Posts Tagged ‘elements of style’

I’ve heard beginning writers say, “You keep telling me to show how the character feels, rather than tell about it. So, how am I supposed to do that?” And, if I’m being honest, that was me just a few years ago.

The best writers make it easy for us to see what’s happening on the page. Unfortunately, it’s not easy to do. There are two different methods that work well.

The first is to let your reader get inside the character. When this is done well, the reader feels like they are inside the character’s head, watching what is happening through the character’s eyes, feeling the character’s emotions, experiencing the character’s thoughts.

The other method allows the reader to feel like they are standing right next to the character, watching what is happening to the character, seeing how the character reacts to what is going on around them. This type of writing can allow the reader to watch the story unfold like a movie inside their head.

Clear as mud, right? Still doesn’t tell you HOW to do it. It’s actually far easier to see how to do it than it is to have it explained to you.

First, let’s talk being inside the character. This can be done in first or third person.   Here’s a third person example: Brady was upset by what he’d just seen.

This gives you two important pieces of information: 1) Brady just saw something; and 2) What he saw upset him. This is exactly how many beginning writers ‘tell’ the reader about what the character is experiencing.

There are two problems with this, (well there’s probably more than two, but I’m going to concentrate on two for now). Problem one – We have no idea just how upset Brady really is. And to compensate for this, beginning writers will frequently tell the reader how upset the character is. For example: Brady was furious at (shocked by, disgusted with) what he’d just seen.

And there’s the second problem. Writing like that does get the point across. But it’s just not that interesting.

It’s much more effective for the writer to allow the reader to experience the character’s mental and, as my friend Ruth likes to say, visceral reactions. This allows the writer to ‘show’ the character. This also gives the reader a better understanding of the intensity of the character’s reaction (e.g. on a scale from slightly miffed to violently angry). I have a few quick examples below. (I would normally spend more time polishing them up during the editing process, but they’ll work for now.)

Remember, the following statements replace: Brady was upset by what he’d just seen.

Brady closed his eyes to block the sight while his stomach twisted and rolled, and his palms began to sweat. (There’s no need to write: Brady felt sick by what he’d just seen.)

Note – The reactions above are visceral reactions. They include any type of internal reaction that is beyond the character’s control – pounding heart, nausea, sweating, dizziness, etc.

Or

Brady scowled and shook his head at the sight before him. Then he turned and began the long walk back to the car.  Alone.

Or

Brady cursed as he raced forward, ignoring the shooting pain in his calves and the stitch in his side. He couldn’t take his eyes off the sight in front of him, nor could he bring himself to stop. Even though he would be far too late.

Including internal mental and visceral reactions also works well in first person. For example:

I wanted to shout at them to be quiet, though I could barely hear the rumble of their words over the buzzing in my ears. What I’d just seen wouldn’t settle into place. The images kept twisting and writhing in my head.

Those are all ways to let the reader inside your character. The other method a writer can use is to let the reader watch how the character feels through their physical reactions – basically, watching the action from outside of the character. For the purpose of this exercise, assume Jenny asked Brady a question and Brady responded with excitement.

Have you ever read something like: “Yes,” Brady answered Jenny, excitedly.

I’ve again told you two important things. 1) Brady has answered a question from Jenny; and 2) Brady’s excited about it. But this doesn’t let us know how excited Brady feels. And I’ll be the first to admit, Brady seems pretty boring here. So how can I show the reader how Brady feels with physical reactions? Here’s a few examples:

Bouncing from one foot to the other, Brady answered Jenny before she even had a chance to finish the question. “Yes. The answer is definitely yes.”

Or

“Yes!” Brady’s shout had everyone’s head turning, so they all had a clear view when he grabbed Jenny and swung her around in a dizzying circle.

Or

Brady gave each of us a high five before turning to Jenny. “Absolutely!”

What about in first person? Yes, you are inside the character’s head, but you can still show physical reactions.

I did a quick happy dance. That was probably answer enough for Jenny. But just in case…”Yes!”

Hopefully, this makes the difference between showing and telling a little clearer than mud. It takes a lot more effort to provide descriptions, and it’s often tempting to just stick an adjective on the end of a dialog tag (e.g. …Brady said, excited).

I used to struggle with this. What are the authentic physical and visceral reactions to the numerous situations we put our characters into? Unless this comes naturally to you, it’s not realistic to plan to stop writing in order to scare yourself, or to remember something painful, to experience genuine reactions that you can describe for your character. However, I’ve found something very helpful, and I recommend it for anyone who has trouble ‘showing’ how their characters feel. While there are a number of good reference books, I have one that I always keep on the table when I write at home. I also have an electronic copy on my phone that I can use if I’m writing somewhere else. It’s called The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide To Character Expression, by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. It provides physical, mental, and visceral descriptions for a wide variety of emotions.

It should be noted that the descriptions I used in this post all came out of my head, and The Emotion Thesaurus is in no way to blame!

I like many types of fiction.  SciFi, Fantasy, Mystery, Romance, even Horror.

          A couple members of the Stonehenge Writer’s Group write some excellent horror.  That’s a genre that’s incredibly difficult to pull off without being cheesy or letting down your readers at the end of the story.  Kudos to those who do it well!

          I believe horror can be roughly divided into two main groups.  The first: Grab the reader’s attention by drowning them in blood and gore.  The second: Rub the reader’s nerves raw, slowly, agonizingly, with an ever increasing application of tension — knowing something bad is about to happen, perhaps when you turn the very next page…

          Okay, reading that back I guess it’s obvious which type of horror I prefer.  Not that I mind well done blood and gore.  I just prefer to have it as a climax to a great story, not the only reason for the story.  That’s just my preference.  I know there are many who will vehemently disagree.  So for this post, let’s agree to disagree.  For me, the best is incredibly creepy OMG-is-it-going-to-get-me-NOW horror.

          So, what do you find horrifyingly creepy?  Something realistic?  Ghostly?  Monsterous?  Something tangible, like a phone call with no one there?  Or the intangible, like the glimpse of a shadow where it doesn’t belong?

          Is it worse to be with a group of people and know one of them can’t be trusted?    

          Or is being completely and utterly alone what makes it truly creepy? 

          How about finding your things moved, cleaned up and put away, when no one but you has a key to your home?  Would you tell yourself you must have done it and forgotten about it?

          Or the sounds of whispered conversations in your house that stop when you enter the room, even when you’re the only one there?  Would you tell yourself you’re just imagining things?

          Maybe it’s receiving a ‘love’ note from someone anonymous, who claims to have been watching you for weeks and thinks it’s nearly time for you to meet.   Would you report it to the police?  What if they said there’s nothing they can do?

          Perhaps it’s a sudden explosive shattering of glass from somewhere downstairs?  Would you go down, alone, to check it out?

          Is it worse if you’re woken from a dead sleep, barely dressed, half awake?  Would you call someone else?  Wake them up?  When it’s probably nothing…

          What if you glimpse, out of the corner of your eye, a shadow move past your dark bedroom doorway?  Would you tell yourself that was nothing?

          Or hear unexplained footsteps in the hall, right outside your door?  Would you pull the covers over your head and pray it goes away? 

          How about a ‘scritching’ sound, like fingernails would make, coming from the window that you can’t see behind closed curtains?  Would you get up to open those curtains?  To see what’s out there?

          I’d be interested in hearing if any of these push your creepy button.  Or do you have others?

          What is it about a horror story that makes you say, “That was awesome!”

“What the hell are you talking about?” you ask, incredulous at the ridiculous and counter-intuitive title you just clicked.  Horror, especially the graphic sort, is a public menace that desensitizes us to negativity.  In the war between good and evil, positive and negative, light and dark, extreme fiction pulls us out of balance in a direction we should not tread.

This, my friends, is horse manure.

Like any other symbolic product, art that draws on the dark, the nasty, the gruesome, and the violent is received by different audience members in a variety of ways.  I know this because I have experienced horrific art in ways different than others assumed that I would. The idea that because I like something you see as negative means I glorify or support negativity is false.  Personally, I feel like I’ve taken positive lessons from extreme art.

By way of example, let me take you back to my teen years.  Yes, the dreaded 1980s.  Big hair, parachute pants, actual arcades.  The decade was awash in all kinds of subcultural sounds, from pre-Goth, depressing New Wave stuff to dudes in make-up party rock.  Me, I dug on thrash.  Metallica, Megadeth, Anthrax, and of course, Slayer.  You would be correct to assume, with names of that sort, that these bands didn’t exactly sing happy songs.  And as part of the subculture that worshiped these bands, I had many a devil and skull on my bedroom walls.  The thing was, I never took it as bad because I was never a bad person.

So imagine my surprise when one day, based on the Slayer tee I wore, I was accused of being a Nazi.  Turns out, a lot of people thought that the band glorified the Third Reich and supported their ideology.  And maybe they did.  There was certainly some Nazi imagery in the artwork the band chose.  The biggest reason people thought that, however, was because of one of the bands most popular songs, Angel of Death.  The song is about Josef Mengele, and approaches the notorious doctor by singing graphically about his gruesome medical experiments during the Holocaust.  The lyrics pull no punches. They are graphic and nasty. And they are likely in the realm of truth in depicting what this monster actually did.

Now, I freely admit that I did (and still do) really like this song.  The music is fast and the subject matter appeals to my sense of the macabre.  But, I never liked it because it glorified Mengele and the Nazis.  In fact, as gruesome as some of the lyrics were, they are actually presented in a value neutral sort of way.  They come off more as a list of facts.  When I heard the song, I never thought the band was holding Mengele up to be emulated.  I actually took the song to be on the side of the victims.  I took it as an illustration of horror and terror brought down on innocent people, and I tended to empathize with them.

The song sensitized me to the horrific.  The opposite of what many believe horror does.

That influence carries over into what I write today.  I choose, at times, to rub my readers faces in nastiness because I want them to feel it in a visceral way.  No doubt, sexual violence makes frequent appearances in what I write.  But I don’t write it for the purpose of titillation, though I’m aware a small percentage of readers will be titillated.  And I don’t write it just to shock.  I write it because it’s a prominent part of our culture and I want people to engage with it, understand it, and work to integrate the impulses that cause it.  I want to sensitize the reader to the horror a victim experiences so that they will empathize with them.  Hopefully that empathy becomes part of the way they approach the world.  And, I want to sensitize the reader to the darkness that might lead someone to victimize someone in that way.  I want people to empathize with the perpetrator because he is us and he won’t go away by ignoring him. Perhaps that sensitivity will lead to solutions.

Does graphic horror desensitize?  In a world where drone strikes are discussed as body counts and dead innocents are referred to as collateral damage, I think maybe we’d be more sensitive if our noses were rubbed in the smell of burned fleshed and the gore of shattered bodies a little more often.  Go watch graphic scenes of torture in films like Hostel or Martyrs and see if you can still stomach the idea of “enhanced interrogation” or still think it’s okay to farm out information gathering to nations with less restrictive rules.  Irreversible does not make me want to victimize women.  It makes me, by engaging my primal emotions, want to resist their victimization.

So go on out there and fight desensitization.  Get elbow deep in the gutter.  Imagine the out of control.  Empathize with the light by entering the darkness.  Write some extreme fiction.  It can be a public service.

Building Character

Posted: January 19, 2013 by jennyleelee in Jenny's Words
Tags: , , , , ,

I was watching a movie with my daughter the other day and she turns to inform me that the villain in the plot was not nice and needed a time out. It occurred to me that my two and a half year old knew what behavior was acceptable, and what behavior warranted some “thinking time,” which ultimately tells me that we are wired to respond to the character of a person without realizing that we are responding to it. Which, of course, makes me really watch my own behavior as much as I possibly can because it’s not what I say that she’ll remember, but what I do in spite of my words.

Physical actions of character often dictate the inner qualities of a person. If I see a teenager open a door for an elderly couple, I automatically perceive the teenager as a thoughtful person. If I see a man and a woman holding hands and leaning into each other, I automatically perceive love and devotion.  If I see a kid breaking all things around him, I begin to wonder about the hurt that might fueling the wreckage.

It doesn’t take much to show character in real life–we do it without thinking–but in writing, it is a real challenge.

I love to read. I love the ability to leave my world and find myself in a place with someone else, to watch the world develop through their eyes. But, I absolutely hate it when an author describes what the character is feeling by nudging me and blatantly saying, “She is sad because the glass broke.” I would much rather see how the sadness creeps up over the person, and what that person fixates on during the emotion. Does the character cry? Does she hold back the tears? Does her body tremble? Do her ears pop? The point is that character is something that is demonstrated, not something that is told.

Building character within a person takes experiences and actions–the same goes with people in our stories. Give the characters a chance to breathe, to grow within their choices, to achieve some goals, and to fail to reach others. Give them life and have them react to the world that you’ve created for them. Maybe even have the same scenario for different characters, and watch how they react differently because of their own personal character traits.

My daughter’s wide eyes and enthusiasm for trying everything around her reminds me that character is more than just words and intentions, it’s what we do that really makes a person matter to everyone else. After all, communication of character is never about what a person promises, but what he follows through on.

To quote Stephen King, “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot, and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.”

I couldn’t agree more. It is through reading that we grasp how the written word brings other worlds to life. I think it’s safe to say that storytelling has existed just about as long as language has. Every time we tell someone about an experience we had, we are essentially telling them a story. Granted, they aren’t always good tales, but none-the-less, they are still stories.

In just over the last year, I’ve started listening to audiobooks while I work, since it doesn’t interfere with my job. It’s actually how I revisited Stephen King’s On Writing. But here’s the question. Does listening to an audiobook count as actually reading?

I say yes, and no. I think if you have a good grasp of how the written word is properly used, then yes, it can count. Maybe not wholly, but at least a fraction, say 1/3. I often find myself imagining that I’m reading the words as they’re spoken. I also say yes, because you’re exposing yourself to the art of storytelling. However, the reason I say no, is because even though I see the words in my mind, I don’t see the way they are on the actual page with all their punctuation and style. This is why if I have the print copy, and the opportunity, I occasionally like to follow along by reading while I listen.

One of the first audiobooks I listened to at work was The Road by Cormac McCarthy. The reason why I listened to the audiobook in the first place, was because I couldn’t stand the writing style employed in the print book, which doesn’t contain quotation marks, and with certain contractions, doesn’t include the apostrophe. I should note that this is intentional by McCarthy, and is part of his unique style which he employs in his other books as well. Many of which have been made into movies. Unfortunately for me, I find I dislike reading his works. However, I thoroughly enjoyed listening to The Road, as it is a great story. I will add though, that some liberties were taken with the wording in the audiobook version, as certain parts were changed so that it read easier.

In my own writing style, I tend to use a lot of commas. It’s my way of setting the pace and cadence of my writing. I know I don’t always follow the proper rules on the use of the comma, but I’m aware and acknowledged it. It’s my style, and, as much as I’m disheartened by the thought, I’m sure that there is someone out there who won’t like my style, just like I don’t like McCarthy’s.

It’s often been said when it comes to writing, that first you need to learn the rules, so that you can properly break them. Many authors have said this in some fashion or another, and even the Dalai Lama has a similar quotation attributed to him. I’ll admit, in high school, English wasn’t my favorite class. I just couldn’t seem to care what the difference was between a participial phrase and a prepositional phrase. My teachers always praised my writing, so I figured, what did it really matter if I didn’t know all the terms and their differentiation. But when I started taking my writing seriously, I realized that I needed to bone up on my English. I still don’t think you need to learn all the rules, as there are quite a lot of them, but I will admit learning the basics is essential, and any extra beyond that helps. This is where I think reading a lot comes in handy. The more you read, or even listen to audiobooks, the more you absorb how language is properly used. You subconsciously absorb what sounds and looks right on the page.

One of the main things I’ve come away with from being a part of this writing group, is seeing how others interpret my style while reading my works aloud. As a member of Stonehenge, when we submit our works for critique to the group, the author chooses one of our fellow writers, sometimes several, to read aloud what we’ve written. We do this in order to see, or rather, hear, how others interpret our written word. I find this to be extremely helpful.

So, even though my advice isn’t brand spanking new or even a good twist on an old theme, here it is. If you want to be a serious writer; write, read, and listen to audiobooks. And, learn how to properly use the English language so that you can improperly use it effectively.

Stephen King recommends the classic, The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. I would add to that, A Pocket Style Manual by Diana Hacker. I will also add, that one of the many beauties of the internet, is that almost anything can be found online. If I feel something I’ve written just isn’t quite right, it generally only takes a minute or two of searching to find myself saying, “Doh, that’s what I meant to write.” There are a good number of grammar based sites out there on the web, but one that I find the most helpful is by Mignon Fogarty, AKA, Grammar Girl @ http://grammar.quickanddirtytips.com/

What makes Grammar Girl so great, at least in my opinion, is that it’s also a podcast, which means I get to work at two things at once.

So there you are. Now you have my not so sage advice  to being a writer.

P.S. Since this is a blog based on a writers group, I would feel amiss not to add another little bit of advice. Check out a writers group, at least a few times, and even few different ones. They aren’t all the same, and you may have a hard time finding one that fits you, but they can be beneficial. I will say though that they aren’t for every writer. As a matter of fact, some of my favorite authors are against such groups, believing that the cons outweigh the prose. Yes, that’s an intentional pun. But if you don’t ever give them a shot, how will you ever know? Unless you live rurally, I’m sure there’s one local, and if not, there’s plenty online. And if you’re in the Sacramento area, pop your head in some time.

This post is part of my ongoing series inspired by my revisiting Stephen King’s On Writing. To check out the rest, visit my personal blog @ rienreigns.wordpress.com