly well-written books, someone only needs to hear a quick two-word phrase and it triggers a recall of that entire character, perhaps even their plot arc. It is a powerful technique.
That being said, this takes time and practice. Developing a new description is similar to invention – there needs to be a lot of experimentation and plenty of room for failure. However, if you really want something to stand out from the rest of your words, feel free to put a Post-It note above your writing space as a reminder to think about that perfect description. It might not hit you immediately, but when the time comes that you describe a bad marriage as a fourteen-year-long dumpster fire and your readers remember it, you win.
Monday, September 3, 2018
The author James Baldwin once said, “Write a sentence as clean as a bone.” The thing that really draws me to that quote is how it is an example of its intention – those eight words present a case without any meat or gristle hanging off, with nothing but its core intention. It is simple, visual, and to the point.
And then we start throwing around adjectives and adverbs.
|Ugly modifiers -- not pretty to look at|
To be fair, nothing is wrong with descriptors. They are effective tools to enhance the narrative, especially when the bone we write about is not meant to be clean. We can add a level of depth to the things we describe, and nuance the actions we discuss. However, the real trick is knowing when the extra words add value versus when they cheapen the writing. Bad extra words are like a picture with clashing colors -- more color but less image. We will start with these, and some simple words that might sound beneficial but offer little literary nourishment.
Here's an opening sentence for an action story: “The downtown bus suddenly exploded, without warning, in the middle of rush-hour traffic.” One explosion and we are into the story – no question about it. However, there is some cheapness that makes this writing sensational but not very informative. Can you see it?
It’s not obvious at first, but think about it. How many explosions are not sudden? Is “suddenly” really even necessary there? If that word was left out, would the reader wonder if this was a sudden explosion or one of those slow, drawn-out explosions we hear about? And let’s be fair – most explosions in rush-hour traffic happen “without warning.” It would be far more interesting if this explosion happened “as expected,” but that is not what the reader would assume.
These are examples of flabby words that overdramatize the event, sometimes at the expense of the actual story. It is not necessarily wrong to include these, but it can misdirect focus. This emphasis would be similar to an action movie where an explosion is shown from four different angles, twice in slow-motion, and the final display with the main character walking away from the carnage. Sure, it’s fun cinema, but in our story, maybe the descriptive emphasis should be on the impact it has on rush-hour traffic. An explosion is a couple seconds of stimulation, but the tragedy outside will carry on for many more pages than the explosion itself ever could.
It is not a cardinal sin to use terms like “suddenly,” but the best investment is to use them where they have the most impact. Would “suddenly” be more effective if it was replaced by “unexpectedly?” I always offer a simple analogy to explain the difference – when my father died, the real tragedy wasn’t that he died suddenly; it was that he died unexpectedly. The difference in that one word brings out an entirely different meaning.
This leads us to a broader category of Dirty Modifiers – the obvious. As the saying goes, there are three horrible sins in writing: Repetition, redundancy, and repeating things over and over and over and over. And with this we have the obvious modifiers. “She quickly ran down the road,” “He shouted loudly at his friends,” and “The tall giant” are all examples of the obvious. A reader will assume that someone runs quickly, shouts loudly, or that a giant is tall, so there is no need for those modifiers. We should only use modifiers in those cases if value can be added from adding something. “She ran down the road like a runaway beer truck,” would demonstrate something more than just running, and contribute to the mood. Using quickly doesn’t do anything more than remind us what running is – in case we forgot.
And this brings us to a couple of troublemakers – “really” and “very.” These are cheap descriptors that try to make something more impressive but only show a lack of vocabulary. If it doesn’t feel right to say something is big, saying it is really big or very big is a cheap way to go. Huge, enormous, gargantuan and colossal will also work, and they can contribute to the mood as well. And let’s not forget using metaphors and similes to add to the voice and tone of the writing. Example: “The house on the corner was big.” To emphasize just how big, instead of “very big” or “really big,” try, “The house on the corner was big enough to fit my house in its front room.” Problem solved. No flabby words, and a satisfying explanation to the whole size of the house matter.
And on that note, the next post will be about the words that give the most mileage to your writing, and how the right ones can win over an entire scene.
(Apologies to Douglas Adams. His description of the universe as “…big. Really big,” is absolutely brilliant, as it speaks to his refined writing voice.)