It’s been a while since I talked about writing on here, so I figure it’s time for another entry into my ‘Dear Aspiring Writers…’ series. In the interest in keeping the general positive vibe I’ve been on for the past few weeks, talking about my favorite super-couples and then favorite superpowers, I’m not going to talk about what not to do this time, but what you should be doing to get more awesome at writing.
Again, I’d like to stress that I’m by no means the old master on the mountain here. I’m a guy who is still growing and experimenting with his art who just happens to know what he likes and has overdosed on enough media to start to see patterns. The 0th rule of all these things is to not take any of this stuff as a hard and fast rule so much as something to keep in mind.
Also take note that a lot of my thoughts are based on entertainment value rather than art. If you want to be Oscar-worthy, I’m not the guy. I’m more People’s Choice Awards. That’s why I get to make points that would make your high school English teacher explode in sheer rage like…
Learn to Use Cliches
When it comes to writing advice, it there’s anything more universal than ‘show, don’t tell’ (we’ll get to that in a bit), it’s ‘don’t use cliches’. If they’re trying to be clever, they’ll tell you to avoid cliches like the plague. This makes sense because the idea, obviously, is to be creative and show everyone that reads your writing what a smartypants you are.
But as I read books and fan fiction and even other web serials (I’m not linking them because this isn’t a flattering example), I am becoming more aware that the problem isn’t using cliches in general, but using them in the same sense as a chimp may use a gun.
I just read a story where the writer was in love with the phrase ‘quick as lightning’.
Let me tell you: there is nothing wrong with that phrase. Lightning is hella quick. You are not going to beat it in a footrace, a car race, or even a hypersonic jet race. It has ‘light’ right there in the name—as in ‘speed of’–as in the fastest speed known to science. There is a reason why the Flash’s symbol is just a plain old lightning bolt: because that’s all he needs to say ‘I am fast’.
No, there is no problem—no problem at all—with describing fast things as quick as lightning. What is a problem is that this writer decided to use it to describe someone waking up. As in ‘he woke up quick as lightning’. Let me be clear: this character didn’t spring from their bed or anything, they just went from asleep to awake rapidly. This is not the kind of rapidity that you compare to lightning.
A cliché is basically just a stock phrase, usually a stock descriptive phrase, really just a multi-word word. And just like using a perfectly good word wrong (we’ll get to that too) can make you look like a dumbass and make your story’s impact fall short, so too can you hamstring your narrative with a misapplied cliché.
But the writer of the work I’m referring to (Yeah, it was fan fic, so I’m not going to tell you who to protect the innocent) didn’t stop there. They kept right on using ‘quick as lightning’ over and over. The character went to their living room quick as lightning too and ended up at the dining room table with coffee and toast quick as lightning.
Which brings us to the second problem with cliches, which is another problem with common words: running them into the ground. I’m pretty sure everyone remembers how Twilight totally ruined ‘chagrin’ and ‘incredulous’, right? Well because cliches are exactly the same as words, the same thing can happen with them. You use them too much and it diminishes them.
Look, cliches aren’t scary monsters that you should rip apart your manuscripts hunting for. The reason they became cliches in the first place is because they are so evocative and so good at encapsulating what they describe that people turned them into pseudo-words that they just pop unto everyday language.
You need to know when to apply them rather than to never apply them because otherwise, you’ll end up using weaker, dumber and/or more pretentious sounding equivalent phrases when the reader is perfectly aware that a less awkward alternative exists and you’re just avoiding it because being creative means more to you than actual reader experience. If you can come up with a better description, by all means do so, but don’t feel obligated.
Also, dialogue. If a character isn’t particularly loquacious, a human character in the modern world will probably use cliches. They just will. It is how humans think and talk; avoiding cliches is an artificial restriction we put on our narrative to foster creativity, but most characters are no writers and do not think so much about their words. Therefore, it is perfectly okay, even when you choose to work hard to avoid using them in your narrative, to make use of them here.
In the same vein, you should also…
Learn How Words Read
‘Vaal’, I hear you say, ‘surely you’re not going to assume that we don’t know what words we’re using mean. You’re not that much of an asshole that you’ll just suggest we’re that dumb’. To that I say,: this is not about what words mean. This is largely about the fallibility of dictionaries and thesauruses.
In another story I recently read (this one being actually pretty brilliant except for lots of poor word choice), I cam upon a passage that bothered me to the point that I couldn’t get it out of my head. In it, there is mention of a character’s bedspread, which coated their bed.
In the most technical sense, this usage is correct in that a bed spread does effectively cover a bed. But let’s stop and thing about what other things are typically described as ‘coating’. Paint coats things, frosting coasts cakes, little kids go out to play and get coated (though I like ‘caked’ for this) in mud. In common usage, things that coat aren’t just ‘on’ and covering something, they’re all over it, seeping into pores and clinging to them. The Venom symbiote coats Eddie Brock but the Spider-suit does not coat Peter Parker.
Like my previous rants about using ‘orbs’ for ‘eyes’ and color obsession, this come down to the writer not wanting the plain old description and wanting a new word. The problem is that while the word has the same definition, it does not have the same meaning.
That’s what I mean when I talk about how a word ‘reads’. Context adds more meaning to a word than a dictionary entry can and you need to be aware of it. When you’re looking to use a word you don’t often us, it’s a good idea to stop and think about other instances in which you’ve seen it used and why that word was used there instead of something else.
Also, you should think about why you’re bothering. In my example, I can’t help but wonder why they couldn’t just say the bedspread was ‘on’ the bed. In fact, given that the passage was about someone just sitting down on their bed, I have to wonder why the hell we needed to hear about what the bedspread was doing in the first place, but that issue is further down in that article.
And that brings us to the King of the poorly used words: Suddenly.
On one of the writer’s board I haunt, ‘suddenly’ is serious business. There have been multiple threads about it and people seriously go overboard with trying to eradicate it. I am not kidding when I say that I’ve seen people flat out despairing that they found as many as five suddenly’s in a 50,000+ word book. They act as if they were samurai who just accidentally punched their feudal lord in the junk or something. Seppuku often sounds imminent for such a sin.
The thing is, it shouldn’t be the number of instances of ‘suddenly’ that is seen as a problem, but the usage of them. Suddenly is a word for things that happen abruptly and with no warning or preamble. It is a fairly strong word that instantly makes the reader’s train of thought switch tracks. But much like crying wolf, the effect diminishes every time you use it without paying off the promise of something new and/or interesting happening.
You see it all the time: ‘Suddenly, she decided to do something.’ Well okay, it’s nice that she decided and all, but nothing is actually happening now, is there? ‘Suddenly, he turned and smiled. Smiling was not exactly an unusual or out of character action for him.’ Yeah… that isn’t exactly POWERHOUSE EXCITEMENT, is it?
Here’s a rule of thumb for using suddenly: if your story was a movie any action that includes a suddenly would be accompanied by an orchestral sting or a scare chord. Think about the action you’re pairing with the word. Would it look really stupid with that sound effect on it?
Which brings us to the one that is sure to start a fight:
Know What To Show, When To Tell
‘Show, don’t tell’. When you write, people will slam this phrase into you so often and with such gusto that it is a miracle that most writers don’t wind up in full body casts.
For those not in the know, and because most people who use it will never bother to explain it, I will explain. ‘Telling’ in this context is stating things as plain, unvarnished fact in the narrative of a story. ‘He was angry’, ‘The air smelled bad’, ‘the story had too many damn words in it for what it was saying’; that kind of thing. Telling stories like this can get boring real quick because you’re just being spoon fed information without really reading about the experience or knowing the attendant information that led to that being a fact.
Almost anyone that knows anything about writing will tell you to instead say things like:
He clenched his fists and fought to keep his teeth from grinding. The image of grabbing the internet troll by the hair and slamming his empty head into the keyboard again and again and again until the Pavlovian fear of writing racist things about Cheerios ads took hold completely flashed into his mind.
The smell of burnt cabbage and the strange, chemical odor that bugs make when they’re crushed underfoot filled the room like a living, breathing entity. She forced herself to breath through her mouth, but that hideous miasma had its own, unique taste that made even that unpleasant. She regretted using a spell that let her sniff our corruption in the presence of a politician from Virginia.
Just that one paragraph went on and on forever, all commas and semicolons with only one or two periods offering a mental breath. Somewhere along the way the narrator’s thoughts had turned to summer in the south of France or some shit and there was all manner of expansive language that, taken on its own might have been interesting or exciting if it had anything at all to do with the plot. It was getting hard to even remember what the plot was because every page or so was stained with more and more words and poetic turns of phrase. There had been over one thousand wards so far and the writer wasn’t done explaining how hungry the main character was. All he could think was that at least it wasn’t about red grass.
And therein lies the problem. Yes, showing gets way more descriptive and can add both to immersion and quality. For all you NaNoWriMo folks (hey peeps doing camp Nano! Wish I could join you!), this is also a great way to arbitrarily increase your word count. However, sometimes you need to know both when the audience really does just need the gist of things told as plain and simple fact, and when to shut the hell up.
This really came to the forefront for me in a recent thread in said writer’s forum where someone posted a blog post by Chuck Palahniuk, writer of Fight Club.
Before I get into this, I want to address something that I’ve gotten a couple of emails about over the past few months. Back when I did my article about using your fictional world, I built it around the book I was in the middle of reading, Mainspring by Jay Lake. While I stand by my complaints about that book (specifically the main character and his effect on the course of the story), I really go out of hand with some of the things I address to Lake in the process, especially since, as I said at the start of the article, I didn’t exactly dislike the book in the first place. And, as a couple of people were very quick to point out, I am a dancing monkey and Lake is an award-winning science fiction writer. And I really can’t disagree because now, six months later, I’ve read the sequel, Escapement and it does an excellent job of fulfilling the promise of the Clockwork Earth. In fact, I’ll be using the setting as one of my examples when I get around to my world-building articles.
I bring it up now to save people time. Yes, Palahniuk is a successful writer with a popular film of his book under his belt and I am unfit to clean his boots with my tongue. See? Now you don’t have to send me angry emails! Everyone wins!
And I don’t have to retaliate.
So back on task, Palahniuk’s post was challenging writer to, for six months, avoid using ‘thought’ words in their narratives; words like thought, wondered, mused, knew, understood, realized, etc. Instead, he suggests the writer ‘unpack’ such things to detail the extra information I mentioned earlier.
This is a worthy exercise (assuming you’re not, say, trying to put out ~10,000 words worth of content online a week, at least 7,000 words of which needs to advance a plotline), especially for those who are really into the art of writing.
However, we then get to a particular example he uses, which I will quote here:
Instead of saying: “Adam knew Gwen liked him.” You’ll have to say: “Between classes, Gwen had always leaned on his locker when he’d go to open it. She’s roll her eyes and shove off with one foot, leaving a black-heel mark on the painted metal, but she also left the smell of her perfume. The combination lock would still be warm from her butt. And the next break, Gwen would be leaned there, again.”
As we hashed out on the writer’s board, this actually works when written in a first person point of view, or a third person limited point of view where we only get the perspective of a single character and are certain that Adam is in fact noticing these things. However, this was being touted as and started showing up in other writer’s forums I hang out at as excellent advice for all writers across all styles and genres.
To that, I have to strongly say ‘I disagree’.
Here’s the thing: in any style of writing other than the ones I mentioned, what the narrator is aware of and what the character Adam is aware of don’t necessarily match up. Because of this, ‘Adam knew Gwen liked him’ is not the same thing as what all those words are telling us. In fact, even in situations where we are certain Adam notices all those little things Gwen does, that doesn’t mean that he’s put two and two together to deduce that Gwen likes him. Trust me here, I’ve been in that exact situation and really was dense enough to not notice. I would bet you fistfuls of money that a significant percentage of dumbass kids in high school have had the same issues.
If the story depended on the audience knowing that Gwen liked him, you could have a serious problem because, well, after all those words, you didn’t convey that fact. You might still want those details there, but when it comes right down to it, you do need to use the ‘thought’ words to make it clear.
Therein lies the crux of this article: you need to be mindful when choosing the show instead of tell instead of always choosing show just because all the other writers tell you to. Sometimes, the audience needs information given to them for free without having to glean it from a bunch of literary cues and you have to make a value judgment over if the expanded information is worth it.
By the same token, you need to consider if a trivial detail or idle thought really warrants this kind of treatment. Sometimes characters just think or know or feel and there doesn’t need to be any extra explanation or detail. In fact, sometimes it can get tedious when every thought that goes through the character’s head triggers a completely unrelated novel.
And that’s it for this week. Ironically, I used up almost three thousand words talking about just three points, but I think they were worth the extra attention because I think that these are things newer writers are often confused by. It’s just human nature to want there to be hard and fast rules for things like this, but there really aren’t and you shouldn’t let yourself fall into that kind of trap.
I have no idea what I’m going to do for next week’s blog (and would appreciate suggestions and requests), but I’ll see you then anyway. Have an awesome week!
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