Today’s super-useful guest post comes from Chella Ramanan, who would like us to please stop snarling angrily and gasping in prose.
Writing fiction can seem like a minefield sometimes. There are so many things to remember. So many things waiting to trip you up and spoil all your brilliant story-telling. But that is part of learning our craft. Nobody said it was going to be easy and if they did, they were lying. You won’t get it all right first time, but that’s what editing is for. These five simple rules can help you polish your writing style and avoid the most common mistakes.
Don’t whatever you do let these rules paralyse you into inaction. Read them, consider, absorb and keep writing.
A cull of adverbs
Never begin a sentence with “suddenly”. It’s the king of adverbs and you almost never need it. If a door bursts open, it doesn’t need to do so suddenly. The word ‘burst’ is enough. The reader will get it. They’re smarter than you think. Instead of “walked slowly” use “sauntered” or “edged” – each conveys a different mood. Don’t use “shout loudly”, just use “shout”. And replace “laughed heartily” with “guffawed”. Adverbs tend to be a lazy way round taking the time to search for the right word.
Do your writing a favour – before you send that manuscript off to prospective publishers or agents, hit CTRL F and search for ‘ly’ adverbs. Take a careful look at every use of an adverb and if in doubt, replace it with a strong, descriptive verb. Of course, the odd adverb never hurt anyone, but just keep an eye on them, as they are apt to multiply.
Ditch the creative dialogue tags
For some reason, a lot of new writers (and some published ones) seem to be afraid to use the word “said” when dealing with dialogue. Avoid the temptation to hit the thesaurus and sprinkle your dialogue with the likes of retorted, exclaimed, gasped or bellowed. More often than not “said” will do just fine. And never use an adverb with a dialogue tag – that’s just double trouble.
If you feel you need to use dialogue tags to differentiate between characters and convey their emotion, then you need to work on your dialogue.
Each character should have a distinct voice that conveys an aspect of their character. This makes it easy for the reader to tell them apart without the need for “he said” at the end of every line. Maybe character A uses formal language and lots of long words to patronise people or simply because he is an academic. Character B could be a master of the sarcastic quip, setting her apart from other speakers. You can also use accents to give dialogue an individual flavour. Be warned, too many different accents or overuse can leave the reader feeling exhausted.
Try using action to bring visual cues to a dialogue scene. If one character is seated, they can stand up once the exchange becomes heated or stub out a cigarette to show their anger.
“I’m not going with you,” Ella gasped.
“What makes you think you’ve got a choice?” he snarled angrily.
“This,” she said defiantly, brandishing a knife.
“I’m not going with you,” she said, her voice barely a whisper.
His eyes narrowed.
“What makes you think you’ve got a choice?”
She saw her chance and grabbed the knife.
The first set of dialogue uses adverbs and dialogue tags to clumsy effect. The second example uses description and action to frame the dialogue. Try it.
Use your senses
If your descriptive passages seem a bit flat, try using all the senses to paint a scene or character. What does a place sound or smell like? Maybe the air tastes sour or the girl’s lips taste like strawberries, but her hands are cold and dry. What does this say about her? Is she hiding her true feelings?
It’s easy to rely on visual description, but adding smell, sound, taste and touch brings texture and new layers to a passage.
Show, don’t tell
The key to good prose is showing not telling. Don’t tell the reader that John was scared. Instead use setting, dialogue and description. Tell us how John feels.
The room felt airless and my throat tightened. Scans. Brain scans. I couldn’t think. The doctor’s calm, impassive face seemed to fill my vision. I couldn’t see anything but his reassuring smile, urging me not to panic or cause a scene.
The above uses short sentences to convey confusion. Our protagonist’s tight throat shows he’s scared, but at no point does he say that. The doctor’s “reassuring smile” contrasts with the narrator’s state of mind, heightening the effect.
Variety is the spice of life
We’re lucky to be writing in English, one of the richest languages in the world. So don’t forget to use it. Keep your prose fresh by expanding your vocabulary. Use sentences and chapters of different lengths to create an interesting rhythm. Make sure you don’t rely on too much description, mix it with some dialogue and action to help increase the pace of your story. It’s all about balance.
And don’t forget to read a variety of books. Maybe switch fiction for non-fiction – it might give you a new story idea. If you usually read literary fiction or sci-fi, try something different. Dabble in a thriller or a mystery – a new genre might inform your writing in a way you hadn’t anticipated.
Of course there will always be examples of authors who break all these rules and still get four-book deals, hit the best seller list and snag a movie deal to boot. But bad writing is bad writing, no matter how successful it is. To give your novel the best chance of hitting the big time, craft the best prose you possibly can. Learn the rules of good writing, then you can decide whether to break them or not.
Chella is a professional copywriter, working in Taunton Somerset under the name Chella Ramanan Copywriting. When she’s not helping businesses improve their sales and marketing messages, she is working on her novel and hanging out with other fiction writers. You can find her words and stuff at www.wordsarama.co.uk