Choosing the words… picking which shapes to fit around your prose gems to really show them off, and when not to try as hard… It means juggling paragraphs, “said” tags, adjectives, punctuation, and yet still managing to be creative in the middle of it all. No wonder that, no matter how ready we are to write something, the biggest parts are probably still the actual writing and rewriting to get the words themselves into place.
(The Unified Writing Field Theory — searchings and findings on what makes stories work)
More, the devil’s in the details, so this is the final acid test to our skill: Do we come off as more wannabes that have fun ideas but whose words don’t quite “have it”? Or do we make that reader think “Not a bad line… okay… keeps moving… yeah, fun moment and… yeah… oh she needs to DIE—” until we’ve earned his trust enough to turn that page?
Honestly I think half the would-be authors who don’t pull it off are the ones who fail the Resume Test: give the reader some reasons to like you, but know it only takes one reason for him to put the paper down and go with somebody more reliable. One failed word, one aspect of weakness than runs on too long, and it can all be over.
–Bad blogger! Writers already know that, there’s no point in my reminding you all about how many things can go wrong, especially when dwelling on it can just freeze us all up. Besides, you’ve probably already learned the tools, and now you’re focusing on your sense of what makes your writing sing, with the precision slowly coming with practice, right? Good. That’s probably how it has to be.
Still, there’s no reason to let your options unsettle you. The more we all get familiar with what the structures for those words can really do, the more we can let them line the writing up in a better way, and maybe even make it come out easier.
Mind you, these will only be the highlights. For the real bible to most of this—yes, I’m going to say it—be sure you have Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style handy. (And if that sounds too nitpicky, consider that this is the same E. B. White that wrote Charlotte’s Web. They get it.)
Now: let’s say you have enough ideas in your head to start a scene. Whether it’s from planning or from trusting that your mind is open, you think you can give the scene a direction of suspense or fun or whichever it is. (In fact, I think “suspense” is a good model for working with any kind of scene; you can use the same kinds of hints and buildup even about whether a great pleasure or an ordinary thing is going to turn out a little better or worse. Anticipation is good for anything.) You have your characters, and the kind of things that might happen, and you’re ready to describe it all. So…
How fast should the scene be going? Is this the time to dwell on how your hero’s fingers notice the feel of the design in the coffee cup… or is the only important thing that you touch base by saying he “got to work eager and freshly caffeinated”?
Think of both what pace to start the scene at, and whether it’s best for the story to change speeds in midscene; maybe starting at a quick summary and slowing down when something important shows up.
And when things start slowing down you could end the scene right then, or you can linger a while over the consequences, maybe not ending at all but just keep on going with a few lines or even a few pages of thoughts and lesser events to lead to the next event. (Classic example: When the hero leaves one place, do you then say “When he arrived–” or follow him on the road?)
Note: if you do officially end the scene, you can make it the chapter’s end too, but if not you should skip a line and put in a mark such as * * *. I’ve seen writers who left that mark out really confuse the story when the line break wound up at the page top/bottom and readers didn’t know the scene had changed.
Also, how much does your style depend on you mostly staying at one pace or another? Hopefully if you love details, that means you also know how to reach the next thing before you bog down, or your fast-paced style includes enough twists that you don’t end the fun too soon.
Actually, there are “pacing” questions about every level of writing, from chapters to syllables. For every kind of point we just might add in to amplify or clarify something, there are options of trimming more away if you think that bit of detail or oomph is starting to distract the reader from the key part story of the story, whether it’s starting the scene before the good stuff or one word fancier than it needs to be. Any seasoned writer knows much of the work is streamlining the writing from how it first came out—sometimes even taking a whole scene they slaved over and replacing it all with one mention in another scene that the thing happened.
“Stories fly like birds. Their wings have strong muscles where they need them, but their bones are hollow wherever they can save weight. Build your bird right.”
The next level of choice depends on pace too. Paragraphs are a marvelous extra chance we writers get, to show which ideas the reader needs to understand as a set before moving on—what one room looks like, or that one set of actions is about one thing and different from the next few that are about something else. I always think of the reader as holding his breath when he starts reading a paragraph, and taking a new breath as he comes out of it and pauses an instant to take in what it means.
You can use that idea of a set to make the most of each paragraph. Start it with a sense of what unit it’s covering—as in, do you need a paragraph to capture the sound of a woman’s voice before going on to her face, or is the paragraph a five-line way to say he spent a year waiting to see her again? Either way that choice makes what might be a clearer statement than the words themselves do, about what’s important enough to make which things into just its building blocks. And the reader will notice that you keep making that structure clear for them.
They can’t miss it.
- One caution about paragraph sizes: It’s always best to have some mix of sizes, so the reader can sense that the longer paragraphs are for the more complex or stacked-together subjects, with the shorter ones for what’s simple or emphasized.
- –Especially, larger paragraphs are harder to follow, and worse, they stop demonstrating to our readers that we’re still pointing out what’s about one thing and what might really be better as several. Look at a paperback page; you’ll see maybe nine lines might be as long as they get before they start looking bulky, depending on the style. If I see a paragraph over that, I really hope it’s a “long morning on the road” that’s supposed to drag on, or else a Powerful Instant of frozen time.
- “The axe-heads lesson” is the other way to look at paragraph sizes: like a double-bitted axe, a paragraph’s middle might add some weight to it, but its real impact comes from those two sharp lines at the top and bottom. A lot of picturing the paragraph you’ll write is knowing where it starts and then what to climax it with.
In fact, if you put a specific fact anywhere but the start or end of a paragraph, you’re taking some risk that the reader won’t notice it. Well, unless it’s standing out with quotes or italics.
Dialog or no?
Yes, it would take dozens of posts to explore what makes dialog work. But what I’m thinking about here as that, as we narrow our sense of options from the scene down to the word, we come to how putting any kind of quotation marks near characters changes the flow of things.
Dialog can be some of the most efficient writing there is. It’s almost always the fastest way to cover several different things, especially about someone’s attitude–or better yet, several someones’ in conflict. In fact, it’s so handy at this, writers have to resist the urge to invent silly conversations as the obvious way to explain things or proclaim people’s emotions. Medieval plays always opened with gossiping servants filling us in—it’s so obvious, we should all know better than to overuse it.
Just look at how conspicuous a bit of talk is on the page—how it draws whole sections into rhythms of what’s probably shorter, faster-alternating paragraphs, and those themselves are structured by tags and other signposts. That’s how much of a pattern it adds to that writing, how easily it clarifies what part is a different person and most likely a different attitude on things, each one played off the previous ones. Too many pages without this can start to look like all the same thing; pure description may be the best way to pull the reader into a mood or set of actions, but it can still help to let someone grumble a moment or overhear a few words, just to make one bit stand out in dialog. Or if you have trouble keeping a longer stretch of description together, you might be one of those writers who do better with some dialog to structure it all.
And of course, the longer the dialog runs without a few breaks, the more its cramming together of points can look crowded or feel tiring. Again, balance matters, and just how to balance depends on your style and story.
(There’ll be more about dialog later, as we get deeper into the bits and pieces of things.)
So we’ve gone from scene to paragraph to whether a sentence should start with quotes, and we’re down to the sentences themselves. —But first, about “But.”
Yes, sentences are a key building block of writing. And often each sentence simply adds to the one before it; more facts or reasons to think the situation is the same, same mood, same balance that it seems better for people to do X than do Y. But, sometimes the next thing contradicts that or sends things off in a whole new direction (you know, the fun parts). So as we write we want to keep a sense of what the direction is just now, and consider starting any sentence that breaks too sharply with the last with a But.
—”Consider” it, I said; be sure not to use it every time you could. It’s most needed when there’s a definite change from one sentence to the next, but it’s just enough shift that the reader might think you didn’t realize it. The more obvious changes are often the ones that don’t need the marker, and might look overdone if they had it.
- Or, if you aren’t really contradicting a thing but showing some variations on the theme, you could start it with Or.
- Still, if something is a re-but-al that counters a But, its marker is usually Still or Then Again.
- And if points keep moving in the same direction, and seem like not quite the next thing in line but a variation of the one before, starting that with something like an And or Also smooths that along nicely.
- Then you have other mild but helpful transitions like Then, Because, Therefore…
You get the point. And again, since writing is always balancing between paces, you want to point out some of these shifts to the reader, but not mark out every last step.
Note: these transitions may be most needed in starting a sentence, but they may be needed in mid-sentence too.
In the end, writing always comes down to the sentence. That’s where the real magic happens, where words do or don’t line up with that shape and first start to become something real. And, knowing the sentence is our best chance to get into the flow of picking the words.
I think each sentence amounts to a change. It might be one piece of the story acting on another piece (“Alice slapped Zoey”), or it could be you changing something the reader didn’t know into something he now does (“She wore battered leather gloves”).
And I think that’s the question to ask as you write: what is changing next? Especially, at this moment, what is the pace of that change? And specifically:
How “far” is the subject up “ahead” or “to the side” of the last sentence? And then, how far apart are the subject and object, and how much happens within their interaction?
I don’t mean how many words are between two nouns. I mean, looking at the direction the scene is going in: should the new sentence be focused on an action by or a revelation about a thing (that is, the subject) that’s the same as in the sentence before, or else on one that’s similar to it, or should it be taking up something very different? And then how does the thing’s action/revelation about which other thing move it further in the scene’s direction?
I think that’s the process, even though we use it different ways at different times. A cautious writer might range around a lot, using a lot of different sentences with different subjects trying to discover what’s in a scene and what’s going to happen next. A hurried or inspired writer might rush straight toward what’s most promising, and hopefully go back to add in some scene-setting and might-get-involved factors later.
Either way, if you think Alice (as a subject) should soon be slapping Zoey (object), should a sentence you write first have a subject of:
- general background of what’s nearby, just clarifying the scene?
- specific background, any facts that might affect what’s coming—are there other people there that won’t approve of the slap? does Alice still need a reason to slap Zoey, or else is it worth a sentence to remind us of the reason?
- the object you’re aiming toward, Zoey herself—have you already taken a sentence to establish that she’s there? do you need another about her right now (such as, does she or doesn’t she look like she deserves what’s coming)?
- things related to the subject you want, Alice—maybe a group of friends she’s with, the door opening to let her in, or some aspect of her such as her expression or those gloves she wears?
- the real subject herself, Alice, taking action?
For a slower pace, you can work through more of these options as sentences in their own right, covering more bases and trying to build more momentum at the price of losing speed and bulking up the word count. For a faster pace, the sentence is simply Alice—
—and whatever she’s acting on. As with the subject, Alice’s object could be Zoey, or it could be taking time for her to “take a deep breath” or “shove past Betty” on her way, or any of the other options as things to interact with or be revealed in relation to Alice’s sentence.
—And of course, even if it is Zoey as the object, Alice might still “look at” her before she slaps her. The action within the sentence is still a chance to pause and say something else before the payoff, and that may be a cue for a few more sentences going back and forth with different subjects.
Naturally, half of deciding all these is picking what things to use in a sentence after this one. If Zoey does have a friend right between her and Alice (“Megan,” maybe) and you know you want to involve her before the slap is delivered, is this sentence of Alice’s a glance at Megan, or do you want that glance (or something with Megan as the subject) to be somewhere after this sentence but before the slap?
The best news may be that, when you’re especially in tune with your writing, you may start to get a sense of how to balance these options for several sentences ahead. Whenever you can see the scene’s pacing needs as ”maybe it’s two Alice-sentences mixed with one Zoey, and that means one or two background things’ sentences between them,” you’ve gone from a vague sense of how to write what’s next to a real picture of the next paragraph or two, one that lets you cover all the things there and keep the right speed. Suddenly all that’s left is to pick the words themselves.
As I see it, this is the mental balancing act we go through that defines each sentence we write. Whether we’re searching for what might happen next, exploring what else is connected to it (“is there a Megan in the mix? yes there is!”), or fleshing out the things we know a scene needs, we:
- look at where we’re headed, whether it’s a clear event or an impression we have,
- decide how to balance quick pace versus working in other things, and
- put the sentence in terms of how quickly it moves the subject, object, and connecting verb toward that goal or off to those tangents we want.
(You know, if Mrs. Davis in 5th grade had taught parts of speech using the Alice/Zoey smackdown…)
Speaking of picking the subject, two warnings here:
- don’t, don’t, DON’T lose track of which thing is more active than which and should be the subject, and find yourself writing the dreaded passive voice. ”Zoey was slapped by Alice” just might be the most conspicuously amateurish way there is to write. Although, you might get away with “Zoey reeled back as Alice slapped” if the reeling is more important for the moment than the slap itself.
- don’t start too many sentences in a row with the same subject, even when most of what’s going on is one person doing different things. A rut of “Alice… She… She… She…” is just too easy to fall into; better to let other things take their turn as subject, or at least mix in a new term for Alice (“the bounty hunter”—we knew she was a tough lady, didn’t we?) if that term isn’t overused. But since the main problem is the same word appearing at the start:
Of course there are other wrinkles beyond picking a subject, object, and action.
“As the crowd stared, Alice marched forward toward…”
The crowd could have been its own sentence there, and maybe it deserved one. But if it doesn’t, tucking it in at some part of Alice’s sentence speeds up the pace specifically by making that one thing seem less important. In fact, by pairing the crowd’s staring to Alice’s movement, we’ve implied that one is affecting the other—or in this case, that Alice isn’t making them do more than stare, and none of those witnesses is slowing Alice down at all. It’s one of the surest, yet quickest, ways to add an extra spin on things.
It works at least as well when saying two things about the same subject, tucking background or parameters right into someone’s action without breaking stride. “Pushing past Betty, Alice…” For more about this, see the Write A Better Novel blog’s “Participal Phrase.”
(Remember to learn the proper rules for different tools here. Sometimes you just And or But or Or a few more words in, or adding things with commas is usually close enough to being appropriate—but other punctuation can make some parts of the sentence stand out more. So you can have dashes as shown in the previous sentence, a semicolon (;), and sometimes the more finicky elipse (…) or colon (:). But keep in mind that all of them are a little conspicuous on the page… using a lot of them or of one favorite looks repetitive… even if you call it just your own style… or scatter a lot of them through different places. As with anything, it’s its own kind of overuse balance to work out.)
There’s one extra reason to use compound sentences like this. You don’t want to have too many simple sentences in a row. They’re great for a simple fact. And they can add special emphasis to a single point. But they don’t do either of those well unless they contrast with other sentences that have more than just a single subject, verb, and object; they need to be part of a variety. Worse, any time there’s more than a couple of those in a row, it starts to look like that’s the only way you know how to write.
A related point: a good sentence may want a strong word right at its end… but that can be trickier than it looks. I have a few thoughts on that combined with a guest post, at Order of a Sentence – with Maralys Wills.
Words (or, a few of them)
No, there’s no easy way to pick exact words, even as you get into the flow of picking what to make a sentence about. But there is one easy tip, that just might be the most useful ultraspecific lesson in writing:
Get comfortable with verbs.
The verb, the action (or revelation) word, is the real reason the sentence exists. Except for some handy fragments like “No!”, every sentence is centered more on its verbs than on the subject and object nouns (or pronouns) at their ends.
What this means is that if you’re looking to add oomph to a sentence, consider your options:
- The cat ran silently across the road.
- The tabby ran across the road.
- The cat padded across the road.
The first is an adverb, a whole extra word grafted onto the sentence to clarify something—worth using sometimes, but mainly when there’s no easy other way to get it in. The second is jazzing up one of the nouns, more natural but certainly something that could be used too often. The third, refining the verb, does a lot more to bring the whole sentence to life without becoming awkward.
Having a wide range of verbs ready is doubly useful if it lets you do an active description. A bridge may not be “doing” anything when you put it in view, but any bland “There was a bridge” can be outdone by saying ”a bridge loomed” or “spanned” or (for those ominous rope bridges) “swayed” in its place. You might think of every use of the words “was” or “were” as a placeholder, for reconsidering later for a verb upgrade. Just by getting practice with your different verbs, you can cover almost anything well, without much risk of overdoing it unless you’re actually trying to. –Well, one exception: the verbs in dialog tags can be handy, but they’re easier to overdo.
To say again, nouns are certainly worth giving some attention to as well. If you need to get a detail in, clarifying the word for the thing itself may be the smoothest way, and in any case it’s a good place to add some color. But it’s also easier to write yourself into a style where every line is littered with full ”Alice”s or “the bounty hunter”s and all shoes are “the Nikes.” Just “she” and “shoe” can do the job at least every other time, if it isn’t those halves that you need more clarity.
On the other hand, adjectives and adverbs (as Mr. Stephen King says) are not our friends. In fact, I think of those words as hired hands, subcontracted in if they’re the best way to cover a point but hopefully not my first choice. Almost every word we put down is a temptation to think it out as “the cat RAN… well, I already said ran, but ran SILENTLY” instead of strengthening that word into “padded.” Adjectives and adverbs don’t make us lazy writers in themselves, but we should be always working toward that balance of a decent modifier versus an improved noun or verb–and the times we just don’t need either. (If we aren’t working on setting a mood, do we need to mention that cats are quiet?)
Of course, if one adjective is bulky, two look awkward. But do we really need to mention the clumsy, ungainly, overblown effect of letting three adjectives pile up in one place? Critical mass.
And, not that I especially hate adverbs, but I’ll take one more cheap shot at them: I think every writer should consider how easy any kind of modifier is to overuse, by dabbling once and a while in the old “Tom Swifties” word game. Just come up with an absurd use of a dialog-tag adverb, such as
“Voldemort split his soul into pieces,” Tom said half-heartedly.
Which brings us to:
Dialog Tags and such
Of course dialog doesn’t just change the tone of how the narrative’s going, or plug it deeper into the characters’ heads. Part of its effect also comes from how it visibly lines up different people’s words separate from each other’s, and also separates talk from what’s being done or thought. That’s the opportunity we writers can make the most of, as we make our choices about things like tags and extra actions.
“Of course the best way to tag dialog is with ‘said,’” said Mr. Said.
“But it doesn’t tell you anything!” yelled the Shouter. “There are more exciting tags than that!”
Mr. Said said “Isn’t the dialog itself supposed to do that? Besides, ‘said’ never tries to upstage anything, when the other tags are a lot easier to overuse. After all, the whole shape of dialog paragraphs draws the eye to how many times overdone tags are in there.”
“But—” the Shouter spluttered.
“That ‘said’ is so boring…” he moaned sadly.
“How could real tags ever be too much…” he whined. And at last: “Okay, I guess after using a couple you could look like you’re putting more work into the tags than the dialog. After all, we want to Show, Not Tell.”
“Exactly,” said Mr. Said.
“Unless… unless the speech isn’t giving the whole picture of how it’s said. Got you!” whispered the Shouter.
“Oh,” said Mr. Said.
Just then Visitor spoke up. “But how long do you keep using tags at all? Each time a couple of people settle in to talking, everyone assumes just those two will keep going for a while. If nobody else speaks up to break that pattern, all tags start looking redundant—whether they’re ‘said’ or not.”
The others looked at the floor, embarrassed.
“But remember, Visitor: a paragraph with no dialog breaks patterns too. After that, you have to start tagging again or nobody will know who’s speaking.”
“Why use tags at all?” And Active grinned from ear to ear. “People don’t stop doing things when they talk; besides, those Walk-And-Talk combinations are half the fun. Putting in an ‘extra action’ is more natural than making the tag do the work, and a lot more powerful too, without having to keep using the same Said all day.” He looked at each of the others, waiting to see who blinked.
“But writing all that would be WORK!” the Shouter burst out.
“And sometimes it’s too much emphasis,” said Mr. Said. “Not every statement needs it.”
Active sighed, and was silent.
“Oh, one more thing. No matter how interesting a paragraph is, or especially if it’s a really exciting thing, take a look at how the paragraphs are alternating. And unless it’s obvious from the start who’s saying what, don’t let that paragraph go over a line or two without a tag or an Extra Action. You want to keep the reader enjoying each word as they come to it, not going crazy waiting to see who’s actually saying it,” put in the armadillo.
Of course, the real point of dialog is to give each person a speech style that has such a different kind of fun, the readers could keep them straight with no help at all… as long as you don’t actually skip those signposts, naturally.
One particular warning: watch out for those odd rules about punctuating some dialog sentences’ ends:
“Like this,” he said. “You’ve seen those periods that turn into commas, right?
“Or like that missing quote there, if the same person says another paragraph.”
You’ve seen it in writing, and you’ve probably seen (or been) one of the writers who got it wrong once and a while. If you have any doubts, pull out Strunk & White, or at least dig around Wikipedia.
Since we’re at the end of the sentence, I’ll also finish this “Toolbox” with one note about final punctuation. If it isn’t dialog (or thoughts that are supposed to sound like someone’s inner dialog), you end most sentences with a simple period (.), or maybe a dash (—) or elipse (…) or sometimes a question mark (?) if you’re closer to that internal dialog. But no exclamation points; they look like the writer is stopping to hype up his own work!
“Then again, all of these are okay for dialog. Just keep an eye on the tone it’s taking, so that—” and suddenly he shouted at the top of his lungs— “you don’t use a mark that doesn’t fit.”
But maybe that’s all we can ever do in writing: see what we want, and try to find what fits.