Archive for the ‘Writing Tips’ Category

The “Less is More” Exercise

Friday, October 15th, 2010

FictionEditors and other writing professionals constantly advocate “showing,” not “telling.” The idea is that readers ought to draw their own conclusions about the characters and action in a story, without the author having to provide explanatory narrative. As trite as “Show. Don’t Tell.” might sound among writing connoisseurs, the advice is still valid. Writers who can effectively convey personality, tone and meaning without relying on overt narrative usually produce the most satisfying and believable fiction.

My suggestion is that writers experiment by paring down their prose from the very start–deliberately saying less, rather than more, in their exposition. There always exists a moment when a writer might want to explain something to the reader–to clarify a character’s emotion or emphasize the tone of a particular scene. I recommend not taking that explanatory route, holding back on the explanation and allowing the reader’s own thoughts to fill the resulting textual “silence.” Hold off on the impulse to tell, and I believe you will show readers more.

The following passage indicates the “telling” moments (underlined) a writer might be tempted to add. Read the passage with and without these underlined parts, and see which version you think works more effectively.

more telling:

“Would you like some more tea?” Susannah hovered over Peter with the dripping teapot, even though she knew he wouldn’t want more tea. He hadn’t touched the tea she had already served him. Peter probably thought he was too good to drink tea out of her chipped and mismatched cups. “Bourgeois cups,” she thought he had called them, even though she hadn’t really been able to hear from the kitchen.

“No,” Peter said, moving his hand as though to cover his teacup.

Susannah was so angry that she wanted to dump the tea on his head. Who was Peter to suggest that her tea was second-rate? That her life was second-rate?

“How about a scone?” Susannah rattled the scones on the little blue plate, knowing the sound would probably annoy Peter. It did.

“I don’t eat scones,” he said.

“Well, isn’t this nice? The tea is sweet and hot.” Mr. Partridge sounded flustered, as though he wished Susannah and Peter would just get along. But she couldn’t get along with anyone as arrogant and egotistical as Peter. Susannah wanted to scream.

“More tea, Mr. Partridge?” she said instead.

Peter sighed outrageously and looked out the window. His tea was getting cold.

less telling:

“Would you like some more tea?” Susannah hovered over Peter with the dripping teapot, even though he hadn’t touched the tea she had already served him in the chipped cup. “Bourgeois cups,” she thought he had said, even though she hadn’t really been able to hear from the kitchen.

“No,” Peter said, moving his hand as though to cover his teacup.

“How about a scone?” Susannah rattled the scones on the little blue plate.

“I don’t eat scones,” he said.

“Well, isn’t this nice? The tea is sweet and hot.” Mr. Partridge sounded flustered.

“More tea, Mr. Partridge?” Susannah said.

Peter sighed outrageously and looked out the window. His tea was getting cold.

Which version do you think works better? Feel free to let me know. I would love to hear from you.

The Abraham Lincoln Method

Wednesday, May 26th, 2010

At Beaumont Hardy, I meet many writers struggling with writer’s block. Although no amount of editorial coaching can pull a writer through a “dry spell,” I argue that any writing is better than no writing. Even a terrible rough draft can yield positive writing results. The point is just to write. I now propose the Abraham Lincoln Method for putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard and writing that rough draft.

Our 16th President famously studied by candlelight, refusing to allow less-than-ideal conditions to deter him from his reading and writing. We all know how far Abraham Lincoln’s candlelit writing sessions took him. I advocate writing under the same conditions Abraham Lincoln once did, as a stimulant for creativity

On a night when you can guarantee an hour or two of solitude, I recommend clearing a table of everything but a note pad or computer; turning off every light, radio, television or electronic gadget in the room; lighting several candles; and settling in to write a rough draft. This is the Abraham Lincoln Method.

Not only is this method energy-efficient, it can also be highly productive. Writing in a new environment–even just a new lighting environment–can stimulate creativity in surprising ways. Many writers work with constant noise distractions, and the silence of an electronics-free room can be mentally freeing. The flickering of the candlelight is also oddly conducive to reflection and introspection, gently stimulating the imagination. And turning off all the lights and every electronic gadget makes for absolutely no visual distractions–no sudden impulses to dust or to rearrange tchotchkes before writing the next sentence. Staring off into a room’s darkness is simultaneously frightening and thrilling, and I argue that this combination of emotions, tinged as it is with the primeval elements of darkness and fire, can inspire even the most uninspired of writers.

The Abraham Lincoln Method honors one of our most diligent and scholarly of Presidents, and it carries with it the flickering light of hope that we might achieve some of his greatness.

Epistolary Novels–Some Drawbacks

Thursday, April 1st, 2010

San José, by Denis SalasNovelists constantly strive to present well-rounded characters and believable plots, and this struggle often begins with the selection of a narrative style. Should the author tell the story from the point of view of one character or of several? Should the story begin in the present and reveal important details in flashback? Should the reader learn of events as they happen or only hear about them through a character’s retelling?

One particular narrative choice, the epistolary form, has been popular for centuries–in novels like Pamela and Dracula–and seems to make a resurgence periodically–in books like Griffin and Sabine and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. Writers like the fact that the epistolary form allows letters or other kinds of text to drive both plot and character development. When properly executed, an exchange of letters between characters–or a dramatic series of newspaper articles or diary entries–can create a compelling plot and sufficient characterization to keep the reader interested in the story. However, I argue that the epistolary form presents its own problems, both in terms of realism and in terms of immediacy.

The problem of realism lies in the fact that the epistolary form often requires letter-writing characters to reveal information for the sake of the reader, rather than for the sake of their own correspondence, creating unrealistic content in the letters. For example, in writing to her beloved sister, a character might say, “Thank you for the birthday present you sent me! How did you know that a hand-sewn tablecloth with red and green embroidery and yellow lace trim was exactly what I wanted for my forty-eighth birthday?” The details about the tablecloth and the letter-writer’s age exist solely for the benefit of the reader, since one assumes that the beloved sister knows exactly what she sent and exactly how old her sister is. Epistolary novels lend themselves to these sorts of problems with realism when the correspondents know more about each other than the reader knows about them. In an effort to convey information to the reader, the author of the novel puts far more information into a letter than it would otherwise have: “Dear Husband, As a nurse, I am deeply disturbed by the outbreak of cholera. Love, your wife.” One assumes that the husband knows his wife’s occupation, and in a “real” letter, his wife would never need to mention her line of work.

The problem of immediacy is one that presents itself frequently in epistolary novels. The beauty of the epistolary novel is that its characters can exchange profound, personality-defining thoughts while hinting at the action happening around them as they communicate. However, when the action needs to be more immediate–a battle scene or a violently explosive confrontation, for example–a letter describing the action might create too much distance from the reader. Compare, for example, a character’s personal account of a mugging with a letter about that same mugging. (“Charles stepped into the dark alley and knew immediately he shouldn’t have taken the shortcut. A man emerged from the darkness. He held a knife.” or “Dear Susan, I was mugged last night. I decided to take a shortcut home, but the minute I stepped in the alley, I knew I had made the wrong decision.”) The epistolary form keeps the reader at arm’s length, a distance that might not be suitable for describing fast-paced action.

I suggest that an author consider the shortcomings of the epistolary form before choosing it for his or her own novel. If the letter-writing characters know a great deal about one another, does it make sense for them to write each other exhaustively detailed letters that serve mostly to convey information to the reader? If the novel is to have immediate and jarring action, would it be more exciting for the characters to experience the action right before the very eyes of the reader, so to speak, or will the reader be satisfied to read about the action, secondhand, in a letter or newspaper article?

As always, Beaumont Hardy is a writer’s friend in times of narrative indecision. Send me your written work, your writing thoughts and your narrative concerns, and I will be happy to provide editorial guidance.

Quick Character Development

Monday, October 5th, 2009

In my previous post, I discussed the possibility of character development in a piece of hint fiction, defined as having a word count of 25 or less. The 25-word limit seemed sufficient for the two types of character development I discussed–establishing three-dimensionality and showing character change throughout a story. Character development is certainly possible in hint fiction.

In this post, I now argue that character development is even possible in fewer than 25 words. Careful word choice and believable dialogue both contribute to character development. Examine the following examples, where character development happens in fewer than 25 words.

Example 1:

Dale held the beer bottle to his lips and spit. “That ain’t my truck.”

In fourteen words, the reader learns a great deal about Dale and the kind of person he is. This type of character development serves to round out Dale’s personality but does not show any character change.

Example 2:

“Well,” Priscilla blinked. “I have my maid do it for me.” She set her teacup down with a gentle tinkle and smiled stiffly.

This twenty-three-word example also serves to develop a well-rounded character. As in Example 1, dialogue and action combine to establish character.

Example 3:

The room suddenly seemed smaller and shabbier than he had remembered it. Jonathan wondered how he had ever thought it elegant.

In twenty-one words, this example demonstrates an interior shift in character. Although there is no dialogue, the character’s thoughts indicate a significant personality change that will be important in the story’s development.

Example 4:

“Hello, Charlie,” she said, leaning in for the kiss he usually gave her.

“Hello.” He turned his back to her, repulsed.

This twenty-one-word example shows character change through dialogue. Although the example contains very few words, the reader witnesses a significant shift in the behavior and emotion of the male character.

Thus, character development is possible in very few words–even in fewer than 25 words. Dialogue and careful word choice are important to character development. Writers who choose both judiciously can develop character quickly and efficiently.

Please send me your thoughts and comments about this post. I would love to hear from you.