Pitfalls of Prose 203-03

Bad Habits to Avoid

It’s all about variety. Whether it’s the length of sentences, the complexity of the words used, or the type of writing (description, action, summary, dialogue), don’t stick with one style for too long.

When describing, don’t stop with sight and sound. Watch for opportunities to describe how something smells, feels, and tastes.

Don’t use obscure words without a good reason. Don’t use “loquacious” when “talkative” works just as well. The goal is to create a complex meaning, not complex phrases. Start with familiar words; try to use them in unique and innovative ways, and if something still feels wrong, then begin looking through a thesaurus.

Be careful of qualifiers: like, really, very, extremely, quite, somewhat, etc. Instead of “very large” try “giant”, “humungous” or “gargantuan”.

Avoid passive voice, “I didn’t do that” or “That was done by me”, unless it helps portray a character as weak, passive, or vulnerable. Positive language is generally preferred, “I did it”.

Writing Intense Moments

Whether it’s the whirlwind of a fight, or the passion of intimacy, conveying the intensity of a moment through writing can be daunting. As an author, start with your own memories, specifically those that involve the same emotions.

If it’s a fight, what are the underlying emotions. A fight rooted in anger is very different from one rooted in fear, joy, or the calm detachment of a professional at work. Next, consider the pace of the fight. A fast pace is mimicked by short words and sentences, focusing on what the character knows in the moment. Would they know whether a blow was a punch or a kick, or would they just register the pain?

When writing about intimate/sexual moments, consider the story as a whole, and decide how explicit or vague you wish to be. Then consider the meaning; whether this is a scene of beauty, fear, or hunger? Concrete details often emphasize the more animalistic aspects, while focusing on metaphors and mental/emotional aspects help elevate the experience.

How should the audience feel? Concrete details often make audiences feel like a voyeur watching from the sidelines, while mental/emotional details help audiences feel part of the experience.

One technique is to focus on atypical areas: the hands, face, stomach, arms, legs, neck, back, or shoulders. Any form of contact can be intimate and erogenous, if properly described.

Remember the Big Picture

Every character has a story to tell, and many stories overlap, but as an author it’s important to remember which story you are telling now. For example, the Harry Potter series focuses on Harry Potter the character, but also tells part of the story of Dumbledore, Snape, Draco, Hagrid, Vernon & Dudley, and many others, but only to the extent that their stories relate to and involve Harry Potter.

When working on a specific scene it’s easy to lose focus and wander off in a new direction, particularly if a new character becomes more interesting than the author planned. If the focus of the story changes, the author has two choices: reduce or cut the new element in an effort to restore the original focus of the story, or allow the story to wander, and go back during the revision process and realign the entire story to the new focus.

Managing the Learning Curve

The learning curve is a graphical representation of how much information audiences are expected to absorb and understand over the course of the story. Managing the learning curve means breaking up information into small segments, and mixing them in with other aspects of the story.

One common technique is to create self-contained subplots that directly relate to a specific piece of background information. The Harry Potter series frequently nests important information in school lessons and student rivalries, such as the levitation spell.

Start with the bare essentials, focus on pulling the audience in with a strong hook (see 201-02), and gradually introduce more background information as it becomes relevant.

Next Time…
Show & Tell

8 thoughts on “Pitfalls of Prose 203-03

  1. Why do you say “I didn’t do that” is passive voice?

    “Would they know whether a blow was a punch or a kick, or would they just register the pain?” Important point! I’ve read fight scenes where every blow was described by its martial-arts jargon. Unless the POV character thinks this way (because they are an expert in judo or fencing or something) and it matters to the story to show this, such jargon-y description is a distraction at best.

    • Agreed. I’ve also heard some explain how they thought they’d been punched, but when examined it was actually a knife thrust.

      In regards to negative statements, I find that defining something through positive language gives audiences more information to engage.
      Reading “Sam walked” creates an image of the action, while “Sam didn’t walk” leaves Sam in a void.

      Negative statements rely on the surrounding context to narrow the range of possibilities until the meaning becomes clear.

      In some situations negative statements may be the right choice, (establishing a character’s tone or personality, or creating/advancing a verbal conflict), but during revision I’d carefully question whether a positive statement would make the text stronger.

      • I would consider it passive because it doesn’t actively state what the character is doing. Even stating “I did nothing”, in my opinion, would be active by comparison.

  2. Pingback: Details & Description 203-02 | Write Thoughts

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