Lately, I've been noticing a disappointingly large number of people out there on deviantART who call themselves "writers", but are surprisingly clueless when it comes to honestly and clearly conveying a story in prose. In an effort to give them a hand up (and perhaps to reach out to other writers frustrated with our increasingly text message-happy culture), I am compiling a list of tips I think every writer should know.
Now, I won't pretend that I know everything on the subject (since I don't), but I've been told I'm a pretty decent writer, and I think I do sufficiently know my way around the English language. These tips won't automatically make you a good writer, but they're certainly good things to keep in mind as you write. These aren't rules, but hints.
As you can imagine, this list will very much be a work in progress, as there is plenty of information that hasn't been covered here and might be added later. Feel free to drop back in later to see if I've added anything new.
So, without further ado
1. SHOW, DON'T TELL
Or in more visual terms, don't just describe what it looks like. Describe what it feels like. So let's say your character is in a rage over something. Don't just say he's angry, that tells us nothing! Show us what he's DOING! Is he clenching his fists? Gritting his teeth? Evidently getting ready to wring the other guy's neck? Are his friends being forced to restrain him? If you play it right, you'll feel this guy's fury right through the page, and your reader will either sympathize with him or feel like curling up in a corner to hide.
Describing in prose is way harder than you'd think. Your job as a writer is to unmistakably get your vision across to someone you've never met and who's never heard of your characters and story. And if you can't do that, it doesn't matter how brilliant your dialogue is or how engaging your characters are. If your audience can't be "hooked", then that's it; you can't entertain someone who's not interested in your work.
I'm sure every one of you reading this can recall a time when you got tired of hearing some garrulous writer go on and on and on about the setting or whatever, tempting you to skip to the more interesting parts. (And admit it; you gave in at times.) Here are some things I've learned that can help make your descriptions more interesting and avoid that particular pitfall.
A. Concerning Imagery
You know, that stuff your English teachers drummed into your head in school. There was a reason they did that, and it wasn't to torture you; it was to help you recognize what it took to write well. Simile, metaphor, descriptive detail, personification. You'd be amazed how much life and color can be brought to a paragraph with just a few tweaks.
Simile: Comparing one thing to another, usually by using the words "like" or "as". For example, "From where I stood, I could see everyone walk by, instinctively dodging one another like ants on a trail."
Metaphor: Also comparison, but different from similes in that the target is described with the traits of something else. Example (albeit a lame one): "From my new vantage point, they became a swarming mass of ants, unseen feelers dictating their wandering paths."
Descriptive Detail: This is NOT to be confused with "waxing poetic" (and a lot of people make that mistake-- the worst offenders usually are amateurs who are a little too taken with either their characters or with their own writing skills. A few pros are guilty of this too; I will not name names.) Descriptive detail means that you give your reader as accurate a mental image as you can possibly convey. In my experience, the best way to do this without boring your audience out of their collective skulls is to get across the basic impression of the person or place, and then fill in what else is essential to know about the subject later should the story call for it. What is NOT necessary is to describe every last little detailno one needs to know the color of your character's shoes unless that's a crucial factor in the story so just run down what's important, and fill things in later if something becomes important or noteworthy.
Recently, I was reading a story (a Raymond Chandler mystery) that described its main character in a single paragraph, but told you everything you needed to know about him to start the story:
"The frown passed and a miniature of a smile quirked at the corners of his lips. He sat relaxed, a short, pale, paunchy, middle-aged man with long delicate fingers clasped on the elk's tooth on his watch chain; the long delicate fingers of a sleight-of-hand artist, fingers with shiny, molded nails and tapering first joints, fingers a little spatulate at the ends. Handsome fingers. Tony Reseck rubbed them together and there was peace in his quiet, sea-gray eyes."
(--Raymond Chandler, I'll Be Waiting)
The other extreme to having no description at all, and annoyingly common in amateurish writings, is the narrative constantly reminding the reader of the features the character might have; no one needs to be told that your romantic hero has long blonde hair or green eyes every other paragraph, no matter how striking he looks.
Personification: Giving inanimate objects human traits or actions. A simple example of this might be something like "The sun smiled down on them" or "the wall stood impassively, a soldier silently blocking her way".
B. Color your descriptions with opinions. Simply stating the completely obvious islet's face itpretty boring. But once you start adding in what your character thinks of the situation/person/object and what it reminds him or her of, that's when it gets fun! Consider the difference between "His hair was messy, his shirt was half-untucked, his coat was ripped, and there was mud on his boots" with "He looked as though he'd fallen from a great height into a war trench, was dragged through it for a league or so, and then maybe was shoved into a thicket of brambles for good measure."
C. Avoid clichés. At least, avoid them when you can. Clichés are ideas that have shown up so much in other works that they've become predictable and tiresome (like "he had a piercing gaze" or "Your grand adventure was all a dream and you've been asleep in your own home this whole time!" or how the one female lead in a cast of action-oriented men ends up pretty much useless), and it can induce some serious eye-rolling on your reader's part if they show up in your story. In extreme cases, they might have even become stereotypes that can completely kill the believability in a story. So whenever it's possible, come up with a different way of saying the same thing. And when it's not, find a way to turn the cliché on its head. You might even get something clever out of it.
"The great ships hung motionless in the sky, over every nation on Earth. Motionless they hung, huge, heavy, steady in the sky, a blasphemy against nature. Many people went straight into shock as their minds tried to encompass what they were looking at. The ships hung in the sky in much the same way as bricks don't."
(Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy)
"Look at you, sailing through the air majestically. Like an eagle. Piloting a blimp."
(GLaDOS, Portal 2)
Dialogue is extremely fun and can be incredibly gratifying to write (especially when it comes to banter between characters), but it can also drag down a scene or feel stiff and awkward if used/written poorly. A couple of tips I've learned about writing dialogue:
A. Don't make your characters explain everything. It bogs down the story and gives your reader way too much to have to absorb. A much better (and considerably more entertaining) method is to tell things on the runkind of like a video game tutorial level where you have to learn the controls by doing instead of by listening. So instead of "These are toxic to the touch because of a curse that got put on them a hundred years ago and [long boring history lesson]" you get "WHOA, don't touch that! Unless you wanna lose your fingers."
B. Tailor your dialogue to the characters involved. No two people get an idea across the exact same way. A sarcastic, tough character will have an entirely different set of vocabulary from a timid, bookish one, and will have different speech patterns and dialects. Think of where the character came from and the kind of environment he or she is in; people are adaptable, and will use different words and phrasings in different settings. For example, if your guy is in a bar with his friends, he would speak very differently from when he's with a date in a fancy restaurant.
While it's probably overkill to have each person radically different in speech, any dialogue spoken by a character should sound as though it truly came from his or her mind (unless of course your character is possessed or something).
C. Stylize the speech. One of the really fun things about writing dialogue for fiction is that you don't have to be "realistic". Let's face it; most dialogue in movies and writing is nowhere near how we talk in real life. I'm pretty sure that William Shakespeare didn't say stuff like "Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing, end them" in regular conversation. And I would be very surprised if Quentin Tarantino talks on the phone with the same profane eloquence that his characters regularly spout. All dialogue in entertainment is stylized so that it's clearer, snappier, and more concise than real-life conversation.
And that's okay! In dialogue, you can add things like broken rhymes, double meanings, subtle innuendo, witty wording, Biblical/mythological referencesthere is no limit, as long as it sounds natural coming out of the character's mouth. Dialogue is immense fun, and it never hurts to be a little clever and put some care into what your characters say. (Don't go too overboard, though! Make sure it really is what your characters would say, and not a display of your brilliant writing skills.)
Here are some snippets of dialogue that I'm particularly fond of:
MAROON: What's wrong with Toon Town? Every Joe loves Toon Town.
VALIANT: Then get Joe to do the job, 'cause I ain't goin'!
(Who Framed Roger Rabbit)
"I didn't create this situation, I'm dealing with it! You're actin' like a first year f**king thief, I'm actin' like a professional!"
(Mr. Pink, Reservoir Dogs)
Well, forgive me for not leaping for joy. Bad back, you know."
(Scar, The Lion King)
MARION: Dad had you figured a long time ago. He said you were a bum.
INDY: Oh, he was being generous.
MARION: The most gifted bum he ever trained. You know, he loved you like a son. It took a hell of a lot to alienate him.
INDY: Not much, just you.
(Raiders of the Lost Ark)
LYSANDER: How now, my love? Why is your cheek so pale? How chance the roses there do fade so fast?
HERMIA: Belike for want of rain; which I could well beteem them from the tempest of my eyes.
(William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night's Dream)
"Yeh're off the edge of the map, mate. Here thar be monsters!"
(Captain Hector Barbossa, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl)
ILSA: A franc for your thoughts.
RICK: In America they only fetch a penny. I guess that's how much they're worth.
ILSA: Well, I'm willing to be overcharged.
D. Say it out loud. This can help to ensure that the dialogue sounds smooth and natural, since if something doesn't feel right when you say it, that likely means something's amiss with the wording. (I would advise mouthing it if you're in a place where there are other people around; you'll get some very weird looks otherwise. Especially if you have two or more characters arguing.)
E. Synonyms of "Said" and How to Apply Them: (Thanks to Cascade-Kirby for pointing this out.) I'm afraid that in urging their students to use words other than "said" in their prose, English teachers may have inadvertently caused a backlash where well-intentioned but misinformed writers mistakenly believe that avoiding using the word "said" automatically will make their writing better. Unfortunately, it is quite the opposite; it makes you look like you're trying way too hard to impress someone, and can become downright distracting and even comical. So let me straighten this out once and for all: it is perfectly all right to use the word "said". The only times you should use other words like "hissed", "insisted", "yelped", "snarled", "murmured", "inquired", etc. is when the situation explicitly calls for them. Don't worry, if you work at it enough, you'll develop an eye for how to properly place these things. But in the meantime, no one will get on your case if you just use "said".
4. REPETITION: DOS and DON'TS
Repeating words and phrases can be powerful and entertaining, but only if you know where to use it. It's especially good in dialogue, if you want to emphasize something. ("If you see someone doing something that you like, steal it. STEAL it. Because
they did.") Treat it lightly, and repetition will serve you well.
What you don't want to do is use the same tired statement or word to describe something over and over and over. One writer I saw (I won't name names) used a particular phrase a good six to eight times over the span of three paragraphs in one of his stories, and by the end of said paragraphs, I was dead sick of that phrase and wished he'd substitute something different for once. The basic rule of thumb: Try not to use the same descriptive word or phrase more than once in a single paragraph.
Word of warning, though: don't go overboard with avoiding repetition, either; it can be just as tiresome as the other extreme. For instance, something I've noticed with a couple of writers is how they bend over backwards trying to find new ways to refer to their characters instead of by their names, and in some cases, it got downright comical. Go ahead and stick with their names or a simple one-word description (the girl, the gunman, the cat). You'll just make yourself look like a fool if you start trying to get creative and end up referring to your character as something ridiculous like "the caped former soldier". Trust me on this.
5. NEVER TALK DOWN TO YOUR READER
You'd think this would be a given, but I've run into some work here on dA that talks to the audience like they're all in the second grade and have to have everything spoon-fed to them. Respect your reader's intelligence. You don't need to explain everything to them there on the spot. Just show them what's going on and let them draw their own conclusions, so you can either let them feel satisfied when what they expect arrives, or surprise the hell out of them with an unforeseen twist. Just because you're leading them on the path of your narrative doesn't mean that you have to hold them by the hand. And while it probably won't occur to them to thank you for it, they won't feel like they've been treated like complete idiots, and they'll be more likely to come back to read more of your work.
I came across a short story fairly recently that I think is a terrific example of how to let your readers fill in the blanks themselves. In the story Chirashi Covenant by Naomi Hirahara, the protagonist lies awake in bed after something awful happens to a family member, but despite the doctor having given her sleeping medicine to mix into hot water to help her deal with the trauma, she feels she deserves to spend sleepless nights, for she knows that she is at least partially to blame.
Later on in the story, she meets with the man she is sure had a hand in the occurrence, and serves him a cup of hot green tea. He drinks it, despite complaining of it tasting bitter, and before long, he is slumping over the counter, out cold.
Now, the narrative never says anywhere that the protagonist did anything besides innocently offering someone a cup of tea. And the mention of the sleeping medicine is very brief, almost an afterthought. But even though it is never described, you know exactly what it is the character did, without the author doing anything more than implying it. Brilliant!
6. CONNOTATIONS (thanks to Kenton-Alkemi for the suggestion)
Not all words are created equal. And while you're mining Thesaurus.com for words to use in your prose, keep in mind that connotations-- implied meanings-- can wreak havoc on your writing if you're not careful. Consider this: would you refer to a slim woman as "slender" or "bony"? Both words mean pretty much the same thing, but one has a very unflattering connotation, and would be considered quite insulting. Other examples of this include: whimsical/capricious, stern/severe, eccentric/weird, and proud/vain. Watch out for these things, they can throw you and your reader for a loop.
7. BE WILLING TO DESTROY WHAT YOU'VE CREATED
Some writers refer to it as "killing your baby" (speaking of metaphors, ha ha!) or by other similarly grim sayings. But it's a hard truth: to write well, you have to know when something isn't working out, and then have the courage to pull the plug on it. There might be a clever little phrase you're in absolute love with, and you want to have it in your story so you can show the world how brilliant you are with words. Well, if it fits the story and doesn't halt the narrative, fine. Throw it in.
But if it doesn't belong in your story, then it shouldn't be there and you should get rid of it, no matter how clever it is and how much you love it. The story is what is most important, and if something doesn't sound right in your prose, then you should either fix it to better fit or just ditch it!
The willingness to kill your writing doesn't come easily (hell, I have trouble with this, too), but it IS a necessity, and it often makes all the difference between a writer and a good writer.
8. PROOFREAD IT. (thanks to QueenGwenevere for suggesting this tip)
After you think you've finished writing, read your work over and check it for spelling and grammar errors (and don't let your word processor's checker fool you! Just because it says that a word isn't misspelled does not mean that it's the right word). Then read over it again to make sure everything flows together smoothly, and edit or change anything that feels awkward. Then read it again to see if you missed anything. Send it to a friend to look over it and point out problems. And after they send it back, read it AGAIN!
Things you need to look out for: spelling problems, capitalized words that don't need it, homophones ("there/they're/their" and "you're/your" are two big ones a LOT of people mess up), simple grammar screwups (think "he is, they are" and the like), passive narrative (don't use "it was pushed by him" if you can use "he pushed it"), and present tense/past tense mixups (If your story is taking place in the past tense, don't throw your reader for a loop and throw "he looks like" or "she is" in the narrative. Just don't!). Also keep an eye on the flow of your story. If there's something that disrupts it (like say an unnecessary joke), toss it! If you need a better lead-in to the next scene, start rewriting.
And then proofread it again. Because you can't ever be too careful.
Thanks for reading, and I hope this helps some of you in your endeavors to become writers, as opposed to just
people with keyboards.