Sunday, November 6, 2011

Writing Advice 20 — Sculpting Language





I will be the first to admit, I am not a wordsmith. Many writers focus a good deal of energy on constructing beautiful prose. I used to do that, but I found it counterproductive to the goal I was after, which was to make the words disappear and the story and characters shine. I am not assaulting literary writing. I enjoy beautifully crafted language. I just determined that for the kinds of books I was working on, word-craft was not the best methodology because I have a theory that there is a sliding scale. The more eloquence you put into the language, the simpler the plot needs to be. The reason is that eloquence requires room. An author can carry on poetically about almost nothing for pages. As such a very simple plot allows the writer to run in tangents, use beautiful metaphors, and explore character quirks without the weight of having to convey a lot of mundane information clearly and precisely.

So, for a set of fast-paced action adventure novels, I did not aim for eloquence. To be honest, I can’t tell you how many times I had to go back and edit out passages that were too good. Sentences or paragraphs that I impressed myself with, and thought, wow, that’s really great writing. The moment I paused in the story to marvel over the words, I knew I had to cut them. I don’t want people noticing my writing. And I certainly don’t want them noticing how one specific sentence or paragraph was very different from all the rest. I want them focusing on the story. I wanted clear, not clever. Having said this, there is still a surprising amount of sculpting going on in the word structure. Subtle manipulations that readers and even some writers might not notice.

ACTIVE AND PASSIVE
This could have gone in the basic posts, but it fits here too.

The man was beaten by Danny. (passive)
Danny beat the man. (active)

In passive voice, the subject receives the action. In active the subject does the action. An easy way to see this is often when the subject is followed by the verb. He ran… Susan stood up… The door opened…  these are all indicators of an active sentence, and active sentences are great because they are crisp, clear, exciting, direct, and well…active. They cause writing to come alive instead of sounding dead. And they are the best way to write action. As a result, active sentences are what most writers like to use. This is not to say that passive sentences equal “bad.” Passive voice has a role to play, the most obvious being when you are describing a passive situation.

Johnny was locked up in handcuffs.

Johnny is clearly in a submissive situation here, and the style of the sentence emphasizes this. You could write, The cop cuffed Johnny, but that focuses on the cop and the action rather than the feeling of being restrained. And if you want to make the reader sympathize with Johnny the passive sentence works better.

So passive sentences relate passive moods, of characters or situations. Active makes the sentences pop and come alive.

DECLARITIVE
Then there is the declarative sentence. Technically a declarative sentence is just any sentence that states something and ends in a period, as opposed to a question, or one of emotion that ends in an exclamation, but I like to tweak definitions to suit myself.

He seemed to be opening the door.

This is in fact a declarative sentence, but I don’t place it in that category because the sentence doesn’t actually “declare” anything, it “alludes” to it.  Maybe he is opening the door, maybe he isn’t. If that ambiguousness is what you are trying to convey, fine, but all too often writers are just timid. They don’t want to declare too much, because technically, maybe the character couldn't exactly see perfectly what was actually, truly, objectively, without a doubt, happening. This is just splitting hairs. If a character “seems to” open a door, then he had better not have actually opened it, because there would be no reason for the “seems to” if he had opened it.

As the author, you know everything, and even if the character doesn’t it is still okay to be definitive about events. Why? Because people never see someone “seem to” anything. In real life it either is, or it isn’t. Only a narrator with foreknowledge striving to relate a story as accurately as possible would use “seemed to.” In real life, a door is opened. If later it turns out it wasn’t, then at that point, the door is closed.

Bob thought Danny opened the door, but he hadn’t.

 Seemed to, is a cheap, unsophisticated attempt at suspense, or a means of hedging bets, or being technically accurate to the point of killing the story.

He had what appeared to be some kind of rope.

Unless what the guy is actually using for rope (and it really had better not be rope) plays a big part in the story later, just call it rope.

Writing in (what I define as) declarative sentences cleans up sentences by getting rid of the useless clutter of author hesitancy. Either it is or it isn’t, and as the author you should know, so don’t pretend you don’t, and if you really don’t know, you should.

BACK LOADING
Now that I explained how to make sentences clear and strong, I’m going to contradict everything I just said, because there are often times you want to flip, or mangle sentences for effect. Often this is done to emphasis the emotion, or to hold off a reveal to the end. In some ways this is like writing poetry in that, impact, or impression, are more important than clarity.

He wrote the truth on the letter in the house.

The truth was written in the letter inside the house.

Inside the house, on the letter, was the truth.

The first sentence is a good active sentence. The second, while passive is still far more straightforward, and direct. But the last sentence has more impact because the point of the sentence is held in reserve to the end, creating a punch. This is what I call back-loading. When you save the best for last and front-load suspense.

He saw her when he entered the room.
He entered the room, smelling the familiar perfume, his eyes searching until he saw—her.

This is an even more pronounced and dramatic expression of the idea. The first sentence is serviceable, but dull and lifeless despite being active. While the second creates a story in a single sentence. Back loading sentences are ideal for adding drama. You can almost hear the bass chords play at the end of the sentence, bump, bump, bah! And the camera would zoom.

When I was in art school, I had a teacher who explained the difference between a house painter and an artist. A house painter sweeps back and forth with the brush. An artist does whatever they need to. You can push, slap, dribble, stab, whatever necessary to create the effect you want. Fiction writing is an odd cross between art and craft. While most of the time it is good to stick with the rules, sometimes it pays to paint outside the lines.

SOUND
Then there are the patterns, the music of the words. The best way to hear it is to read your work aloud, or have someone else read it to you. Too fast, too slow, awkward, or just grating. Here are a few things to look out for.

A sour note is created when you use the same unusual word twice in a single paragraph. If it is really unusual, it will stick out if you even use it twice in the same book. Common words you can get away with. For example you can use the word “the” several times in a single paragraph and no one will notice. But if you use “paradigm,” twice, for no apparent reason, it will sound strange. These are the kinds of things you most often find in proofing and should not really be concerned with in writing.

Then there are patterns to watch out for. If you start three sentences with “He was…” in a row, it will be noticeable and the sound will be off. Even if the pattern of the sentence is the same more than twice, it will be a grating sound unless repeating the beat-phrase is what you are after.

He threw the ball. He threw the stick. He threw everything he had. Nothing worked.

In this case, the pattern is set up with intended repetition. There is a cadence to the phrases designed to roll and then these are capped with a different and abrupt sound at the end. It could just as easily have been written:

He threw the ball, the stick, everything he had. Nothing worked.

The first displays more of a sense of frustration, while the second is faster and more exciting. It would depend on what you were aiming for.

I find it is usually best to be conscious of sentence patterns and lengths. Too many short sentences in a row and the writing is choppy. Too many long ones and it comes off slow and wordy. If you aren’t writing action, or not trying to create a specific mood of serenity, then the sentences should be an ambiguous mix avoiding patterns. Long, long, short. Short, short, long. Long, short, long. Just varying helps. Sometimes just the occasional semicolon or em dash can help. 

It's amazing how complicated writing can be, even when you're trying to keep it simple. 

 Next up: Dealing With Failure


4 comments:

  1. As a long-time fiction reader, I think you sell yourself a bit short on the word smithing front. There are other story tellers who are well known that do not put the words together as well. In my humble opinion, there are few writers who tell excellent stories and write beautiful prose. Most fall one way or the other and, when I have the choice, I always go for the story teller.

    Now if these writing tips came out sooner, I probably would not suck so bad as a writer lol.

    Splitter

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  2. Another great post. Some helpful reminders in here as well as some new ways to think about the prose that I find helpful.

    I haven't mentioned it, but I really enjoyed your recent short story. I have not checked out your books but Theft of Swords is on my buy list later this month when it comes out. I'm really looking forward to it.

    I will also comment that it's about the story telling first, as you point out. Nothing should get in the way of that. In the speculative fiction genre, most readers are there for the characters and the story. The prose can be out of this world but if the story falls flat, folks won't read it let alone keep buying it.

    Thanks again Michael!!

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  3. Thank you Splitter.

    And I agree Aero (can I call you Aero?) great prose is nice, but story and character always wins. There's probably another blog post in there.

    And thanks to both of you for reading...and posting.

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  4. I think this is probably my favorite post in your Writing Advice series. It really hits home with what I'm trying to do as a writer. The prose should never be the focus of any story.

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