Bulldogs in Boas: Keeping Your Writing Real


Did you ever read a book or a manuscript and feel a lack of involvement in it, as if a story is being told, but it isn’t really happening, at least not to you? These are the books we end up putting down because they simply don’t grip us. We can’t lose ourselves in them, which is the ultimate purpose of reading fiction.

One of best ways to alienate your reader (if that’s what you’re going for) is to establish confusion and fuzziness as to what’s really going on. If your reader is uncertain about what your characters are doing or why they’re doing it, if they can’t picture the setting, can’t quite grasp the time period, can’t remember your characters’ names or complicated relationships, or aren’t brought up to speed on the politics or technology or whatever that your plot revolves around… if they don’t get it, you will lose them.

It’s really not that hard to clarify important information for your reader, and it’s critical that you do so. The only uncertainty you want is uncertainty you’ve deliberately planted—in other words, story questions where you hold back information to pique the reader’s curiosity. In that case, the reader knows something’s being withheld and she’s playing along with the game. In fact, if you do your job right, this kind of uncertainty will keep her turning the pages, anxious to have her questions answered. The other kind of certainty (“Wait a minute, am I supposed to know who this guy is?”) just yields frustration.

Obscurity can also result from using vague but refined (and therefore supposedly impressive) words in lieu of straightforward words that pack a punch and create a sense of immediacy. John Gardner addressed this problem in The Art of Fiction: “Insufficient detail and abstraction where what is needed is concrete detail are common—in fact all but universal—in amateur writing…. If the writer says ‘creatures’ instead of ‘snakes,’ if in an attempt to impress us with fancy talk he used Latinate terms like ‘hostile maneuvers’ instead of sharp Anglo-Saxon words like ‘thrash,’ ‘coil,’ ‘spit,’ ‘hiss,’ and ‘writhe,’ if instead of the desert sands and rocks he speaks of ‘the snake’s inhospitable abode,’ the reader will hardly know what picture to conjure up.”

Or, as Stephen King puts it in On Writing,“One of the really bad things you can do to your writing is to dress up the vocabulary, looking for long words because you’re maybe a little bit ashamed of your short ones. This is like dressing up a household pet in evening clothes. The pet is embarrassed and the person who committed this act of premeditated cuteness should be even more embarrassed.”

Storytelling is an interactive process. The point is to transfer the vision you’ve created from your brain into your reader’s brain as efficiently as possible so as to generate the maximum emotional impact. The more extraneous folderol you force your reader’s mind to slog through in order to get to that vision, the less of it she’ll absorb, and the less moving it will be.

“Extraneous folderol” often comes in the form of an emphasis on style over content, a subject I explored in last month’s article, “Keep it Simple,” but which bears reinforcement. Writers trying to self-consciously impose a style on their work usually spend a lot of time and effort coming up with awesome ways to say things. Contrived verbiage is a common sin in the work of aspiring authors, but I know multi-published writers whose novels (and therefore, careers) suffer from it, too. No, I’m not saying your work shouldn’t have style; I’m saying it shouldn’t have an affected and mannered style.

You know how a child who’s just learned cursive will start adding curlicues and what-not to her handwriting to make it prettier and more distinctive? The result may or may not be more visually pleasing (probably not; simplicity is, after all, the soul of elegance), but it will almost certainly be more difficult to decipher—and isn’t communication, after all, the reason you write anything? By the same token, if your fiction is all dolled up with Byzantine sentence structures, fancy-ass turns of phrase, and vague “creatures” conducting “hostile maneuvers” in “inhospitable abodes,” it may or may not have a certain cerebral or esthetic appeal (probably not; same reason), but it will likely fail to engage your reader on a gut level. Do you want to make your reader’s heart race as she turns the pages, or do you want her to think, “What an awesome way to say that. Wonder what’s on the tube?”

About modifiers: We’ve all been told this a thousand times, and I’ll make it a thousand and one: If you want your story to keep from getting lost in the language, edit your adjectives and adverbs down to a mini­mum. Instead of two or three adjectives, search for the perfect one. (The “crystalline lake” as opposed to the “clear, crystal blue lake.”) Vivid verbs tend to have more impact than a verb modified by an adverb. (“The horse thundered down the road” as opposed “to the horse galloped quickly and thunderously down the road.”)

And although none of us likes to use a memorable word too many times in close proximity, you don’t have to get too het up over the more common, everyday words. It’s much better to repeat yourself once or twice than to come up with alternatives guaranteed to get your reader’s eyes whirling. If your character is drinking coffee, it’s “coffee.” It’s not an “inky liquid,” a “caffeine-laden fluid,” a “cup of alertness,” or a “Columbian concoction.” Please don’t waste your creative energy on this kind of thing. I mean, really. Please.

Some writers inflict an artificial style on their work in an effort to be taken seriously by the literary elite. To quote Orson Scott Card in Characters & Viewpoint, “We… hear some writers praised because they were revolutionary or experimental, violating the conventions and expectations of their time. So it’s no surprise if many young storytellers reach the conclusion that great writing is writing that has to be studied, decoded, and analyzed, that if a story can be clearly and easily understood, it must be somehow childish, inconsequential, or trite. This is far from the truth. Most great writers followed all but a few of the conventions of their time. Most wrote very clearly, in the common language of their time; their goal was to be understood.”

So, how do you develop your own distinctive style without disengaging your readers and coming off as pretentious? The same way you develop your own distinctive handwriting, by simply telling your story as well and as clearly as you can. Just as your handwriting should have its own unique look without any conscious effort from you, so your fiction will acquire its own inimitable voice if you just strip off the evening clothes and concentrate on telling your story.

See you next month, same time, same place…

Louisa Burton
October 2009

“FictionCraft” © 2009 Louisa Burton. All rights reserved.

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