Fiction Writing Tips 61–70

Welcome to the seventh page of Fiction Writing Tips. Here you will find tips 61 through 70.

To return to the tips index, click here.

If you'd like to ask me about a tip or ask a fiction craft-related question, I'd love to hear from you. Either drop me a note through the Contact page or come to The Anomaly and ask your question.

Tip #61: Avoid Italics

One of the greatest ways to look like a hack writer is to overuse italics. I can't tell you how many proposals by aspiring novelists I've seen who do this to the extreme. And I don't have to tell you what I did with those proposals? Right?

The overuse of italics, like the use of exclamation points in narration (see Tip #60!), makes a fiction manuscript look nervous and amateurish.

I think aspiring novelists use italics for emphasis for two reasons. First, I think they may feel that italics make the page look more active. Second, I think they want the reader to hear the words with the same emphasis and cadance that the writers intended when they wrote it.

Both reasons are bad.

First, if your story is boring then no amount of textual stylization is going to change that. The answer isn't to prop it up with visual stimuli (what's next, colored text?) but to learn how to tell a better story. Visit Tip #50 for starters.

Second, who cares if your reader hears it with the same emphasis that you intended? Is it going to significantly diminish the reader's enjoyment if she emphasizes "said" instead of "he"?

In film and theatre scripts, it's considered bad form for the writer to try to tell the actor how to deliver a line. The words to be said should simply be there in the script, sans instructions from the writer, and the actor should be allowed to utter it as dictated by the character he has created for the role.

So it is with fiction. The reader ought to be allowed to interpret the sound of the words and sentences herself, without micromanagement from the author.

Now, in fiction and in acting, there are times when a line must be heard and understood in a certain way. These times are rare, like once or twice per book or script, but they do occasionally happen. In those cases it would be all right to highlight the word textually.

Speaking of highlighting, if you must emphasize a word in your manuscript, use italics. I know I've just been saying that you should avoid italics, but if you have come to that one time in your novel in which you'll emphasize something, do so with italics. That's much better than underlining or using bold or "quotation marks" or even ALL CAPS. Blech. If you must emphasize, use italics.

So far I've been talking about italics in narration. That's the kind of thing that makes your writing look weak. But what about italics in dialogue?

Again, avoid it. Using italics in dialogue is only slightly less schmalzy than using italics in narration. It goes back to telling the reader exactly how to interpret how a line is delivered. Don't do that.

The only time I can think of when you might want to use italics in dialogue is if it is vital that the precise delivery of the line be understood and that the delivery is unexpected. For instance, if the whole plot revolves on the words "I did it" and there is possible misunderstanding between "I did it," "I did it," and "I did it," then it would be okay to italicize for clarity.

But only when it's that vital. The rest of the time, let the reader hear it as she pleases.

What About Thoughts and Prayers?

One convention in fiction is that authors feel they must italicize interior monologue: thoughts and prayers. How, the novelist wonders, will the reader know something is a thought or prayer if it isn't italicized?

Humbug.

You don't need to signal interior monologue. You don't. Not with italics or anything else. (And certainly not with both italics and quotation marks, as I sometimes see.)

"Helga, get off your rear and clean up your mess."

Great, he's on that bit again. "What's it to you, Hans?"

"This place is a pigsty."

"You don't even know what a sty is, city boy." Dear Jesus, grant me patience. "Look, I'll clean it up in a minute. When I'm good and ready."

"Just be sure you do."

Cretin.

***

Now, did you have any trouble knowing what was a thought or a prayer and what was dialogue? Did the absence of italics send you into interpretation paralysis? I'm guessing you did just fine.

Leaving out the italics actually is a more natural, organic way of narrating. We're seeing everything through the viewpoint character's eyes and mind, right? (See Tip #30.) So doesn't it make sense that this voice would seamlessly transition back and forth from speech to description to thoughts?

Polly brought the goat into the kitchen. Of course. As if livestock belonged in my house. "Polly, get that hairy brute off my Tuscan tile this minute."

Did you miss the italics? Did you understand it any less fully because it didn't look like this:

Polly brought the goat into the kitchen. Of course. As if livestock belonged in my house. "Polly, get that hairy brute off my Tuscan tile this minute."

I didn't think so.

Look, it's not wrong to include italics in your manuscript. It's just something you don't need. And if you don't need it and it doesn't help you, why use it?

You don't need to use italics in your book, not for emphasis, not for clarity, and not to spice up an otherwise dull story.

Italics make your book look weak. Period. Go through and remove them all. Every instance of italics taken out is a pound of gravitas added to your book. If you want to look like a pro, cut the italics.

I mean it.

Tip #62: Avoid Letting Your Characters Make Accurate Guesses from Ambiguous Clues

One of the marks of an amatuer novelist is when he or she allows chraracters to see something ambiguous and nevertheless make perfectly accurate guesses about what's going on.

Some examples:

James spotted something on the floor. It was a paper clip. Of course! The aliens were coming at midnight!

...or...

"Oh, my," Denise said in obvious guilt.

...or...

Carlisle touched the concrete wall. It vibrated with the weight of thousands of prisoners who had been tortured here across the span of three regimes.

...or...

Looking deep into his eyes, she could tell he was a man easily swayed by peer pressure or public opinion.

I mean, come on. Only in (less professional) fiction does this happen. Unless your character is a mind reader, don't let her be a mind reader.

If a strange look crosses a person's face, what does it mean? Well, it really could be a tacit admission of guilt. It actually might be the sign that he's just made the decision to condemn millions of innocent people to a brutal death.

Or it could mean something else. It could be the realization that he's forgotten to pick up cheese at the grocery store. It could be that he's just put weight on the ankle he twisted in the ballgame last night. And, as they always say of babies, it could be gas.

Letting the perspective character accurately ascertain any information—and particularly any kind of detailed information—from a signal that could legitimately have more than one possible interpretation is just bad writing. It's lazy writing.

It is, in fact, both a POV violation and telling (see Tips 30 and 29, respectively), two of the worst sins in fiction.

It's a POV violation because somehow the viewpoint character can dip into the mind of the person making the expression or into the history of the thing being interpreted and magically pull out a correct revelation.

And it's telling because instead of having the viewpoint character (and thus the reader) figure things out naturally, you simply spoon-feed it to us by allowing the character to grasp it by means of telepathy.

Most of us do not read minds. We go through this life trying to figure out people and things. Someone says Hello in a strange way and we wonder if there might be something behind that strangeness. We bring to bear everything we know about that person and the context to try to explain the strangeness in her voice.

Most of the time we guess wrong. That's important, so I'll say it again: most of the time we guess wrong. Either we come to the wrong conclusion or we come to any conclusion when in reality there was nothing but coffee burps behind the odd note in the other person's voice.

Or we see something strange happen and we begin trying to figure out if there is some meaning to it and, if so, what that meaning might be. Maybe the sky really is falling. Or maybe it was just an acorn.

The point is that we're constantly trying to figure out what's going on around us, and we're very often wrong.

Let your characters be wrong. Let them perceive something and then, because of whatever their own predispositions or paranoias are, have them come to the wrong conclusion. Have them try out a couple of competing theories to try to explain the strange thing they saw. Allow them to use good logic and come up with wrong conclusions—or allow them to come to the right conclusion by way of some wrong assumptions.

Just don't let them make accurate conclusions based on ambiguous input.

I love Woody's line in Toy Story 2. The rabbits and squirrels do no more than squeak at Sheriff Woody, but somehow he knows exactly what that squeak means:

"What's that? Jessie and Prospector are trapped in the old abandoned mine and Prospector just lit a stick of dynamite thinking it was a candle and now they're about to be blown to smithereens?"

And of course he's interpreted the squeak correctly. That, my friend, is exactly what you should avoid. It worked in Toy Story 2 because they were making fun of the very "Lassie" and "Flipper" kind of mind-reading I'm telling you to eschew.

This also goes for characters in other storylines knowing things they couldn't. I've seen many unpublished manuscripts in which character set A learns something in a scene and then, a few scenes later and with no intercommunication possible, suddenly character set B knows the thing that only set A has learned.

Just because the reader now knows it doesn't mean everybody in the book can know it.

If you want your reader to buy into the plausibility of your story you have to present things in plausible ways. You can't give characters superpowers. Nor can you violate the rules of good fiction.

I know that what I'm talking about is hard. I know it takes mental discipline to keep track of who knows what. Maybe it would help to use a log to keep it all straight.

Certainly it would be easier and take less work to just let everybody know everything all the time (which is why omniscient POV is so popular among unpublished novelists), but you must maintain the integrity of what characters could possibly know or guess.

We spend most of our daily lives in a state of curious investigation. Whether we're trying to interpret the meaning of ambiguous events or the exact subtext (see Tip #47) behind what other people mean by what they say, we're constantly guessing. Try as we might, we often miss the mark.

And so should your characters.

Tip #63: Avoid Personification

The manuscript recoiled in anticipation of the flame that was to come.

Fred lifted the rifle and it coughed twice.

His eyes touched on the dog but decided to attend to other matters.

The unsuspecting chairs showed no fear of the termites marching between them.

Really? The manuscript was capable of anticipation? It suddenly became a sentient lifeform? The rifle really sprang to life and fired of its own volition (between coughing fits)? The eyes really searched their minds and decided that other priorities outweighed watching the dog? The chairs, the poor chairs, why were they so brave as to not fear the termites?

Give me a break.

I dislike personification in almost all its forms. I recommend you remove it entirely from your fiction.

Now this is one tip in which I might be accused of simply expressing my own pet peeves as an editor. Perhaps. Read my reasons and come to your own conclusions.

The precise literary term for what I'm talking about is "the pathetic fallacy." Wikipedia defines this as "the description of inanimate natural objects in a manner that endows them with human feelings, thoughts, and sensations."

The word pathetic here refers to how personification imbues some non-living thing with the capability of having feelings. But I think it's pathetic in the other sense, too. 

Perhaps I have developed this aversion to personification because many of the aspiring authors who use it often also resort to all manner of other bad fiction habits like telling, POV errors (Tip #30), and the like. Maybe I dislike it simply because it's usually associated with less sophisticated writing in general.

Or maybe it really is just a little silly.

The tips column, fairly sagging with its own self-importance, refused to allow another snarky sentence to be written upon it.

Now, I love word pictures. I really do (see Tip #8). Imagery in your writing is wonderful and helps illuminate the moment for your reader, and I'm a sucker for a great simile.

And I think aspiring novelists use the pathetic fallacy in an effort to add imagery to liven up their stories. How boring is a football field? How much more interesting it would be if the goal posts could writhe in agony and the stands could shake in ecstasy and the smoke from the fireworks could slither seditiously across the visitors' bench.

But...don't.

Let things be things. Don't imbue them with life as a way to tell us (Tip #29) what effect you're trying to achieve or what interpretation we are to assume—or even as a way to spice up what you think is boring prose.

I'm all for using word choice to establish the mood of a particular passage or to reflect the emotions of a character (more on this in a forthcoming tip). For instance, instead of a blue sky it can be a sky the color of a turqoise pendant or a sky like a first-place ribbon.

But I would urge you to stop short of bringing things to life to make your point. The blue sky doesn't need to squirm or cry or pass out completely. Please just let it be sunlight refracted off the atmosphere.

If your character really does think inanimate objects could spring to life or have sacred life within them—like maybe you're writing a shaman character from some native tribe—then it would make sense for that person to personify inanimate objects. But how many of those characters are you going to write?

Let your story be interesting because we care about the characters, not because your story is crawling with furniture brought to life. Make your story world come alive by providing fascinating details and by clearly thinking out how things really would be in such a world, not by resorting to anything, well, pathetic.

Because if you do, your manuscript will rise up and campaign to editors and agents that it should not yet be published.

Tip #64: Avoid Pet Phrases

This is perhaps the first tip I've written that you, the writer, can't do alone. You'll need help with this one.

As an editor I find in every novelist's manuscript certain phrases that recur again and again.

Perhaps the writer is always having characters flick their eyes or sigh deeply or take a cleansing breath. Or perhaps numerous characters use the same phrases, like "That's for sure" or "Truth be told" or "Get a grip."

Even certain rhythms or sentence structures can recur too often and thereby become irritating to the reader.

My "favorite," and one I may eventually dedicate an entire tip to, is the one that goes like this:

"Sitting on his chair, Seth made a phone call."

"Looking through a magazine, Jose told the coroner the whole truth."

"Herself an expert on geneological anomalies, Gwenneth fixed lasagne."

Ooh, I hate that sentence structure. Copyeditors tell me there's nothing technically wrong with it, so I should keep my mouth shut. But it's so incredibly weak.

"Stealing all energy from his sentence by starting with a parenthetical phrase that may or may not have anything to do with what comes later in the sentence, the writer finally got on with what he wanted to say."

Okay, so maybe it isn't technically an error, but it does sap all power from your sentence. And whether it's grammatically wrong or not, if you use it incessantly it will become a flaw because it will fall into the category of pet phrases.

Pet phrases and recurring patterns are invisible to the writer. They just are. You don't know you're using them. You can't sense them. They come down from your brain and through your fingertips without registering as problematic.

They are, in short, a blind spot for you. For every writer.

You need someone else to point these out to you. Ask someone to read through your manuscript looking for your pet phrases or recurring ways of structuring a sentence.

The first step in gaining mastery over your pet phrases is to know what they are. They've become habitual and therefore exist below the level of conscious decision. They simply come out onto the page, almost by themselves. You have to be caught doing them or you'll never see them. That's how this other reader will help you.

When you become aware of them, you can begin to control them. You can catch yourself writing them, and self-edit. Your manuscripts will be much stronger (and less irritating) when you reach this level.

You know you've achieved the ultimate mastery when you can channel these phrases and use them intentionally or not at all. You can assign "Well, I'll be...," for instance, to one character in your story. Let it be his "thing." You can give the tic of tucking hair behind the ear to a designated character.

When you've done this you've helped characterize the person and you've given yourself a shorthand way of identifying a character to the reader. Both are very helpful.

And when you're really ready for subtlety (the mark of an excellent novelist), you can do this in narration, too. Every scene in your book is told from someone's point of view, right? Because you're not using omniscient POV, right? (See Tip #30.) Probably you have more than one viewpoint character through whose eyes we see your story.

Remember those recurring sentence structures and rhythms? Why not assign them to different narrators? Why not give a more passive sentence structure to one of your passive viewpoint characters and a more forceful way of narrating to a more forceful viewpoint character?

You could even—perish the thought—give to one of your viewpoint characters the habit of using that weak sentence structure I described above.

The point is that when you know what your pet phrases and sentence structures are, you can use them intentionally. You can use them for effect. You can assign them like props or costume bits to the various characters in your book.

But until you have mastered them, as long as they remain in your blind spot, they have mastered you.

Get some help on this one. Use someone's objective feedback to help you find your pet phrases and put them on a leash.

Tip #65: Avoid That Silly Sentence Construction

Last time I threatened to devote a whole tip to this sentence construction, and now I'm making good on that threat.

The only daughter of hard-working parents, Jenny took a nap.

Confronting Larry about the credit cards again, she sought help from an electrician.

With anger management issues from his childhood, he liked to watch movies.

Growing up in Wisconsin, she had always liked Tuesdays.

***

Now, this sentence construction isn't wrong. Avoiding it is not in the Ten Commandments of Fiction. And I admit to using it on occasion.

But in the spirit of Tip #64 I plead with you to notice whether or not you are using (and possibly overusing) it, and then get it under control.

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers (see Tip #10) talks about simultaneity, which is a related topic. The authors of that book feel it is a mark of unsophistication to have characters do things at the same time, as in the following:

"Hi, there," she said, sitting on the couch.

Trying to do too much at the same time, they say, is a mark of a less skillful novelist.

The same weakness holds true with the sentence construction we're looking at now. It's trying to accomplish too much with one sentence (see Tip #35, Pitfall #1), often by linking together pieces that don't belong, and usually as a means of sneaking in little bits of telling (see Tip #29).

As I mentioned last time, though, I think the main problem with this sentence construction is how it weakens your statement. Instead of starting with sentence, you're starting with disclaimer. Instead of starting with the meal, you're starting with an unwanted appetizer.

You'll notice that the two sentences I just wrote are, I suppose, technically in the same pattern I'm saying to avoid. The difference is that the two phrases in the sentence went together and were both necessary to the sentence.

Any sentence construction you overuse, especially if you're unaware that you overuse it, is a liability for your manuscript.

Always keep your sentences clear and unencumbered. Strive to break apart your statements into distinct pieces, especially if people claim that your prose is hard to understand.

Uncouple the parts you're currently linking with the comma.

Jenny's parents had been hard-working. Jenny was hard-working, too, but she also took the occasional nap.

She had grown up in Wisconsin. This was one reason she'd always liked Tuesdays, she supposed. In Wisconsin, Tuesday was cheese day.

:-P

Do you see how breaking the sentences apart helps? It strengthens both parts of what was before an unequally yoked sentence. It avoids the passive feeling of the former construction. And it clarifies what you're saying.

When you break these apart you should also be able to see that you've tried to sneak in some telling. Those preliminary phrases were parasites on your sentence, sucking away its energy. Pull them out and delete them like the leeches they are.

So that...

Avoiding this silly sentence construction, the author finally got published.

Tip #66: Viewpoint Characters as Narrators

After nine tips with the word "avoid" in the title, I'm taking a break from my negativity and injecting a little positivity (is that a word?) into the column.

Most novelists have a "narrator voice," a way of writing in the non-dialogue passages of their books that doesn't sound like any character in the story. Rather, this narrator voice usually sounds most like the author's natural way of writing.

There's nothing technically wrong with having a character-less narrator voice, especially when using the third-person POV. But I'm here to tell you about a level of mastery that you may now be ready to attempt.

In this more enlightened method, you use the viewpoint character as the narrator.

In Tip #30 I talk about point of view (POV) and viewpoint characters. If you haven't read that lately, please start there and then come back here. This tip builds directly atop that one.

Point of view is all about restricting yourself to the things the viewpoint character can see, hear, smell, taste, feel, and know. First-person POV is the most claustrophobic (and intimate). Hard-boiled detective stories work because we don't have access to anything the main character doesn't know, so we figure it out with him.

When a writer gives us information the viewpoint character doesn't have access to, it's a POV violation. You can certainly have scenes from other POVs and in other storylines, and thus give us information the protagonist doesn't have. But when you're in any given scene you can be inside only one head: the viewpoint character's head.

What the protagonist thinks, feels, assumes, senses, and says must come from the framework of the information he or she has access to.

Likewise, the person must speak in ways that are accurate and true to that character. For instance, if the character holds a Ph.D. in applied physics you don't expect him to speak like a construction worker. Now we're into the territory of strong characters (Tip #44) and the secrets of good dialogue (Tips #46-49).

Stay with me here.

If a character's verbal dialogue must be true to his or her character and if he or she must be restricted to what he or she could know, doesn't it make sense that this character's interior diologue ought to be true to his or her character and restricted to what he or she could know?

In other words, if this character sounds a certain way when speaking, shouldn't this character sound the same way when thinking?

And if we're in this character's head for this scene, then aren't we seeing it through his or her eyes? Aren't we getting it all through the filter of this character's personality and prejudices and presuppositions?

Your viewpoint character is the reader's periscope into the story. The reader can know it only through your viewpoint character's eyes, ears, and mind. And this character has a specific set of expectations and attitudes that color and interpret what he or she experiences. Right?

The Gospel Truth

Think about the four Gospels. Each covers the same story. Each is written either by an eyewitness or by someone who had access to eyewitnesses to the life, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And yet look how different all four of them are.

Matthew, Mark, and Luke are similar in many ways, but they also differ greatly. And John's way out somewhere else doing his own thing. They tell the same story, and yet they don't. They include different stories or bring out different emphases of the same stories. They speak to different audiences, they have different purposes, and they each leave you with a different message.

Each of the Gospel writers brought his unique personality and interests to the tale. Luke loves his parables and historical veracity. Mark loves action. Matthew loves his Jewish history. And John goes way deep.

Here are four narrators giving us vastly different reading experiences because they're telling the same story through their own eyes, minds, and words.

So it should be in your fiction.

Not only should the stuff in quotation marks sound like your character, and not only should the stuff in italics sound like your viewpoint character (except don't use italics: see Tip #61 below), the rest of it should sound like your viewpoint character, too.

Yes, you're just describing a room. But describe it in the words your viewpoint character would use. How would Indiana Jones describe a room differently from, say, Elle Woods in Legally Blonde?

Go on, try it. Describe a room from each of their points of view.

Stay in Character

Instead of jumping out of everyone's character to adopt your Generic Writer Voice for narration and description, stay in character. Use your viewpoint character's voice and personality to narrate and describe.

How would Hitler describe a room differently from how Gandhi would describe it? How would King Arthur describe an event differently from how Robin Hood would describe it? Rocky Balboa vs. Rocky the Squirrel?

Here's a passage from my first novel, Virtually Eliminated, in which nine-year-old Jordan is narrating.

Jordan knew he shouldn't get into a car with strangers, but these guys were FBI agents. Besides, the two agents—Ricky and Paul—seemed nice enough. They said they wanted to take him computer shopping. What could be wrong with that?

And did they ever take him shopping! It was like Christmas, only he got to pick out all his own presents. They took him to a really nice computer store and told him to pick out the coolest stuff for net surfing. Everything—even a computer! They must've been rich, because they didn't even blink when he picked out the most expensive computer in the store.

They wouldn't let him buy any games, though. What was the use of this great machine if they weren't going to play with it?  

You got a satisfactory description of the events as they unfolded, but you got it in the words of a nine-year-old computer gaming freak. If I'd done it in my voice, it would've sounded more staid, and therefore less interesting.

Do this in your fiction, too.

Yeah, But You Said...

Now, if you have been reading this column for a while you might've spotted something in this passage that violates something I've said in another tip.

The exclamation points.

Tip #60 explicity calls fiction writers to not use exclamation points in narration. They don't belong in description, I say.

So what gives?

The answer is that Tip #60 applies when you're doing standard narration. When you're not attempting to put all your narration and description in the words and attitudes of your viewpoint character.

Most writers use a standard, character-less voice when narrating. That's fine. It's actually the industry standard to do it that way. And when doing it that way, you should avoid exclamation points in your narration.

But if you're striving for the subtlety of a master, you're going to begin doing all your narration in character. If your viewpoint character uses exclamation points as part of how he or she thinks, then by all means you should use them in narration.

Let your narration and description be an extension of your viewpoint character, and write it as that person would think it and interpret it. Each scene from one viewpoint character ought to feel entirely different from scenes that come from another viewpoint character's perspective.

It will take discipline to break yourself of this habit. You've probably learned very well how to jump in and out of a character's voice for dialogue and narration. Now I'm asking you to stay in character the whole time. That will take work.

Every scene is told through the eyes and mind of a viewpoint character. You're already doing this, I hope. POV is one of the fundamental disciplines of writing fiction. Now add to that this level of artistry and your fiction will continue its ascent to the level of mastery.

Tip #67: Understand the Difference Between Description and Telling

Aren't description and telling the same thing? I mean, what is a paragraph heavy with nothing but non-dialogue text if not bald-faced telling?

Perhaps you are one of the authors who has read my tip on telling (Tip #29) and has, in good faith, gone back through your work-in-progress cutting out every paragraph that looks suspiciously like telling.

If that's you, bravo (or brava)! Your manuscript will be better for it.

However, it's not quite that easy. Just because a paragraph isn't dialogue and isn't describing action doesn't mean it's telling.

I feel for these authors when they come to me for book doctoring. They may have done their best to cut out everything that looks like telling, and yet they get a note from me saying they need to add in more description.

What gives?

I mean, in one sense a paragraph like this doesn't seem to move the story forward:

Kevin stepped into his father's basement office. It was the size of a child's bedroom. French doors opened into the office, which had one window, a corner desk, and a single bookshelf. The most striking feature of the room were the walls, which looked to Kevin exactly like the surface of Mars: burnt orange and textured with bumps like satellite photos of the Red Planet. The oatmeal carpet was new, but already had tufts of black cat hair visible on it, especially along the white baseboards. This was where the magic happened?

If you're on the search for paragraphs of telling in your manuscript, this might be the kind of thing you'd be inclined to cut. Look at it, for crying out loud. Nothing happens. It's just fat that needs to be trimmed, right?

Um, not so much.

Telling, as you can read in Tip #29, consists of exposition, backstory, and explanation of motives. It stops the story to tell the reader something she doesn't need to know, just because the author can't bear not explaining everything.

On first glance, that's what the descriptive paragraph looks like. But it's not.

Description, unlike telling, does represent something the reader needs to know: what the scene looks like, how many people are there, whether it's day or night, how big the room is, etc.

You've got to set the stage for the reader. If you don't, who will?

How can the reader imagine your scene if you don't describe it? If you cut out all your description, the reader draws a blank when trying to picture what's going on. As you can see in my series on description (Tips 5-8) it's incredibly irritating to your reader to not be able to generate a mental image of your story.

I understand the school of thought that says you want to give just a hint of description and let the reader fill in the rest for herself. I understand it, but I disagree.

To me, that's the equivalent of filming a movie in which the only thing you put on the screen is the occasional rough sketch of what the settings, characters, and action might look like. The rest is audio-only. Imagine watching your favorite movie that way.

Personally, I can't really engage in a scene until I can picture where I am, the weather, the relative position of the people in the room, and so forth. Cutting out description, then, doesn't make the scene move more rapidly (as it does when you cut out telling); it actually keeps the scene from moving at all.

Telling stops the story. Description allows it to go forward.

I also understand—and disagree with—the school of thought that says you ought to hand out little bits of information about the setting or character description as you move through the scene. So that by the end of the scene the reader finally has a good feel for what she was supposed to have been imagining from the beginning of the scene.

Like when the last line of the scene says, "And with that he lay down on his surfboard and paddled away." That would be okay if all through the scene we'd known we were at a beach. But in this school of thought you could very well not reveal that information until the end. The information that comes in by the end shows us that we've been wrong the whole time about what the scene looked like.

Ooh, I hate that.

You can do that for effect sometimes, when you're trying to keep the reader in the dark about the setting. But if you do it as your primary method of describing the settings in your book, you're going to frustrate your reader.

It is essential to set the stage for your reader very early in the scene. I recommend getting started on description at least by the bottom half of the first page of a new scene, if not sooner.

Doing so gives the reader the same information she'd get in the first second of footage in a movie. Failing to do so leaves her disoriented and floating in ether—and frustrated. That's more like creating an amateur radio drama than a movie. At least in professional radio they add sound effects and other clues to give you a sense of place. Many novelists don't even give you that.

Don't be afraid to describe your settings and your characters. You must do so. It is not telling. Without this description your reader cannot imagine what's going on. And that stops the momentum of your story even worse than including a paragraph of telling.

You, the author, are the filmmaker for the movie that is your story. If you do it without description it's as if you're making a movie but not bothering to use a camera.

Tip #68: Use Word Choice To Set Mood

Back in Tip #63 I promised to explain how to use vocabulary and word choice to set the mood of a scene or reflect the character's emotional state—without resorting to personification to do it. Now I'm making good on that promise.

This technique goes well with Tip #66 as a subtle tool to be put in the advanced novelist's kit. But I hope every novelist tries it and keeps working on it until it feels natural.

Here's an example in setting mood through word choice. The challenge: describe the same place three times but set three different moods. The place: a house in the suburbs.

#1: A shadow lay over the yard like a gravecloth. The grass was long and unkempt. Against the bole of a withered oak lay a child's ball, shrouded by the creeping Burmuda. The features of the house shimmered in the blaze of the afternoon, blurred beyond recognition to the unwary passerby.

Okay, a bit cheesy, maybe, but you get the point. Not a fun place to go.

#2: Zinnias blossomed against the cherry tree beside the front porch, their sunkist inner circles wreathed in bashful pink. At the base of the grand oak, a mother rabbit led her furry litter out from the shade of a rhododendron's lacy leaves. She sniffed the breeze with delicate nostrils, brushed her eye with a paw, and bounded into the sun.

Ah, a more pleasant place, yes? A Disney moment.

#3: The dirt showed through the grass in brown scars. The grass that remained was brittle and sharp, like a smoker's eyebrows. Signs remained of the home's luxuriant past—the garden path, the children's toys, the "Home of the Week" sign out front—but they lay wasted. An American flag still fluttered on its pole, but the sun had washed it out to a milky translucence and its trailing edge was shredded. It hung from only one tether, twisting in the wind like a castaway's last cry for rescue. 

Depressed yet?

I could conceivably be describing the same place in all three passages. A yard, grass, some trees and stuff in the yard. But I did three things to establish the mood I was after.

First, I selected different details to point out. All the things I mentioned could be there in the yard each time—the flag, the bunny, the child's ball—but by plucking out these details I was able to construct different images in your mind.

Second, I made heavy use of word pictures (see Tip #8). I never stooped to bringing the things to life (that would violate Tip #63), but I did the next best thing by careful use of comparisons.

Third, I chose my vocabulary carefully. In the first one, I used words like gravecloth, bole, shrouded, withered, and creeping. In the second, I used blossomed and furry and bashful and bounded. (Plus a bunny. You can never go wrong with a furry bunny.) In the third, I used wasted and brittle and cry, plus images of regret and loneliness.

Actually, I did a fourth thing to create the mood I was after. This one's so subtle I didn't realize I was doing it until I stepped back and took a look. I used words that "sounded to the eye" like other words that helped paint the picture I was going for. For instance, I used shimmered when I was thinking shivered. I used cherry to sound close to cheery. And I used lacy to sound like lazy, as in relaxed.

Pretty cool, huh? I've gone a bit overboard to illustrate, but you can achieve the same effect with a less heavy hand simply by being mindful of the mood you're trying to create.

You can do this to convey the narrator's mood, too. Combine this tip with #63 for some true subtlety. The same house and yard might look all three of these ways at different points in the story depending on how the viewpoint character is feeling at the moment. We all see things we want to see—or fear—and your characters are no different.

So try it. Do you have a scene that you want your reader to perceive as happy or frightening or sad? Do you want the reader to arrive at the scene feeling wary or disarmed or flush with young love? Then take out your paint kit (your thesaurus) and begin selecting your pallette.

And if you want to reveal how your viewpoint character is feeling—without coming out and just telling your reader how the character is feeling—then break out those brushes and show the world through your character's eyes. Is she wearing rose-colored glasses, or are her eyes covered as with the gauzy film of the crypt?

Try the same challenge I gave above. And paint away.

Tip #69: Formula Number 1—When Do People Change?

Sometimes there are formulas (formulae?) you can use to help you in your fiction. I don't mean a mathematical formula for figuring pagecount based on wordcount or something like that. I mean theoretical formulas that can help you as you're writing.

Here's a good one for you when thinking about your character's inner journey: people don't change until the cost of staying the same gets too high.

Think about someone who doesn't want to flee a potentially dangerous flood. He stays home when others pack up and leave. When the TV says everyone should leave, he stays. When the police come by and tell him to leave, he stays. When the water begins to rise, he stays. He gets an ice chest of Buds and sits in a lawn chair on the roof, his shotgun across his knees.

No one's getting his stuff. Besides, the flood won't do what those college boys on TV keep saying. What do they know about these woods?

But then the water keeps rising. Cars get flooded. Bloated animal corpses float by in the current. The only sign of human life are news helicopters and National Guard choppers and the occasional passing float boat carrying a family and their belongings.

Now our man's getting worried. Was this such a good idea? No one's going to steal his stuff. Indeed, the water's already entered the first floor and ruined or carried off most of it. If things keep going like they're headed, he's going to lose more than his collection of Johnny Cash CDs and his Mama's prize-winning quilts.

The water keeps rising. It's crashed through the second story windows now. The house is a total loss. Worse, there haven't been any helicopters in the last three hours.

What's that upstream in the brown water? Something big, a flotilla of debris being pushed along in front of it as by the blade of a bulldozer. One end of it bobs in the dirty rapids and he catches a glimpse of what is: the pier from Jacobs' Marina five miles upstream.

It's headed right toward his house, broadside, like a giant eraser about to wipe his homestead from its foundation.

The nearly submerged pier strikes the oak tree where he played as a child. The ancient tree resists at first. The pier stalls and the floodwaters rise angrily behind it. But then the oak gives way, tumbling under the pier like a will-o-the-wisp beside the stream. The pier surges forward, rotating in the water to slide toward his house like a three-ton torpedo.

Now he wants to leave.

All his resolve is gone. He's going to die. And for what? Forget it. Nothing is worth this. Why oh why hadn't he left when he could?

The pier is thirty feet away and coming fast. He drops his shotgun, kicks off his boots, and leaps into the frigid water, his empty ice chest as a floatation device.

***

Okay, I probably didn't have to write that much for you to get the point, but I was having fun with it.  ;-)

When did our man make a change? When his life was in danger. He was willing to stay as he was and fend off the change until that point, even though everyone else had changed before then. He resisted. The cost of changing was too great, and so he stayed the same. Heroically.

So should your characters.

As you know from Tip #3 and Tip #44, the best fiction is that which is about people who must change but don't want to. The events of the story come along to force that change, but they resist. Like our guy on the roof. They've found something that's working for them, or so they think, and the pain of changing is too great. So they stay the same.

But the events of the story change the picture. They bring about an escalation that begins to even out the columns. For most of the story it's still too costly for the character to change, and so he or she fights to keep things the way they were, even escalating his own increasingly desperate attempts to maintain the status quo.

Finally the cost becomes too great. The story (or God or Fate) brings the last straw and it breaks our character's resolve. He is broken, defeated. Finally he realizes that staying the same will cause more damage than changing. Finally the flood waters of the story have risen to the point that it's no longer worth it to stick to the old ways.

And so he jumps. Or, if you're writing a tragic inner journey for him, he lashes himself to the chimney and goes down with the, um, house.

But the whole story is about getting him to that moment of choosing (see Tip #50). Because that's the stuff of true drama.

Think of Lieutenant Dan in Forrest Gump. He was angry at God because of what had happened to him in Vietnam. The two of them kind of had a grudge match going on, at least from Lt. Dan's perspective. And God kept throwing hardships at him, until that climactic scene when the Jenny is in dire straits and Dan goes overboard, screaming at God.

Through that moment he is broken and he finds his peace with God. But if God hadn't brought the hardships and ultimately the storm, Dan would've remained trapped in his self-destructive anger and depression.

People do not change until the cost of staying the same is greater than the cost of changing.

Your job as a novelist is to raise the stakes, to increase the cost, to bring the flood waters.

Your character is stuck in his ways. He's happy with this situation, even though it is a problem. It's destroying him. He doesn't see it, or won't admit it. But it's better than the alternative. Changing would hurt too much. And so you have to make it hurt too much for him to stay the same.

When he finally gets to that point when he realizes he really would be better off he changes, but can still choose to resist, your reader will watch breathlessly to see what he decides.

And that, my friend, is a good thing.

As you evaluate your story and your characters' inner journeys, be sure to call up this formula to be sure you're getting the balance right.

Enjoy!

Tip #70: Formula Number 2—When Can Readers Bear Exposition?

Writing fiction should not be mechanical or fomulaic. However, as we saw last time, there are some formulas or rules of thumb that can help the novelist out.

If you've been reading this column very long you're probably aware of my dislike of telling in all its guises. See Tip #29 for my main entry on the despicable subject.

I don't like telling as exposition, telling as backstory, or telling to explain everyone's motivations. I don't like flashbacks because they're usually just telling, and I don't like long "Oh, glad you asked" conversations, which I call "telling in quotation marks."

Telling, in my view, is bad because it stops the story and forces the reader to receive information she doesn't care about.

However, even I will not say that telling is always evil and there is never any circumstance in which telling may be done. Indeed, in my Operation: Firebrand novels I invariably have a briefing scene in which someone tells the characters, and thus the reader, what's going on and what has to happen. Isn't that telling?

No, and here's why. Scroll up and read what I wrote two paragraphs back. Telling stops the story and forces unwanted information on the reader. When the briefing scene comes in the Firebrand novels the story doesn't stop—it can't actually go forward without it. And the reader is interested in what's going to be covered.

So here's the formula: your reader can tolerate telling to the degree that she is interested in what is being told and to the degree that the story can't advance without the information.

Let's say you've got a character who plays pro football. You've gotten us interested in his life and challenges. But then you launch into the story of his childhood.

[Insert Family Feud XXXX buzzer sound.]

This doesn't work because we don't care about his stinking childhood. We don't. So it's telling because you're stopping the story to tell us things we don't care about and without which the story could proceed quite nicely.

But what if our player had been injured just before the big game and you have the doctor come in and tell us what the prognosis and treatment plan is. Is that telling?

Survey says...

[Insert Family Feud right answer ding sound.]

It's not telling because the reader wants to know and the story can't go on until we learn this information.

Your reader will tolerate exactly the amount of telling as interest in the topic you've built up in said reader.

Think of it as a bank account. If you give us zero deposits into our "interest account" on a topic and then try to make a massive withdrawal (by making us listen to exposition on a topic about which we have zero interest), you'll be instantly overdrawn and you'll get nasty letters from your banker, or in this case, you'll get the disinterest of your reader.

Ah, but if you've made numerous deposits into that interest account and now you want to tell us a little about it (but be sure it's something we must know to advance the story), then go ahead and make that withdrawal.

But be careful: you might have deposited three units of interest into that account, but if you try to withdraw an amount of telling that requires four or more, you'll be overdrawn again. You can blow the whole amount you've built up simply by lingering too long in telling mode.

A good example of this formula done right is in Star Wars: Episode I. We've had lots of action and adventure in the movie before we ever have a long exposition scene. We finally get one when Anakin has taken Qui-Gon and Jar-Jar and Padme to his house so Mom can make Jawa Bean Salad.

If you watch that scene carefully, you'll notice that they're basically talking about what needs to happen, what they're going to do, and why they can't do it in other ways. It's a talky-talky scene, which might've come across as a momentum killer. But it plays out fine and we get our bearings about what's going to happen for the next hour of the movie.

There are a number of reasons why this works. First, it's fairly interesting to watch. Qui-Gon catching Jar-Jar's tongue is a classic moment. There are also interesting interpersonal dynamics going on, like Anakin trying to get his mom to let him race again and Qui-Gon starting to put his Jedi moves on Anakin's mom. So it's not just pure exposition.

Second, we're interested. How are our heroes going to get off this planet? How is this pure-hearted boy who loves his mom ever going to become Darth Vader? Why do we think Padme is more than she seems? The writer has built up enough interest in this moment that we can bear hearing a bit of jabber (the Hutt).

Third, the story simply can't proceed without this information. The characters are stuck. But in this scene they come up with a plan for how to move forward.

Fourth, this scene comes pretty deeply into the story. The writer didn't try to give it to us within the first ten minutes of the movie. We're fully engaged in the story before it comes. Lots of aspiring novelists I work with like to explain everything within the first twenty pages, feeling, perhaps, that once all that's out of the way they can get on with the story. [Blech.]

But the Star Wars scene works. The formula is honored and the exposition is successfully communicated.

Same with the briefing scenes in my Firebrand novels. The reader has become engaged in the plight of the people in danger and she wants to know how and when the team is going to get there to try to save them. The interest level is high and the story can't advance without this information.

How is it in your story? Are you asking your reader to stomach large (or even small) quantities of telling about something in which she has zero interest?

And I mean story interest here. A reader might be inherently interested in the inner workings of the internal combustion engine—but she might not be. You can't assume your reader will automatically be interested in something just because you put it in a book. Please.

You have to make the reader interested in the subject by making it important and interesting inside your story.

Chances are, the six people who enjoyed Operation: Firebrand—Crusade were not, before they read my book, terribly interested in the plight of Christians in Sudan. But it was my job as a novelist to get the reader to invest in a character there so she would begin to care. When the time came for the briefing, the reader's interest was quite high.

This is how technothrillers work, incidentally. And historicals, for that matter. They educate as they entertain. But the education can't start until the entertainment is in high gear.

You can give backstory information (i.e., telling) to exactly the same degree as you've built up reader interest in the topic and as the reader must know this information for the story to proceed.

Want More Tips?

Be sure to return to the tips index to get all the tips so far.

Sign up for the WhereTheMapEnds
newsletter
—and receive an exclusive (and fun) free gift: "The Horrific But True Psychological Phases of Writing a Novel"

WTME Newsletter Signup
Email: