Clear Storytelling II-Words & Meaning 204-05

image of an eye exam chart, seen through glasses

On the small scale, clarity is the meaning of the words the story uses; understanding the rules of grammar, as well as carefully weighing the merits of poetic language and figures of speech (simile, metaphor, analogy, etc.) It’s ensuring audiences have the necessary information to understand “why”; whether it’s why Harry Potter is famous, why he was kept out of the magical world, or why some characters adore Harry while others despise him. Carefully managing “what audiences learn” and “when they learn” is a critical component of good storytelling. (See 107-02 Background Information)


Most of the time, when people talk about grammar, they’re referring to the rules that govern the spoken and written word; rules which are widely available. None the less, here are a few common pitfalls of storytelling.

Vague Subject or Object

Be wary of pronouns. As the author, you always know who “he” or “she” is, but audiences may not. For example:

“I’m not very good,” Tom said.
“Try,” Jon said.
He picked up the bat.

Who is picking up the bat? The narrative might suggest Tom, but there’s also a convention that pronouns refer to the last prior noun that fits, in this case Jon. When in doubt, be specific. As the author, you always know what you mean, but audiences may not, and confusion breaks he narrative flow.

The one exception is when specificity violates the narrator’s perspective. If a character is the object, the recipient of an action, they may not know who or what the subject is. For example, Mark is hiking in the woods and suddenly trips and stumbles. In that moment, he doesn’t know why he tripped. He may assume that it was a stone, but he doesn’t know.

“To trip” is also a good example of a transitive verb, a verb that requires a target. Other examples include “to kick”, “to want”, or “to write”. That doesn’t mean every instance of “Kate wrote it down” must include “in her notebook”, but whenever you use a transitive verb, make sure it’s clear to audiences who or what is the target or recipient of the action.

Figurative Language vs Concrete

an abstract image of light and smoke.

Beautiful prose is all well and good, but only if audiences understand what is being said. For example, “The walls whispered of brighter times, conjuring images of endless feasts and courtly balls, of warm fires and gentle songs…now silent and dark.”

It paints a vivid image, but what is actually happening in this scene? Is a character “imagining” what happened, or is some strange magic actually causing scenes from the past to reappear?

Figures of speech (metaphor, simile, allegory, oxymoron, personification, and synecdoche) are effective ways to enrich a scene, so long as audiences have the necessary foundation to properly translate the symbolism.

There are two ways to address this potential problem. One is to use summaries to offer essential information before the scene; the other is to alternate between figurative and literal language. This is particularly important if you start a cold opening with figurative language.

Remember, reading a figure of speech can be a bit like diving under water; eventually everyone needs to “come up for air”. Don’t let your audience drown.

Long & Complex Sentences

Varying sentence length is a great way to convey a sense of pacing, but be careful not to take it too far. Consider the following example from Chapter 7 of Tigana, by Guy Gavriel Kay:

“She had stood on the forward deck of the ship to gaze for the first time at the splendor of Chiara’s harbor, at the long pier where the Grand Dukes used to stand to throw a ring into the sea, and from where Letizia had leaped in the first of the Ring Dives to reclaim the ring from the waters and marry her Duke: turning the Dives into the luck and symbol of Chiara’s pride until beautiful Onestra had changed the ending of the story hundreds and hundreds of years ago, and the Ring Dives had ceased.”

That is a 97 word sentence. Granted, Tigana is a very well written novel, but it is not an easy read. Notice how the author breaks up the sentence with commas and a colon. Notice that one comma is missing.

“…turning the Dives into the luck and symbol of Chiara’s pride(,) until beautiful Onestra had changed the ending of the story hundreds and hundreds of years ago…”

The first time I read that line, I almost misinterpreted it, thinking that perhaps “Onestra” was an event, marking the end of “Chiara’s luck”, until the next Diving. Of course once I realized “Onestra” was a person, I understood what the story was saying, but it did break the flow, if only briefly.

The longer the sentence, or fragment, the more complex the meaning, the more taxing it becomes for the reader. Sometimes it’s necessary, sometimes the story needs to challenge the audience, but only sparingly.

Next Time…
Role of Dialogue

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