Writing Tips

Tense and Viewpoint

Point of view – first person, third person (more common). First person gives a more immediate sense of involvement to the reader, but ultimate limits to what can be known to the protagonist. Third person can be limited viewpoint (similar to effect of first person) or third person omniscient, which means narrative can go anywhere as required to advance the story.

Tense – present, past (more common). Present tense can sound awkward if maintained over a long time period. Past tense can be cumbersome when dealing with past events within the past (had had had).

Style

A story has to have a point, subtext or some overarching theme. Some message or meaning beyond the narrative content. Stay focussed – a meandering or directionless storyline is unlikely to retain the readers interest and it may be necessary to delete scenes and chapters that do not advance the story or add depth to the characters.

Descriptive elements – don’t overdo the adjectives – a common mistake. Description is there to trigger the reader’s imagination and conjure up a vivid picture in the mind. This will be more powerfull if the point is made with a subtle, light touch, and the reader recognises and identifies with the experience of the character. Sometimes mundane everyday observations help to make the character and situation become real in the mind of the reader. Any clumsy or laboured writing will distract and dilute or destroy the effect.

In general it is better to show than tell, although this should not be taken to extremes – there is a place for descriptive passages. In fact modern authors seem to have taken the “show, don’t tell” directive so far that it is difficult to find a descriptive passage of any length in many recently published novels.

Characters

Stories are usually told through the characters, which makes it very important. A character needs to capture the interest of the reader. There must be something unique and engaging, and they must be believable and become real in the imagination of the reader. This is difficult to achieve if the characters are not adequately described or are shallow, “wooden” or stereotyped. You can use people you have known, after scrambling up the elements of course, or you can simply discretely observe strangers in everyday situations for ideas. Start with the physical description, then imagine a history or “back-story”, and then add inner feelings and motivation. Having decided on character do not simply provide a description; reveal the details gradually through the story. Some details are not needed – for example if hair colour is not relevant to the story you can omit it and let the reader imagine. Make the characters believable.

Editing

Prune unnecessary adjectives and adverbs. Keep the prose tight. Too many make writing over written and laboured. Try to use more active language to show by action and dialogue rather than explain. Try to avoid excessive use of the passive voice. Look out for verbosity and sentences that are trying too hard to be clever. Watch out for vagueness and generalisations – there is no excuse for this in fiction – don’t sit on the fence; research it or make it up! Keep ceaseless vigil for clichés and worn old phrases, stories and stereotypes. Keep your word processor’s grammar and spell checkers on when editing, and look out for words misspelled into another valid word – your spell-checker won’t pick these up, although the grammar checker might. Keeping your Writing Fresh

After writing for some time you will probably find that your writing style settles into a limiting groove. Whilst developing your own style is a good thing, when your writing becomes repetitive and predictable you might need something to snap you out of the comfort zone in order to ignite the spark of creativity again.

One way of breaking free from the trap is to avoid writing to a formula by deliberately adopting stylistic elements of other writers. Secondly, you can make an effort to extend your vocabulary.

Blooki has tools which can analyze the word count of your composition. You can see which words you use repeatedly and which you overuse. Of course words like "the" and "on" and "said" are unavoidable. But if all your smoke is "acrid", and every bit of countryside is becoming "verdant" then the warning bells should be ringing. Repeated pairings of words, e.g. noun and adjective or verb and adverb, can be as obvious to the reader as they are invisible to the writer. It is time to bring on some substitutes by using the thesaurus.

Plot

The structure of a story is often referred to as the “plot”. The fundamental plot structure was first described by Aristotle as consisting of a beginning, middle and end (unified plot). Gustav Freytag further refined this to be an exposition, a rising conflict, climax, a period of declining action where the events triggered by the climax unfold, and a resolution. Depending on the type of story the resolution may involve a catastrophic denoument. The story moves through time following a chain of successive causes and effects. This will be sufficient for a short story, but for full-length fiction there will probably be an episodic succession of these plot elements with perhaps a further overarching theme following the same pattern but of larger scope.

Plots can be told in chronological order, or the timeline may be fragmented by using techniques such as flashback. Or the story may begin in media res, i.e. in the middle of the action without a preceding exposition.

A study of plot structure is taught in almost every college. Writing courses can provide you a formal background in plot elements.

Exposition

Introduce characters, back story, define setting etc. Idiot lectures and plot dumps, usually by having a clueless character to whom things are explained. Draw reader in – raise questions they will want to know the answer to. Opening must quickly capture interest. Can be through dialogue, description, flashback or by the narrator. In early theatre there was a “prologue” which explicitly explained the context of the story. Better to reveal information by dialogue or action where possible – don’t tell; show. Arouse reader’s curiosity without giving too much away.

Rising conflict

Obstacles, a misunderstanding perhaps. Typically human protagonist vs. Human antagonist, but could also be human vs. Nature, human vs. Society or human versus self. Builds the suspense up to the climactic finish.

Climax

The tide turns, the showdown, protagonist and antagonist perhaps face-to-face for first time. Usually occurs well into the second half of the narrative separating the longer rising conflict from shorter falling action. Often it is a confrontation or obstacle which seems impossible for the protagonist to overcome. Climax is often expected by the reader because its nature is implicit from the subject matter, e.g. the Titanic hits the iceberg.

Falling action

Conflict unravels, perhaps a final suspense, or antagonist makes unexpected recovery or comeback. Effects of the climax are shown.

Resolution

Denoument which ties up loose ends, gives a satisfactory end-point, a surprise or twist, revelation of something kept secret during the story. The murderer and his MO are revealed. Needs to give reader a “payoff” for the effort of getting this far.