Who recognizes this? Or who at least remembers most of the items on this list from grade school English class?
While most of the items on this list may seem sensical to you. They are not be as helpful for writing your fiction as you think they are.
I think something writers sometimes forget, is rules that apply to non-fiction and academic writing do not apply so well to the fiction genres.
Don’t get me wrong some tips are universal, but the struggle is to understand which are not. What information from basic English and often University level classes can we follow, ignore, or mould to help our own writing?
Many budding writer’s can be quite hard on themselves when they see lists like this and realize they have done almost all of these things. I have seen writers take great prose and destroy it because they believed it was going to be rejected for things that don’t even apply to their style of writing.
So let’s take a quick look at what this list should read like for fiction writers.
1. Don’t alliterate by accident.
Alliteration is a tricky tool for authors to use well, but it can be used. If done properly, it can lend itself to rhythm and cadence, and direct the reader to focus on a certain idea or image without them even knowing it. However, it can easily become silly, especially when done by accident.
I love coming across accidental alliteration in my edits. They’re always great for a good laugh. But that is less an issue of alliteration than it is an issue of unconscious writing. Not paying attention to the words you type, or just plain being lazy.
If you think you can successfully integrate alliteration into your story than go for it. Don’t let anyone tell you it is wrong to do so. If it fails it fails, but that doesn’t mean you can’t try.
Another thing you can try is, non-consecutive alliteration (ok so maybe it is no longer alliteration at that point but who cares). This is when you use the words starting in the same letter to create a purposeful beat in the sentence.
For instance… (here the sound that is creating the beat is the hard ‘t’)
“It’s trying, Allen.” Sandra’s neck gave, and her head dropped into her icy palms. “I’m trying. But your tasking—always taking—and truth be told I’m just too tired.”
Of course, this is not true alliteration however with a little time and practice you can use the skills you acquired reciting “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers” and turn it into something great.
But as with everything, moderation is key, you do not want to be exhausting your readers by tying their tongues together with every sentence.
2. Know what a preposition is and know when it is appropriate to end a sentence with one.
I have mentioned before that in order to break a rule you need to know what the rule is. This is one of those rules.
You can end your sentences in prepositions if it is called for. (See what I did there).
However, issues arise if you…
a) Use it inappropriately because you don’t know you’re making a mistake in the first place, or
b) using it ALL the time.
3. Avoid clichés like the plague.
This one stays. Never rely on overused phrases, metaphors, images. It is lazy. Make up your own.
But spotting these is something that takes practice because we take for granted figures of speech used everyday. Consider dedicating a portion of your editing time to looking for new ways to write weak or taken for granted ideas.
4. Comparisons are great ways to add depth, emotion, and symbolism to your writing.
For fiction writing comparisons are a golden tool. They come in a number of forms. However, it is pertinent to note that the comparisons fiction writers make are not the clear cut comparisons of one idea to another in non-fiction writing. Here comparisons take on a much more artistic form.
In the Macro sense, we use them to highlight character traits with foils. For instance in the book I am currently writing, I have two main characters who act as foils for each other. Their personalities are almost binary contrasts of one another and their arcs intersect in a way where one ‘foils’ the other as they head in contrasting directions.
Setting is another way we can use comparisons to contrast (or highlight the similarity between) things like the character’s internal and external worlds, or the change from the normal world at the beginning to the adventure world later on.
We can also use comparisons in the form of symbolism (overarching metaphors) to foreshadow or create omens for events/moods later in the book.
In the Micro sense, we use comparisons to evoke emotion and imagery. Metaphor and simile are a few ways that we can do this.
Here are some examples quickly pulled from the great internet. Focus on not the comparison itself but what emotion or image the comparison creates in the heart and mind.
“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances.” —Shakespeare
“All our words are but crumbs that fall down from the feast of the mind.” —Khalil Gibran
“And your very flesh shall be a great poem.” —Walt Whitman
“Advertising is the rattling of a stick inside a swill bucket.” —George Orwell
“Dying is a wild night and a new road.” —Emily Dickenson
5&6. Make sure you are saying what you think you are saying and in the clearest way possible.
I wanted to combine 5 and 6 because they kind of cover the same topic. Be specific and then don’t generalize? Ok. What happened to # 7, don’t be redundant?
Anyway. There is some subtle differences between the two and for academic writing I can see how these may need to be separated. But not so much for fiction writing.
In fiction, we can choose to be specific or oblique (we will discuss this very important concept below), but whatever you choose to say, make sure that what you have on paper in in fact what you’ve intended.
All too often I have written a long, boring explanation of why a particular idea is not appropriate in a story, or doesn’t make sense, or should be changed for any multitude of reasons, only for the author to reply. “What are you talking about, that is not what is happening in this scene,” Or, “But that isn’t what I meant.”
The culprit is most likely bad sentence structure, or ordering, or an image that just doesn’t fully come across the way the author intended it to.
Everyone commits this crime every now and again, but make sure you are going back and reading EVERYTHING you write. It is best if you are able to give a manuscript time to stew before going back for a rewrite or another edit. Chances are if you come at it with fresh eyes, you will catch these clarity issues.
To quickly address generalization, the only real problem here is when writer’s make assumptions about the real world and apply it to their novels. Research everything! Google is right at your fingertips. Don’t let these silly mistakes make it into the final draft.
One example of this is in a book I read recently where the author assumed that poison oak would affect horses the same as it does humans, however, in reality, it does not. Horses don’t give a lard about poison oak.
Generalizations may also find their way in through unaddressed stereotypes, or biases (such as race, gender, class, etc.). Though I feel that “generalization” is not at the root of the problem with these….
7&8. Consistency and Redundancy.
These two are good advice for fiction writers (at last!). Any of you who have read my other posts will know that I am a stickler for consistency and a pretty harsh critic of redundancy in all its forms. If you want a full explanation of how to spot and avoid these mistakes you can read the post, “Repetition” or any other posts on The Foul.
9. Rhetorical questions don’t apply to writing.
Questions either have answers that the reader will answer in their head, or they do not and are meant to provoke thought in the reader.
By definition ALL questions posed by books are rhetorical…because the author does not expect to get an actual answer. The only time questions become issues is when they turn the previous argument into a question and repeat it. Like:
Beach balls are no fun because they fly away in the wind. It’s no fun to play with something that blows away all the time, is it?
But then you are in redundancy territory again.
I will say that in academic writing questions at all are in bad form. But in Fiction….
How can we listen to such a silly rule about style?
10. Understatement is good in academic writing. Not in fiction.
If you follow any of the tips outlined in this post let it be this one!
Understatement is death in fiction writing!
Ok. So I’m over-exaggerating a tad. But understatement is rarely good writing on it’s own, whereas exaggeration can be used successfully by itself in the correct context. Say in a highly emotional and explicit scene.
Instead, for more subtle ideas in your novel, try being oblique. Skimming the edge of the idea, writing parallel to it to create tension without coming right out and saying it.
For instance, you have a character who is in a terrible mood. You can write…
Johnny cringed at the tone of Julia’s voice.
This can be done in many ways, but understated lines tend to evoke little emotion. It is why they are so important in academic writing. Emotion equates subjectivity.
This sentence is also not very clear. Why is Johnny cringing? Is Julia yelling? Or is she berating him and he is cowering like a child? Who is in control in this scene?
Without context we really don’t have the answers to these questions. This line may work in a toned down context but as we will see below there is a much better way of achieving this.
When Julia opened her mouth, the shrill squawking grated at Johnny’s spine.
We don’t for second think that Julia’s voice is truly squealing but the line is quite revealing. Johnny very obviously does not like Julia. That is clear. This line would work in a scene that needs little context. Perhaps they are fighting or this is the third of fourth time we are seeing them interact in this way.
Either way. By itself we can answer a number of the above questions. Johnny appears in control. We can tell by the words shrill squawking which connote something less than human is making the noise. Because he seems to be the one in control we can assume he is not being berated but that he finds Julia annoying. Cringing is also implied by the grating at Johnny’s spine. The line evokes a “cringing” physical response in the reader.
However, even this line can be improved by using the below technique.
“Hey Johnny,” Julia called from the other end of the bar.
Johnny took a long sip from his tumbler. She wobbled over to him with her drink painting her dress. Reaching him, she hugged the table top and ushered in close enough to clean his teeth.
“Oi, Johnny. You didn’t hear me?”
“Who let you out, Julia?”
Notice exaggeration also plays a role in the oblique example. She hugged the table top, got close enough to clean his teeth. All these are exaggerations to express his mood. His view of Julia. If he were in a good mood, maybe she would get close enough for him to smell her brand of soap, if he was horny maybe she got close enough to bite his lip.
You can also do understated with oblique depending on the context of the scene. Perhaps you are very subtly trying to add an omen. However, I am a true believer that you can add exaggeration almost everywhere, and in every context, but only if done to create a specific and thought out image.
Oblique writing also works on a per line level in dialogue.
For improving dialogue is where I first came across the idea of oblique writing in the book “Stein on Writing” by Sol Stein. A book I highly recommend to anyone looking to improve their own writing/editing skills.
Notice how in the short dialogue example above, Johnny never directly answers Julia. Imagine if the excerpt read like this…would it have the same impact…
“Hey Johnny,” Julia called from the other end of the bar.
“Hi Julia.” Johnny took a long sip from his tumbler.
She wobbled over to him with her drink painting her dress. Reaching him, she hugged the table top and ushered in close enough to clean his teeth.
“When did you get here?”
“I’ve been here the whole time you’ve been here.”
A very different result with a very different tone. The first is much better.
Using oblique dialogue lets you…
a) move the dialogue along more efficiently,
b) avoid any echoes (“Hi, Johnny.” “Hi, Julia.”), and
c) manipulate tension and mood for the reader more effectively.
Now our list is done, and the battle won. To each and all goodnight.