Month: July 2017
Welcome to the Busybird blog, where you can find helpful articles, updates, industry news and more. Make sure you stay up to date by signing up to our newsletter below.
This week, we’re going to look at some common structural issues – these can range from a single word to the way information as a whole is delivered.
It should be noted that some of these might be considered subjective, but see what you think.
Imagine you opened a story this way …
- There’s only the emptiness now, a longing that tears at me. Every night is the same. I wish that, come the morning, things could be the way they were. When I wake, there’s that instant of hope, of what was, before realisation hits.
The rain hammers the roof as I try to sleep. I toss; the bed is too big – too empty. On the drawer, the clock radio’s neon numbers glow at me: 1.12am. I sit up and stare at the open doorway.
We want to hook readers from our first sentence, from our first word, so what’s the issue here?
The opening paragraph is disembodied. Do we know where we are? Do we know who’s talking? Obviously, we don’t know these things from the beginning of any story – the narrative eases us into the world where we discover this information. But we should get a sense of grounding. This floating, melodramatic opening offers us nothing but mood. That can be used a narrative device, but here it’s tonally empty.
The story would begin much more logically from the second paragraph.
Why do things happen in your story?
- Detective Gallo paused in the middle of the room. The blood splotched on the carpet was an inkblot open to interpretation. An executive chair – a tailored ergonomic recliner – lay upended, surrounded by paperwork. The mess told its own story: the victim fled for the door, the axe came down on his back; he fell, knocked the chair over, clutched at the desk and dragged everything down with him. On the floor, he bled out, and died gaping at the line of abstract paintings – faces disjointed, aghast – that hung on one wall. Minutes later, the secretary returned from lunch – startled, the killer escaped through the window.
What had the killer been looking for?
Detective Gallo shook his head. He yanked open the door, then stopped as he heard rustling. His eyes narrowed. An envelope had slid out from behind one of the paintings, poking out from behind the bottom left corner.
Causality should drive the events in your stories. That means each effect should have a cause. In this above example, instead of the detective just blindly finding this clue, how about he searches the room (cause) which leads to him finding the clue (the effect)?
Think about how the events in your story are driven. Yes, life – and events in stories – can be subject to chance. But don’t forget what bestselling author Tom Clancy said: ‘The difference between reality and fiction? Fiction has to make sense.’ We can accept that in real life, we might randomly bump into a friend we haven’t seen for ten years, who just happens to give us a bit of life-changing information, like a job has opened up just as we were looking for work. In a story, though? It all seems a bit contrived.
How do we get from one sentence to next?
- The rain hammers the roof and echoes through my apartment. The bed is too big, a spaciousness that feels wrong.
In this example, how does the sentence go from talking about the rain to the narrator now explaining that his bed is too big? There’s no evolution. They’re just details shoved in to develop setting and mood.
An organic evolution – one the reader doesn’t question, and trusts to take them from Point A to B to C, etc. – is pivotal in good writing.
- The rain hammers the roof and echoes through my apartment. I toss as I try to find sleep. The bed is too big, a spaciousness that feels wrong.
Show, Don’t Tell
As writers, we would’ve all heard this at one time or another – show, don’t tell.
- Bob was so angry.
This tells us how Bob is feeling. He’s angry. But how could we show this? What are some of the characteristics of anger? Some simple answers are a reddened face, a bulging vein in the neck, a tightening fist, etc. Through showing, this creates a visual for the reader that’s much more evocative than just telling them something.
Another form of telling is exposition – when we give the reader all the details they require so that they can then move forward to understand the story.
- Bob let himself in through the front door and slumped into his favourite recliner. He wasn’t sure what to do next. His wife had left him for another man, circumstances with which he was struggling to cope. He’d stopped eating, drank too much, and vacillated between fits of sadness and anger. He didn’t know how to go on.
Here, we’ve talked at the reader to deliver all the details of Bob’s life so that they reader has context to move forward with the story.
But how could we deliver this information without relying on exposition? The narrative tells us Bob’s drinking too much. We could show that by Bob hitting the liquor cabinet as soon as he gets home, or beer bottles piled on the kitchen sink. We could show sadness through tears; anger might be expressed by Bob slamming the refrigerator door. The relationship demise might be shown through torn pictures – it might not expressly suggest she ran off with another man, but a picture with a face gouged out strongly suggests that the break up was acrimonious.
There’s lots of ways to show this information. Yes, sometimes, we’ll need exposition; we’ll need to outright tell the reader what they need to know so they have context to move through the story. But other times, we can show circumstances through clever and descriptive narrative. It mightn’t always surrender every precise detail but, sometimes, casting a hook to keep the reader reading isn’t such a bad thing.
- The dry cleaner was situated on the north side of town.
With tautologies, we have two words serving the same purpose. Here, we simply have a word that’s not required – in this case ‘situated’.
This sentence could easily be:
- The dry cleaner was on the north side of town.
- Ashamed to stay at school, he quit. He then resigned from trying to get anywhere in life.
There’s nothing wrong with this passage. But think about the way words flow, the way sentences relate, the way they unfold. There’s a nice symmetry here between the quitting and the resignation, and the sentences here could be condensed to show that interrelationship.
- Ashamed to stay at school, he quit, then resigned from trying to get anywhere in life.
We don’t need to spell everything out for the reader.
- He stopped and opened the boot of his car; I leaned against a telephone pole, watching.
Do we need to be told that the character here is watching what’s happening? We can only know that the other character has stopped and opened the boot of his car because the narrator has narrated it for us, which means they must be watching. It’s implied. So the ‘watching’ could be chopped. You might only include it if there’s a specific reason you want the reader to be aware it’s happening.
- Pulling the chocolate bar from his pocket, he makes a carnivorous sound and tears open the wrapper.
What is a ‘carnivorous’ sound? Even if we were more direct – e.g. ‘he makes a sound like a dog savouring a bone’ – what exactly does that mean? If I’d never owned a dog, I wouldn’t know. Equally, I don’t know what a ‘carnivorous sound’ is. Think of specifics that describe to the reader what exactly is occurring.
- Exhausted, I got up from the floor.
We already looked at substituting adverb/verb combinations with stronger verbs. But this is a rule that applies to any form of writing in general. Look for the right word. It doesn’t have to be a BIG word. It doesn’t have to be fancy. It just needs to be right. In our example, what could fit better here?
- Exhausted, I hauled myself up from the floor.
That’s it. Hopefully, you’ve found our three-part series on issues on writing helpful.
It’s amazing what you’ll begin to see in your writing once you learn about issues. Look over some of your old work. Attack it with fresh eyes and a newly informed mind and see how you go.
July 13, 2017
Our last blog looked at some of the common issues we encounter in writing. We’re all culprits at one time or another, and it’s amazing what we begin to see only after we become aware of its existence. Until that occurs, we just merrily write, doing the same things over and over and over.
This isn’t an intended slight. We all do it. And while taste is subjective, what constitutes good prose is generally uniform.
So, this week, we’re going to continue looking at more common issues.
Labels are similar to clichés – easy ways to convey expression.
- A nuclear explosion wiped out my entire family. It was tragic.
Tragic? That’s the best we can do? Well, I’m sure it was tragic. But what does that mean? Look for expression that’s evocative. Just labelling something with an easy description means little to anybody.
A tautology is saying the same thing twice in different words, or using a modifier that is already stated through implication.
- The evening sunset tinged the sky a gorgeous crimson hue.
I’m personally giving you this assurance.
A quick glance over my shoulder revealed he was right behind me.
The evening sunset? As opposed to what? The morning sunset? A sunset can only occur in the evening, so it’s redundant to tell us that. When you give an assurance, it’s implied that it’s ‘personally’ from you. A ‘glance’, by nature, is a quick look.
Suddenly / Sudden
People love to use ‘suddenly’ and ‘sudden’. It communicates impact and drama.
- Suddenly, the door crashed open.
I woke with a sudden jolt.
The problem with ‘suddenly’ and ‘sudden’ is that they’ve become overused, and sound melodramatic, like something used in Year 7 English, e.g. I was walking down the hall when, suddenly, a ghost appeared!
Sometimes, that an action is ‘sudden’ is spelled out in the text anyway, e.g., when a door ‘crashes’ open, it does so suddenly. Certainly, doors don’t crash open gently or slowly.
In the second example, think of how to phrase it so we communicate the suddenness of what’s happening without using ‘sudden’.
- I jolt awake.
If you’re going to use ‘suddenly’, make sure the action totally needs it, and it’s describing something that is sudden.
The use of ‘however’ has become an easy transition for authors (and particularly nonfiction authors), as it helps them go from one subject to the next with no logical evolution. But the transition of ‘however’ makes it seem logical.
- I am studying writing today. However, debate rages on whether Pluto is a planet or not.
It seems like these things are connected, because ‘however’ is there. But they’re not. We’ve jumped between two disparate points.
Think about how you’re getting from one sentence to the next. If you’re using a ‘however’, you may be using it transitionally as a convenience, rather than through any causal evolution.
As far as fiction goes, the use of ‘however’ is also very formal.
Metaphors are figures of expression that are applied to communicate a certain image. E.g. His anger was like a raging sea. The problem comes when imagery gets mixed up.
- The pendulum has turned.
Pendulums don’t turn. Tides do. Give thought to the metaphors that you do use.
A dangling modifier is a phrase that doesn’t modify the subject or action it was intended to modify.
- Turning the corner, the building leaped out.
I saw the elephant peeking through the window.
Did the building leap out as it turned the corner? What’s meant here is as somebody turned the corner (e.g. As I turned the corner, or As he turned the corner), he saw the building leap out. Was the narrator peeking through the window and saw an elephant, or did they see an elephant that was peeking through a window?
With a squinting modifier, it’s unclear whether the modifier is intended to modify the phrase that comes becomes before or after it.
- People who drink beer regularly have stomach issues.
After I passed the driving test with the help of my instructor I got my license.
In the first example, is it that people who drink beer regularly are the ones who have stomach issues? Or is it that people who drink beer are the ones who regularly have stomach issues? Similarly, with the second example, did the driving instructor help pass the driving test, or did the driving instructor help with the license?
A comma could help separate what’s intended here, or some minor rejigging could provide clarity.
- People who regularly drink beer have stomach issues.
After the instructor helped me pass the driving test, I got my license.
Noun / Pronoun Antecedent
The use of a pronoun (he, she, his, her, that, it) will point to the last noun introduced.
- Richie found the clam shell on the beach. Later, we went back to the bar and he bought me a beer – that’s when he gave it to me.
Bernice told her mother that she was wrong.
In the first example, what did Richie give the narrator? What he probably intended to give the narrator was the clam shell. But the current phrasing makes it seem as if Richie gave the narrator a beer – the pronoun (it) points at the last relevant noun (beer). With the second example, who’s wrong? Bernice or Bernice’s mother?
The temptation is to believe that the more details we offer about the same thing, the better we draw our world, and the surer that the reader will get it.
- The boy felt for the lock in the darkness, and took a deep breath as a gale screamed portents of doom about the small cabin in the woods. Unlocking the door, the boy stepped out onto the doorstep and closed the door behind him. Although he braced for it, the torrential winds tore through him and nearly carried him from his feet. He was shaken and shivered, soaked through by the rains, the scathing winds icing his exposed cheeks and forehead. He gasped for breath, hugged his arms to himself, and searched the darkness ahead.
Okay. We get it – there’s a storm, it’s cold, and it’s wet.
Writing doesn’t work on the same principles as infomercials, repeating the same stuff over and over to hammer it into the heads of the audience. In writing, this just dilutes what you’re trying to say. Trust your reader. Use unique details. If you’ve done it right, your narrative will be incisive, rather than a pillow trying to pound in the same message.
Obviously, there’s many ways we could rewrite this example, but one alternative might be:
- Taking a deep breath, the boy opened the door and stepped from the small cabin. The rain battered the shivering gums, while the winds shrieked through their branches. The boy hugged his arms to himself and searched the darkness ahead.
Attributors show the way dialogue is being said, e.g. the ‘said’, ‘asked’, etc.
- ‘I really don’t think you know what you’re talking about,’ he elucidated.
‘How dare you suggest that!’ he accused.
‘I think you’re wrong,’ Mary said, loudly.
‘No, you’re wrong!’ Bob exclaimed.
‘Why don’t you—’
‘Oh, go take a flying leap,’ Bob interrupted.
Good dialogue doesn’t need fancy attributors and/or modifiers. If it’s written well, the reader will infer the tone.
There’s a school of thought that you should only ever use ‘said’ and ‘asked’. As an editor, I think it’s okay to go a little bit further afield. But don’t get too fancy, e.g. he elucidated. That’s just going to stand out to the reader and jolt them from your narrative.
Don’t be redundant, either. In this example, the very act of Bob speaking in the final line shows us he’s interrupting Mary – we don’t need to be told he’s interrupting. Same with the ‘exclaimed’. The dialogue ends with an exclamation mark! Do we need to be told Bob exclaimed on top of that?
Lastly, try to stay away from modifying the attributor also, e.g. Mary said, loudly. Again, if you’re needing to spell out everything to that extent in the attribution, your dialogue’s not strong enough. Read it aloud. Act it. Is it communicating what you want your characters to say and feel?
Okay, that’s it for this week. In our next blog, we’ll conclude looking at common issues in writing.