Sometimes I read books that I feel could be written better, and I want to run to the nearest computer and fix it, or at least write the author a very long, detailed letter. I had been thinking about this, and even started writing up an article of writing tips I’d gleaned from people smarter than me. Then I got a review that mentioned one of my faults, and I realized I needed my own advice as much as anyone. So, for me, and for anyone who might be reading, here are some compiled tips and quotes from some of my favorite sources to explain how to make good books better.
As I was collecting, I soon noticed a theme. Most of the things I wish other authors knew could be framed around a single quote, published in that Bible of writing books, “The Elements of Style” by Strunk and White. It is this:
Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary lines, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”
Here are some of the things I have learned…or at least heard… about making every word tell.
What’s the story about?
How many of you want to read this story?
Jenny was getting married. She loved her fiancé, and he loved her. She picked the flowers that she wanted. Grandma gave her the necklace she had worn as a bride. Mother chose the veil, and she herself found the most amazing dress. Everyone agreed that it was perfect.
If anyone keeps reading, it’s because they’re hoping the next line is:
She should have known something would go wrong.
The character defines the story. The plot defines the characters, and the stakes define the plot. What does the character stand to lose? If nothing is at stake, you have no story, and your character cannot grow. In Writing Magic, Gail Carsen Levine puts it this way: “Why do you keep reading a book? Usually to find out what happens. Why do you give up on a book and stop reading? Often, you don’t care what happens. What makes the difference between caring and not caring? The author’s cruelty. And the reader’s sympathy.”
On the other hand, having the stakes too high, for too long, is a problem I often find in the last book(s) of a series. From page one, the world is in jeopardy, the heroes are about to die, evil seems to be winning… If it starts out this way and never stops, the reader stops caring. Christopher Booker, in The Seven Basic Plots, explains, “As [the hero or heroine] face ordeals, or come under threat, so we feel tense and apprehensive. As the threat is lifted, we can relax. Our own spirits are enlarged… We feel a sense either of constriction, or of liberation. And in a story which is well-constructed, these phases of constriction and release alternate, in a kind of rhythm which provides one of the greatest pleasures we get from stories.”
Do you remember the graph that almost every Language Arts teacher draws in middle school? The one that shows the action of a story starting slowly, then gradually increase in intensity, spiking with a climax, and come crashing down for the resolution? It’s funny how many writers forget.
“Dialogue should reveal character or further the plot,” says author Tim Wynne-Jones. Dialogue should not do the grunt work of a narrative, fill in backstory, or tell the reader something that the characters already know. It also should not include ordinary conversations for the sake of “reality”. He explains, “Write dialogue that allows for a character to say what they might say if they had an extra twenty seconds before replying.”
Anne Lamott adds, “You’re not reproducing actual speech—you’re translating the sound and rhythm of what a character says into words. You’re putting down on paper your sense of how the characters speak… [What you record] should be more interesting and concise and even more true than what was actually said.”
All through elementary school, I was taught to never use the word ‘said’. It took until college before I learned that this isn’t true. Said is a perfectly good word. All of the other tag words are like spices—they add flavor, but use them sparingly.
The quote is not the only important thing in dialogue. Gail Carsen Levine says, “There’s more to dialogue than just speech. Body language can communicate as eloquently as words, and sometimes more truthfully.”
“Hi,” he greeted.
“Oh, hello,” she answered.
“I saw you at the supermarket yesterday. I saw that you were buying a lot of food,” he noticed.
“Yes. I am having a dinner party tomorrow. We are having pork chops, mashed potatoes, and green beans,” she explained.
“I know that you have dinner parties every month. That sounds like a lot of work,” he commented.
“It is a lot of work, but I think it’s worth it,” she replied.
“I saw you at the supermarket yesterday,” he said. “What’s with all the food?”
She didn’t meet his eyes. “I decided to cook extra,” she answered. “It’s always good to have leftovers…”
He slammed down the cell phone he was holding. “Are you holding another dinner party without me?”
“I wouldn’t call it a party.” She tried a laugh, but it came out shaky. “I just invited a few close friends.”
“A few close friends,” he repeated. “And none of them are me.”
Fight scenes, which are basically violent dialogue, follow the same rules.
Mack punched the man in the face, and then ducked. Jack’s fist swung over his head, missing his nose by inches. Mack kicked Jack’s ankle and felt a satisfying thud. Then he grabbed Jack’s arm and twisted it behind his back. Jack yelped, struggling to break free. He got a hand loose and flailed. His hand bumped Mack’s arm with no effect at all.
Example (abridged from “The Storm Testament III” by Lee Nelson):
Again Storm instinctively reached for the whip end. Again the wiley snake was withdrawn before the young man could grab it. Beneath the bandana it was difficult for anyone to notice that the grin had finally vanished from Storm’s face….
As the dust settled, each man trying to tighten his grip on the other, Blackjack began to laugh again.
“What’s so funny?” hissed Storm through his clenched teeth.
“Just seems kind of crazy,” replied Blackjack after a brief pause to tighten his grip on Storm’s arm, “You and me killing each other just to put on a free show. Seems funny. Makes me laugh. Makes me feel stupid too.”
Beneath the bandana, Storm’s grin returned.
Who’s willing to admit that they skip over the big long descriptions of the setting? Or shuts a book that begins with the description of a sunrise? Or ignores the paragraph describing how a character looks and imagining them however they want?
In Word Painting, Rebecca McClanahan explains, “Description isn’t something we simply insert, block style, into passages of narration or exposition. Yes, sometimes we write passages of description. But the term passage suggests a channel, a movement from one place to another; it implies that we’re going somewhere. That somewhere is the story.”
Her book contains many excellent examples on the use of description. I’ll mention one: the power of description to set the mood and the emotion of the scene. This is a paragraph from my short story, The Stone Hand:Later, Reece said that both of them had done it. She didn’t believe him. In any case, her memory of the next few minutes was clouded with heat and noise, bright lights and acrid smoke. Then she and Reece were standing side by side in the yard while the house burned. Heat seared her face, and popping sparks screamed nine years of fury.
Tiny details make the difference, and the word choice can reflect the mood. A cloudy sky could be gloomy, pretty in swaths of purple, confining, swirling in frenzied anger, hovering near like a suspicious neighbor.
Sunny was short and willowy, with short blond hair and bright blue eyes. She was self-confident and usually happy but she had a mean streak, and a bad habit of spying on people.
A pair of bright blue eyes disappeared from the window. “All right, Sunny,” Keita called. “I see you. You may as well stop sneaking around.”
The girl popped into sight without a trace of embarrassment. “Hullo, everyone,” she said, running a hand through her short blonde hair. A smirk was hiding in the edges of her smile.
Every Word Tells
I could go on. Backstory, flashbacks, themes, explaining the world and its rules… the same principle applies to all of them. If it moves the story forward, use it. If it does not advance the plot or reveal character, change it or take it out. This is something I’m still working on; I suspect I always will be.
These are some of my favorite writing books, which I highly recommend to anyone wanting to make their stories better:
The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker
Writing Tools by Roy Peter Clark
Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott (some mature content)
Writing Magic by Gail Carsen Levine
Word Painting by Rebecca McClanahan
The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White