I’ve decided to do a couple of posts on writing styles. The first will be on clean, simple prose as mostly identified with writers like Ernest Hemingway or Raymond Carver.
This kind of writing, where you don’t use long words or complicated sentence structures is easy to read and can build into a powerful way to tell a story. However, simple does not mean simplistic.
Make the most of it
If what appears to be happening in a scene is exactly what is happening in a scene, it can read as plodding and obvious. Direct, on-the-nose, mono-layered, mono-tone storytelling has a tendency to read as juvenile. That’s not to say the writing can’t be simple, but simple isn’t the same as simplistic.
One way to add depth to a scene is to take into account where the scene is set, and use the setting to create sophisticated storytelling. It should be noted that as simple doesn’t mean simplistic, so sophisticated shouldn’t mean convoluted.
Here are eight ways to achieve a greater level of depth without being too obvious (or too waffly) about it:
Don’t write passively, that’s what they tell you. It isn’t as immediate, it lacks energy, it is weak writing. This is all true. For certain contexts. And untrue for others.
Like all generalised statements, the idea that passive writing is bad writing is simplistic and wrong. The important thing is to decide what effect you want your writing to have at various points in your story. To be able to do this you must know the options and the possible effects (and side-effects) and choose the right one for your story. This is hard and requires learning many things. Or you can rigorously apply the same technique to every sentence. This is easy and requires you to learn very little.
The first thing to bear in mind is something no one ever mentions when discussing this subject, that there are two entirely different types of passive writing.
Chapter One: Harry Potter
This dissection is specifically looking at how best to construct an opening chapter of a novel, in this case for children. I should say first that I am not a big reader of middle grade books and will be approaching this first chapter the same as any other in the series (other books I’ve analysed can be found here: Chapter One Analyses), with a view to taking it apart to see what works, what doesn’t (and how she got round that), which conventions are used well, and which are broken to good effect.
Clearly this is one of the most famous and most revered books in children’s literature but I have attempted to approach it objectively, aided by the fact that I have never read any of the books in the series. It should also be remembered that chapter one in a published book as written may not have been chapter one in the original manuscript, or may have gone through many edits.
The original Harry Potter book was published in 1997 after being rejected by numerous publishers. The first chapter, thirteen pages, is a little different to the rest of the book, being in omniscient POV, very much in the narrator’s voice. The following chapters appear to switch to a more conventional third person POV from Harry’s perspective (although I don’t know if this remains so for the rest of the book).
Plotting in your pants
When it comes to writing a story there are the two widely known approaches. You can plan thing in advance and then follow the instructions like a map. Or you can wing it and see what happens as the story develops organically.
People have their preferences, but which is better? Which is easier, and which requires more effort? Does one lead to a dry, mechanical tale, and the other to a meandering, unfocused mess? How can you tell which suits you and your story best?
Don’t Overstuff Your Verbs — Unpack
Having received some interest in Minimalism (mentioned in my last post), I thought I’d share this minimalist writing technique for making verbs more active and immediate.
There are time when it’s obvious an adverb is unnecessary.
He ran quickly to the phone. It’s redundant to have quickly in there, running already implies speed, so you should cut it out. He ran to the phone.
Sometimes it’s perfectly fine to use an adverb (no, really , it is). An adverb is a modifier, and if you’re modifying the verb in an unexpected way that changes the meaning of the verb it can be a useful tool. Examples:
She smiled sadly.
His arm was partially severed.
He whispered loudly.
But most times the adverb is modifying the verb in a way that there is already another word for. Examples:
Chapter One: Fight Club
Tyler gets me a job as a waiter, after that Tyler’s pushing a gun in my mouth and saying, the first step to eternal life is you have to die.
In a publishing climate where men are considered a poor demographic to aim a book at, I thought I’d take a look at one of the leading lights of what is called transgressive fiction. No holds barred, down and dirty, psychologically and morally questionable and questioning.
Need to Know: the basis of all story
Any story requires the reader to want to know what happens next. This need to know is called suspense. Usually people think of the big, terrifying, heart pumping moments when they think of the term, but wondering if you need to buy milk is also suspense.
If you can build and maintain suspense in a story, at whatever level, it will be more interesting to read for the reader. See the box above? What’s inside? Not knowing makes you curious, huh?
What if I then say, I’ll tell you tomorrow, and take the box away?
Story seems to be the hardest word
Lately I’ve been critiquing a lot of writing where the story is full of movement and people go from A to B in search of whatever, but it reads very dull and lifeless. All genres, no matter what demographic it’s aimed at, need story. But even if all the basic requirements are fulfilled, it can still read flat.
A guy is hungry. He has no money. He borrows some from a friend. He goes to the store. He buys some food and eats it. Now the friend wants a favour in return for the loan…
Things happen, someone wants something, there’s an obstacle, a solution is produced and there’s even a suggestion it’s headed somewhere. So why doesn’t it grip you? What we have so far is just a bunch of stuff happening. It isn’t interesting in and of itself, and if you want the reader to be engaged it needs something more.
So, what differentiates story from a bunch of stuff that happened?