Saturday, 9 June 2012

Varying the Narrative for Better Writing

There are, on occasions, when fiction writing causes numerous headaches for writers in their pursuit of better writing.

One of those headaches is the rate of use and occurrence of ‘he’ and ‘she’ within sentence structures, and in particular, the incidence of the old ‘he said’ / ‘she said’.  

‘He’ and ‘she’ become so commonplace within the narrative when we are writing that we take them for granted, but it’s not until you read back through our story that you realise just how much you have relied upon their usage, and only then you can appreciate how clunky your descriptions might appear if they are overused.

Of course, using them is completely unavoidable. We all do it and we do need them, but as with adverbs and adjectives, writers can limit the amount of ‘he’s’ and ‘she’s’ within sentences by tightening and tidying the narrative so that it not only reads better, but it looks better to the reader’s eye.  

Look back through previous manuscripts and stories and you might be surprised just how many times it occurs. They can clog the narrative without you even noticing.

This is a typical example of what you might find in an average story (I’ve highlighted the offending tags):

He looked at her, unsure.

She smiled. ‘I wouldn’t have asked if it wasn’t a good idea.’

The breeze coiled around them, chilly now the clouds had gathered.

‘It’s not that,’ he said. ‘I just don’t think we should go back there.’

She sidled up to the car. ‘We don’t have a choice, Mike. I want that house.’

His shoulders sank. He could feel the hint of rain on his face. He approached the car. ‘But that house gives me the creeps.’

While there is nothing actually wrong with the above example sentence structure, it can be further improved so that it reads better and is more concise by improving the writing and varying how some sentences are structured so that ‘he said’ and ‘she said’ or ‘he’ this and ‘he’ that etc, don’t make the writing look too stilted, weary or repetitive. 

You can do this by replacing ‘he’ or ‘she’ with the character’s name every now and then (always use in moderation), you could rearrange the sentence order, or you could remove or add certain words to make the sentences more succinct.

A reworked example might read like this, with the modified narrative highlighted:

Michael looked at her, unsure.

She smiled. ‘I wouldn’t have asked if it wasn’t a good idea.’

The breeze coiled around them, chilly now the clouds had gathered.

‘It’s not that. I just don’t we should go back there.’

Jess sidled up to the car. ‘We don’t have a choice, Mike. I want that house.’

His shoulders sank.   He approached the car, felt a hint of rain on his face. ‘But that house gives me the creeps.’

The first line uses the male character’s name, Michael. The fourth line dispenses with speech tags altogether, because it’s clear Michael is speaking. The fifth line uses the female character’s name, Jess, while the sixth line makes use of the narrative to completely rearrange ‘He could feel a hint of rain on his face. He approached the car’ and changes to a better choice.

These examples are very simple, but hopefully they show how a little tweaking and aforethought can improve narrative without that much effort.

In the end, it all comes down variation and moderation to sentence structure. Get the structure right and you won’t have to worry about how many instances of ‘he’ or ‘she’ sprinkle your narrative.  

He said/she said
The same principle applies about constructing better sentences where ‘he said’ and ‘she said’ crop up at every opportunity without the writer even noticing. Again, it’s all about variation and moderation.

Here’s very simple example of the kind of scene that writers slip into without realising, where he said/she said becomes commonplace:

‘There’s nowhere for you to go,’ he said.

‘Not unless you help me,’ she said, tight. ‘I need to get into the mountains and find him.’

‘But you could be heading into trouble,’ he said. ‘His men will kill you.’

‘Are you going to help me or not, Simon?’ she asked.

‘Look, it’s not that easy,’ he said.


Now here’s the same scene, tweaked to cut out some of the he said/she said tags:

Tilley gripped her arms. ‘There’s nowhere for you to go.’

‘Not unless you help me,’ Alex said, tight. ‘I need to get into the mountains and find him.’

‘But you could be heading into trouble. His men will kill you.’

Her eyes darkened. ‘Are you going to help me or not, Simon?’

He sighed. ‘Look, it’s not that easy.’

By switching the sentence order, removing some tags and adding a few words, you can make the sentence better, tighter, and in some cases, you can do away with all those speech tags altogether. All it takes is a little time to think about how you structure your sentences by asking yourself - Can I make them better?

But should this really matter?
In the grand scheme of things, not really. Not unless you want to become a better writer, that is.

A writer is as only as good as his or her willingness to learn. If writers don’t want to learn, that’s fine, but they will never evolve and therefore never improve. 

If they do want to learn, then the little things like this are just as important, so next time you catch yourself writing ‘he’ and ‘she’ too much, or ‘he said/she said’ umpteen times in a scene, take a moment to decide if you can rework the narrative and make it better, tighter and more concise.

Next week: The art of foreshadowing

3 comments:

  1. Note to self: must read all of AJ's articles, very helpful. I do need to add some more variety into my narrative.

    Thanks again for the great post.

    Andrea

    ReplyDelete
  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete