Saturday, 30 May 2015
Writers have sometimes struggled with the concept of time in fiction and how best to portray it, because as much as writers would love to, they can’t write about every minute of every day in a character’s life within a story. Somewhere between the action and the narrative the writer needs to show the reader that time has moved forward – be it hours, a day, a month or even years. The story should have time markers, or references, to indicate to the reader that time has passed from one moment to the next.
Why do we have them?
We use time references to help with the timing of certain events within the story so that the reader doesn’t become confused to when those events occur. If you don’t indicate the timing, the story would just go on and on without natural breaks between key events and the reader won’t always know that the events happen hours, days or even weeks apart. Not unless you tell them.
By giving time references to the day, night, hour, month or season etc, you can keep the reader connected to the story arc. Fiction writing isn’t just about telling a story, it’s about clarity and consistency.
With the exception of the story taking place in one day, every story must move forward in a chronological and natural way, which means bypassing a lot of time which is unimportant to the plot, so writers make use of a few techniques to ensure that the story still runs smoothly, even with the natural time breaks.
So how do writers achieve this? Is there an effective way to show the passage of time without making the story jumpy or confusing the reader?
One of the easiest ways to do this is to use simple scene breaks. These allow the writer to finish one scene and move the story ahead to another scene and another time in the story, which may be hours or a few days or so. Readers are not stupid – they will instinctively know that with a new scene time has moved on if the writer has hinted in the preceding scene, for example:
John rubbed his eyes and slumped down into the chair. ‘It’s getting late. Let’s look at it fresh in the morning.’
A streak of sunlight poked through the broken shutters as John made a coffee strong enough to wake his senses...
It’s clear that the new scene smoothly continues on the preceding scene, without the need for the writer to describe the character going to bed, falling asleep and then waking up in the morning. The character clearly suggests the passage of time, so the reader will know the next scene will be the next morning. This is a practical and effective time marker.
The best way to show these kinds of scene breaks is to let the reader know beforehand.
From Within the Scene
Writing the passage of time within a scene is another effective way to show time has passed, all in a sentence or two and without the need to create a new scene, for example:
Jason finished the plan, just as he had promised, and he left the office earlier than usual. Three hours later, after the rain-beaten drive out of the city, he pulled up outside the cottage.
Here the emphasis is on the time marker – it clearly tells the reader three hours have passed since Jason left the office and it then neatly skips ahead to the moment he appears at the cottage, all within the same scene and all done seamlessly. It’s an easy effective way to move ahead without lots of unnecessary, boring description.
Using New Chapters
Like scene breaks, beginning a new chapter is another easy alternative to move forward in time – these are generally used for longer time spans, usually days or weeks etc.
Again, writers usually leave a marker in the preceding chapter, a hint that time will move ahead, then when the new chapter begins, the reader will understand that hours, days or weeks, whatever the case may be, has passed.
A lot of writers use symbols to show the passage of time – a clock, for example, is one of the most used symbols. This is really simple a reference marker. Other writers actually show the time in the narrative, especially if it is important to the plot, for example:
7.15 am. The time seemed to slow in his mind, as though all around him had become a sluggish blur, but in reality he knew how important every second had become. And when he looked at the time again, it was 7.21am. Two minutes from the inevitable...
Here, the narrative shows the time because it’s important to the central plot, almost like a countdown. Both reader and character knows it’s a countdown to something, and that the story is being told in minutes and hours, not days or weeks.
In truth, the passage of time is not actually hard to write. Writers only say it’s hard because they haven’t been shown how to effectively do it. Once you know how, and with all the different ways at hand, well, time is at your disposal.
Remember to be clear and consistent and you can’t go wrong.
Next week: How to create a bad guy
Saturday, 23 May 2015
Continuing our look at grammar rules and which can be bent and, on occasion, broken, we’ll look at a few more ‘rules’ that writers do not have to stick too rigidly or are now accepted as the norm in fiction writing.
Slang is something we all use, it’s part of everyday life, so it’s inevitable that writers want to add some realism to their writing by using it, which is fine, if you want to set the tone, but it’s also one of those things that shouldn’t be overdone. Snippets of slang here and there enrich the story, but too much can prove distracting for the reader and they will soon tire of it.
Also, using slang is rather like using salt in cooking. Just enough gives flavour. Too much and you spoil your food. The same is true with any story.
We tend to use slang within dialogue between characters, but it can, in moderation, be used within the narrative, for instance words such as ‘badass’, ‘fit’, ‘hottie’ or ‘selfie’.
Again, it all boils down how writers use slang and how much of it they use. By all means bring colour to the narrative, but don’t spoil it.
Some rules suggest that numbers less than 10 or 20 are spelled out. The reason for this is so that numbers can easily be read. Using single numbers such as 1 or 5 might not stand out as well as they should, hence the need to spell them. This is actually a good, logical ‘rule’, and many writers actually follow it because it makes sense to do it. That said, plenty of writers prefer to use numerals instead.
There is no real hard and fast rule on this, other than it being a style issue, so whatever you choose - numerals or spelling out the numbers - just make sure you are consistent. If you start with numerals, then stick with numerals throughout, etc. Clarity is just as important as consistency.
Commas are very much the subject of debate because it harks back to the days of education and that, where fiction is concerned, commas should be used as independent clauses, to separate lists or other elements, to use before a conjunction such as ‘but’, or to separate parenthetical elements, however, writing has evolved and most, if not all, writers use the comma as a specific pause within a sentence, to add effect.
Commas can help improve longer sentences without them appearing too fragmented, they bring clarity and prevent confusion. They also prevent the reader tipping over cumbersome sentences. Commas are a writer’s best friend, if used correctly, so make sure you know how to use them effectively.
We’ve all been taught that using ‘they’ is wrong when there is no gender to refer to, for instance ‘Once the character is fully formed, they will write themselves.’ Instead we usually use an assumed gender, mostly ‘he’, but this is very antiquated and harks back to the assumption that men garner more importance. But this is the twenty-first century and women have a place is the world and don’t like being generalised as a ‘he’, when ‘he or she’ is quite acceptable.
Some purists argue that using he/she or him/her is unwieldy, when in fact it’s nothing of the sort. If you wish to use he/she, then do so. Otherwise, many people refer to the pronoun ‘they’, which has now gained acceptance and is no longer grammatically incorrect.
Not everything you’ve learned in school about writing is meaningful or useful.
Fiction writing is an ever-evolving art form. Fads will come and go and things may change over time. What is not accepted now may be acceptable in a few years. The main thing to remember is that while we can break some of these ‘rules’, we shouldn’t overuse them. Also, there are some grammar ‘rules’ that are in place for a very good reason – they create better writing and they create clarity, and that’s what we should all aim for.
Next week: How to Write the Passage of Time
Saturday, 16 May 2015
It’s a contradiction in terms because as writers, we spend much of our time abiding by certain ‘rules’ where writing is concerned, but there is a very good reason why such rules and guidelines exist – to make us better writers.
That said, some rules can be bent and some can, on occasion, be broken. Some ‘rules’ are now considered old fashioned because of the ever-changing way fiction is written, but writers should consider the context of their work before going ahead and breaking all sorts of guidelines – for instance, is the work to be self-published or will it go to agents and publishers for the traditional publishing route?
Self-published novels tend to ignore every rule and the end result is an absolute mess, because there are no quality controls in place and the author hasn’t taken the time to learn about what they’re doing. Traditionally published work, by contrast, has to be vetted and scrutinised by editors, and so some rules and guidelines are important.
You may have heard a lot about ‘rules’, but in essence these rules are not set in stone. In truth, they are the universally accepted standards for writing, which is why we advocate writers stick to them while they learn their craft. When you become published and successful, you can break as many rules as you please. Until then, it’s better to stay with what works, and has been shown to work, since the modern publishing age.
So, which conventions can you safely break without compromising or weakening your writing? There are a few to choose from, but let’s consider the most common ones:
Don’t use Contractions
No one really pays attention to this one, simply because it’s prevalent in every fictional work. We all use contractions – ‘don’t’ instead of ‘do not’ or ‘couldn’t’, instead of ‘could not’. Purists don’t like them because it makes the writing sound casual, and there are some authors who don’t use them, but in essence it’s more of a style thing.
If you want to use contractions, use them. If you don’t like them, don’t use them. Use what is comfortable for you, but make sure you are consistent, whatever you choose.
Never Start a Sentence with a Conjunction
Conjunctions (and, or, but, so, yet, because etc.) are generally used to join two parts of a sentence, for example, ‘John looked out of the window, but the fog obscured his view’’.
There are plenty of authors who start a sentence with a conjunction, which contravenes the general grammar rules you learned in school.
But the thing with conjunctions is that they work well, if used correctly. Notice I started this paragraph with a conjunction? I did so to emphasise the importance of the point, which is why writers use them this way. They can add emphasis, depth, gravitas or drama, depending upon the way you use them, for example:
And now it was time to die.
But everything had changed. Everything.
If you want to use a conjunction, make sure you do so to get the best effect from your writing. A word of caution – use them wisely. Like everything in writing, don’t overuse them.
Don’t End a Sentence with a Preposition
A preposition usually comes before a noun or pronoun to show its relationship to another word within the sentence and usually consist of words such as ‘in, though, on, at, above, near, of, for’. The word preposition describes itself: pre (before) position.
The book is on the table.
The clouds are above the mountain.
The apple is in the trash.
These examples show where the book is, where the clouds are, where the apple is. These are considered correct preposition uses.
Every now and then, however, writers end up placing prepositions at the end of sentences, for example:
This is the reason we write for.
This is the subject I’m interested in.
The name he was known by.
These examples can actually be made stronger by changing the sentence structure and thus improving them:
This is the reason we write.
This is the subject that interests me.
The name for which he was known.
There are times, however, when prepositions are required and the sentence is better with them, so understandably this is a subject of debate. The point is, it’s another one of those grammar rules you probably learned at school, but it’s one that should be tackled with some thought. If the sentence cannot work without the preposition, then use it. If it can be improved by removing it and re-writing the sentence, then do so, but don’t rely on them too much. One good example is William Shakespeare:
We are such stuff as dreams are made on.
It may not be truly grammatically correct, but the effect and emphasis that he wanted works.
Avoid Sentence Fragments.
A sentence fragment is not a complete sentence. If you do a grammar check with Word, you will notice that it will flag up what it thinks are incomplete sentences. But the thing with fragments sentences is that not all of them are mistakes. Some are deliberate and are intended for style and voice, for example:
She knew it was time. Like now.
The cold crept over him. Predatory. Hungry.
She remembered many summers. Such as those of her childhood.
For writers, it’s all about choice and the intended meaning, so if it enhances the narrative, use them. If they don’t add anything to the narrative, then don’t use them and reconstruct the sentences to make them better.
Avoid One-Sentence Paragraphs
This is another one that is taught to kids, but really should be ignored.
A paragraph can, essentially, be any length you want it to be. It can be one word or a hundred words. As long as the point of it is understood by the reader, then a one sentence paragraph is as good as any other.
In Part 2 we’ll look at more grammar ‘rules’ that can be bent and broken in order to create better, more emphatic narrative.
Next week: Some Grammar Rules Can Be Broken – Part 2
Saturday, 9 May 2015
Writers are faced with lots of choices when it comes to writing, especially so when writing a novel – things like choosing the right characters, the right themes to enhance the plot, choosing the right setting, and even choosing the right beginning and ending. But there’s one thing that still make many writers stumble, and that is making the right choice of tenses.
Getting the tenses right is essential for ensuring the writer gets the most from his or her story. If told in the wrong tense, or written with a lack of understanding and knowledge of tenses, the result will be dreadful. Get the tense right, however, and everything falls into place.
This begs the essential question. How do I know which tense to use?
Whatever the tense, there are advantages and disadvantages.
Most novels are written in past tense. It’s the easiest and most expressive tense to work with, but there are novels written in present tense, too, which is less expressive and more difficult to get to grips with.
Of course, once you have chosen whether your story is past or present tense, you have to maintain that tense throughout the story. And that’s when the trouble starts. Past tense is easy, but present tense almost always makes writers begin tangling their tenses.
So what exactly is tense?
Tense refers to the way a verb ends (usually –ed for past tense and –s for present tense, for instance, ‘He started the car’ is past tense and ‘He starts the car’ is present. This is why your story will either be written in past tense or present tense, using first person or third person, for example:First person past tense – ‘I knew from her expression she hated it...’
First person present tense – ‘I know from her expression she hates it’
Third person past tense – ‘He knew from her expression she hated it’.
Third person present tense – ‘He knows from her expression she hates it’.
Consider this excerpt, taken from my short story Voices (published 2012):
The stench of humanity poured from open pores in Deckert’s skin, but no matter how many times he wiped his face and hands, the clammy discharge wouldn’t go, and in his frayed mind, the glistening perspiration looked more like streaks of blood.
The description is past tense, thus allowing more emotion and imagery. Not only that, but there is no authorial voice to intrude the narrative. If I had written it in present tense, it would look and read very differently:
The stench of humanity pours from open pores in Deckert’s skin, but no matter how many times he wipes his face and hands, the clammy discharge will not go, and in his frayed mind, the glistening perspiration looks more like streaks of blood.
While the integrity of the example hasn’t changed, the structure and readability has. The narrative voice is a little more intrusive and the emotional effect is lessened.
The point here is that the writer must choose the right tense in order to create the right effect for the reader.
Should tenses change?
There will be occasions where the tense should change, for instance, to show something from the past such as a memory or flashback. This is quite permissible in present tense stories, because by its definition, a recollection of actions in the past has to be written in past tense. This is known as past pluperfect tense.
There are other times when writers have used both present tense and past tense in novels. This works if they are treated separately, i.e. by new scenes or new chapters, but tenses should never become mixed in the same scenes/chapters, and of course this happens all the time when writers attempt present tense, particularly first person present tense.
Problems with Present Tense
Present tense is difficult to write over an entire work because it has a tendency to fool the writer into slipping into past tense without even realising. That’s because some sentence structures can blur the distinction between what is present and what is past, for instance:
I climbed the stairs, aware of how dim the hallway was, and I slowly walked to number 109, feeling wary yet excited to meet her, knowing this is the moment I’m waiting for.
The error with this example lies in the fact that it’s inconspicuous. The tense changes halfway through the sentence from being first person past tense to first person present tense with, ‘...this is the moment I’m waiting for’. It’s that easy to slip from one tense to another, without realising.
The present tense also limits and suppresses the creation of suspense, tension, emotions and atmosphere, because the main character is restricted – he or she cannot possibly know what will happen or what is around the corner (which can be done in past tense), what character B is doing lurking on the stairs, because the writer is working with ‘I’. Everything is done from the main character’s viewpoint, so it’s impossible for that character to have any knowledge of future events in the story. It limits the range of expression and emotion that would otherwise be explored in third person past tense. That is why present tense is more difficult to tackle than past tense. But if it’s so problematic, is present tense actually useful?
It’s well known that present tense creates ‘immediacy’. That’s because the main character is the narrator, and the reader is right there with the main character, sharing all those personal thoughts and points of view. This is why present tense works wonderfully for short stories – it’s more personal and intense.
Present tense can also enhance characterisation because by virtue of the narration, because everything is seen through the eyes of the main character. Similarly, present tense is also a good way for the writer to drive the story forward, through the main character’s actions, dialogue and thoughts.
Is Past Tense Better?
It would be wise to write in the past tense until you gain more confidence writing present tense.
Past tense allows the writer to explore everything; it allows the viewpoint to change from character to character, this allowing the reader to become privy to all manner of things, it allows them to share the information from characters, to see what lies ahead in the story, to become involved in the emotions, conflicts, atmosphere, suspense, action and tension.
Past tense makes it possible to explore. That’s because the events of the story have happened in a short determinable past, hence past tense. Present tense cannot tell the events in any other way but the present, the now.
The thing to remember with past tense is that writers make fewer mistakes. And that’s because it’s almost impossible to jump from past to present in the same sentence and context, in contrast to how easy it is to slip from present to past to present again.
So, when you consider the story you want to write, make sure you write it in the tense that best tells your story and conveys exactly what you want it to say, but don’t attempt a full length novel in first person unless you know precisely how to handle tenses.
Next week: Some grammar rules can be broken
Sunday, 3 May 2015
Continuing a look at too much versus too little description, in part 2 we’ll look at how writers should actively strike a balance between the two so that the resulting novel doesn’t have too much and doesn’t end up with too little.
In Part 1 we looked at why too much or too little can become negatives, but also how they can work for the writer in some aspects, i.e. having less description in action scenes in order to keep the pace, and more description in longer, tense, atmospheric or emotional scenes etc, which enhances the reading enjoyment.
Where description is concerned, it really is a matter of balance.
Lacing the Narrative
Description isn’t just about describing the obvious in manageable chunks – sometimes description is about subtlety and dropping hints.
Many writers lace their scenes with description by blending dialogue and description or with character actions and description. For example, here’s simple dialogue and description:
‘Nearly there...’ He hauled the log into place. Sinews rippled; dark sun-kissed skin taught with tension. ‘That’s the last one.’
In this simple example, instead of saying ‘He was a strong, well-built man and could lift the logs with ease’, the description tells the reader he’s strong because it shows his sinews rippling as he lifts the log. The reader also knows that his skin is tanned by the mention of ‘sun-kissed’.
With character actions and descriptions, the writer can reveal more about the character, motivations and otherwise unknown details that help the reader build a picture. For example:
Further along the ridge he noticed more people, which only made him more anxious. He hadn’t counted on the warm weather bringing so many people to the park. Months of meticulous plans teetered on an imaginary ledge and now panic – something he’d never felt before – stuttered through his veins.
You’ll notice that the character not only reveals something about himself and his motivation, but also what he is noticing around him. This is important if you want your readers to see things from your character’s perspective. By making such observations, you make the story inclusive for the reader; it will get them more involved, not only with your character, but with the story.
What is Good Description?
Good description does several things – it provides details, it moves the story along, it reveals characters and it heightens emotions and senses, whether it’s fast action, whether it’s a slower love scene, a reflective scene or a scary scene full of atmosphere and tension.
Good description provides imagery, but doesn’t become flowery. It uses more nouns and verbs and less adjectives and adverbs. It enhances the narrative rather than weaken it and there’s just enough to keep the reader sufficiently interested, entertained and desperate to read the next page rather than putting them to sleep through sheer boredom.
Know When to Describe
Easy said than done, right? The more you write, the more you learn about when to describe, because everyone knows that the type of description either slows down the pace or speeds it up. That means knowing when to describe a key scene. In other words, your description should have purpose – to move the story forward, to provide detail, reveal character and heighten emotions and senses.
Know What to Describe
If left to their own devices, writers will write about everything.
What you describe is as important as the rest of the story. Describe only what is important, what is necessary and that which enhances the story. Important scenes, action scenes, emotional scenes, reflective scenes – the scenes that serve a purpose and provide perspective. These are what you need to describe.
So, the original question was Too Much v. Too Little Description? Description should always advance your story but never restrict it. It should have a balance, therefore it should never have too many large descriptive chunks (or pages and pages) nor have so few descriptions that the novel looks threadbare.
Goldilocks wins every time: not too much, not too little, but just about right.
Next week: Avoid getting Tenses in a Tangle.