Finals season has begun.
I turned in my first term paper yesterday and a term paper proposal today. Tomorrow I have a presentation and a choir concert. One week from today I turn in that second term paper and take a final exam. Then after that I have a portfolio due in one class and two more finals to take.
Today I registered for my winter semester classes. I’m going to need to begin applying for summer internships soon.
So, basically, right now things are insane.
Anyway though, this week’s Wordy Wednesday is a writing process post. (Thanks go out to Ariel for the idea!)
Have you ever been reading a book and the plot’s super interesting, and you like the characters, but you just can’t quite get into it? I have a theory that sometimes this is because the author is inadvertently distancing you from the story.
I was reading a book over Thanksgiving that should have had me enthralled. Like, everything about it was great. But every once in a while the author would phrase something in such a way that would remind me I was reading a book and the characters were just characters. And I realized*: It’s not about what you write, but how you write it.
You need to keep your line-by-line writing active and realistic in order to keep the reader invested. Active, because active writing is inherently more interesting. Realistic, because writing that draws attention to the fact it’s writing also draws the reader out of the story.
So: things I’ve learned to avoid thanks to the books I wanted to love (but couldn’t).
1. Don’t write about feelings.
Really, writing “about” things at all makes for weak writing, but feelings are probably the most dominant example of this issue. When a character feels something (i.e., “She felt sad.”), you take the reader out of the scene because you’re telling instead showing (writing “about,” vs. writing). And do you ever truly “feel sad,” or does the pressure grow behind your eyes, and it gets difficult to breathe, and maybe you hug your arms around yourself?
2. Minimize figurative language.
On the topic of writing emotions: Be careful with figurative language like similes and metaphors. It’s really easy to go over the top with these and come across melodramatic, and they’re another way of distancing the reader from what’s happening. While figurative language isn’t outright telling, it definitely slides more that way than showing. So instead of something like “He was a spool of thread unwinding” (unfortunate, actual example from a draft of a novel I’ve been revising), try actually describing what that feels like. Maybe the room spins. He stumbles. He screams between clenched teeth.
3. Avoid thoughts and realizations.
Yet another way to put a wall up between your reader and story. Thoughts (“He’s right, I think.”) and realizations (“I realize the house–it’s going to explode.”) are another form of inadvertent telling, because, like, when you’re thinking in your own head, do you think, “He’s right, I think,” or do you just think, “He’s right”? Likewise with realizations. So instead of including the unnecessary telling tags on these things, go straight to what’s actually going on.
Still, when you want a character to realize something, you want it to be attention-catching, right? I generally do something like include a description of what the character physically does up on realizing it, followed by the realization (“My eyes widen. The house–it’s going to explode.”) or include some kind of exclamation before the realization (“Oh my gosh. The house–it’s going to explode.”)
4. Write in the present.
I don’t mean that you should write using present tense but like, I don’t know, stay in the moment. I can’t tell you how many books I’ve read that have fully given away what’s about to happen by saying something like “Three things happened before the bomb went off.” This distances the reader by turning the accepted way events progress (A, B, C, D) on its head (so instead: D, A, B, C, then D again). Also, unless your character’s looking back on things from the future, he wouldn’t know in advance that D was going to happen after A, B, C anyway. So that in itself is unrealistic to your character’s experience.
Instead of: Three things happened before the bomb went off.
Try something like: Larry the Man-Eating Hamster cackles. His henchman reaches for me and I dodge to the right. We run for the door. A beep echoes throughout the laboratory. Everything explodes.
So, those are my tips for keeping your reader invested in your line-by-line writing. However, note that I’m not saying to absolutely never use any of these things; just know what you’re doing when you do. (Por ejemplo: In the novel I’ve been revising, my protagonist “thinks” things sometimes, but I try to limit these to when she’s telling herself things, like to convince herself of something she knows isn’t true, rather than general thoughts.)
Thanks for reading!
*Notice the irony in my phrasing here. But in my defense, this is a blog post. What I’m doing is telling you things.