How much is too much (or too little) description in fiction?

The echo of automatic gunfire bounced off the gray, cement buildings, making it impossible to pinpoint the direction of the threat. Trash scuttled along the gutter in a stiff jab of wind. Sand stung her eyes.

The girl crouched in a doorway, the stench of sour cabbage and old grease washing over her from inside. She gnawed on the nail of her little finger and tried to remember the map of streets between here and the old railroad yard. She couldn’t afford a mistake now.

The rapid cracking of more shots just a block back along the street forced the matter. She darted out, along the wall and away, slipping through the rubble like a little brown squirrel, lightning quick and nearly silent.

Some of the most common questions I get from students are on the issue of description in fiction—how much, when and where?

Creatove Commons image via Pixabay

Creatove Commons image via Pixabay

Budding writers often receive lavish praise for description in school. Most general education teachers and even a distressing number of creative writing instructors, view almost all description favorably. It is creative, after all. It fills up assignment page quotas at a gallop and the students who use description are refreshingly motivated.

What isn’t there to love about it?

Well, lots actually.

Writing description is like playing the piano. Unlike most musical instruments, pianos make nice-sounding notes with the press of a key. All you have to do to feel like you are playing the piano and making nice sounds is to play the keys with a bit of grace and not bang on them. Once a small child learns to stop banging and to press individual keys, the sound is relatively pleasant and even pretty at times. It is motivating because it is easy and it garners praise.

But just as playing real music on a piano is a far cry from that gentle random tinkling, writing great description is complex, requires long practice and is immeasurably more rewarding than the initial experiments.

Here are the crucial questions to consider when writing description.

1. What is description and why do you need it?

After they discover that their initial descriptive prowess does not actually make regular people—who are neither their teachers nor their parents—want to read their writing, many beginning writers careen violently in the other direction. They strip all description out of their fiction and stick to action verbs and dialogue, like it’s a fundamentalist religion. Some very stereotypical fiction (and screenplays) can be done this way, but it has the staying power of popcorn.

Description is part of how we convey setting, character and mood to the reader. More importantly, it is the gateway through which the reader enters the world of your story. While a gripping plot and excellent dialogue are arguably more important on every page of a story, description opens the door for your reader.

We experience fiction primarily through our senses—sight, hearing, smell, touch and taste. It isn’t the actual page we see or even the movie screen. In order for a reader to fall deeply in love with a work of fiction, recommend it to their friends and make sure to read everything else by the same author, that reader must experience the story to some degree physically. It’s description that jump-starts that process.

The reason why narrow genre fiction needs less of it is that there are already a lot of description assumptions that readers come into each story with. The entire genre aids in developing the sensory experience. Even there, description plays its essential role, only in a different way.

2. What description is not

Description is not plot or story and it never can be. It can’t even be character, though it can try.

It’s like the old adage that children do what their parents do rather than what they say. Description is like a parent telling a child to do something. If done well, it may be memorable and valuable. But if it isn’t backed up with coherent actions and purpose it won’t matter for long.

Description may be enough for a newspaper article in the features section. There we describe characters, locations, scenes and social dilemmas and leave them for the reader to resolve. But despite the literary-term “character sketch” description does not make a story.

Problems and actions attempting to resolve problems make stories. Description may help. That’s all.

3. How do I know if I put in too much description?

The grip that a work of fiction has on the reader is like a kite string. When I edit a work of fiction it feels as if I am flying a kite. The kite is the reader and the taut string is the pull that keeps them reading. The first rush of the opening must be a powerful enough burst of speed to propel the kite up. But then if the kite is driven only by the pilot running around on the ground and there is no wind (metaphorically plot), the kite would sail up for awhile and then drift dully to earth, just as surely as it would if you let go of it and let the wind take it entirely.

Tension in fiction is much like the tension in that taut kite string. It is the pull between the wind of plot events and the striving of the characters. It is the only thing that won’t let the reader drift away from your story.

All this is to say that description plays only an indirect role in the basic physics of the relationship between plot, character and tension. Description is crucial to the reader’s experience of the events of the story, but it must not interfere too greatly.

Excess description has the tendency to slacken the tension of that kite string. Too much and the kite falls, the reader loses interest and abandons the story for something more engaging.

So, as you read over your work in editing, keep that kite string in mind. Judging when the string goes slack is somewhat subjective and it certainly varies with tone and genre, but you can develop an intuitive sense for it. If you feel the line of tension through a scene slacken, look to the descriptive phrases in the scene. Too much description is not the only problem that can cause slack tension, but it is the easiest such problem to solve.

If cutting excess description helps then you have likely resolved the problem. Professionally this trimming of wordy text is called “tightening up the prose” and that refers to tightening the tension, just like a kite string.

Some writers today complain that classical writers had it easier, that they were allowed lengthy descriptions of landscape, clothing and the faces of characters, while readers won’t give us the same chance to develop depth in a story today.

There is some truth in this lament. Fiction used to be much more difficult to come by and readers were less likely to put a book down due to a bit of slackened tension. Today’s readers have a lot of distractions and even more options.

It is true that sometimes depth of description is sacrificed today to the gods of reader attention in ways that do not actually make for better writing. But the conditions of entertainment-scarcity of old were not necessarily superior. They allowed for some wonderful depth in some of our classical works, but they also spawned some very long-winded, boring drivel written by privileged white men who only got to be published and even mildly famous because of their random fortune of birth.

The bottom line is that today’s conditions are what they are. They force you to write tight, if you want readers, and that can be a good thing if you focus on honing description to be as powerful and evocative as possible.

4. How much is too little description?

There are modern examples of fiction with too little description. The plot may be snappy but it feels hollow and the reader cannot experience the story sensually. Any trend can become too extreme.

The basic role of fiction still hasn’t changed since ancient times. People read fiction to relax. While fiction often competes with various multimedia entertainments today, many readers seek out reading specifically for the quiet relaxation it offers. That means that we do need some description and quite a lot in literary, fantasy and romance genres.

All description, even in a literary genre where you can theoretically be more relaxed, should strive for brevity and power. The key is to provide a few “evocative” details that open the door of sensory experience and lead the reader’s senses to take over the task of description.

A story must have enough description, given all the circumstances of genre and readership, to start the reader’s brain on the sensory experience. This can often be done with a single phrase or even a single word if that little detail is well-known enough to the readership that the writer can be reasonably sure it will jump-start sensory memory.

If a fantasy author mentions “the smell of leather and sage” it is very likely that most fantasy readers will instantly connect to a sensory memory of just those smells and a lot of other details can be left out and assumed. This is because fantasy readers tend to be the kind of people to own leather items and to have visited places or shops that smell of sage. Such readers will start to see muted greens and earth tones in the clothing of the characters without the writer mentioning color. They may envision natural landscapes or faces roughened by weather, even if they aren’t described.

If a crime or detective author mentions “the blood and vomit spattered on the floor of the interrogation room” their readers will likely construct an entire scene in their minds complete with unfriendly, windowless gray walls, a single lamp, a bare table and a hard chair, even if they have never personally been in such a place because they read a genre in which such descriptions are very common.

This is a bit like cheating, but it is legal and in many cases desirable. You pick just the right detail and thus skip whole paragraphs of description, if your detail evokes a similar scene for your readership.

There are two methods in this kind of cheating—1. banking on reader experience and 2. exploiting genre conventions. The more you know your readership and your genre the easier it is to use details that will evoke sensory experience for those readers and thus free you from the need to provide further descriptive details.

Unfortunately, we can’t always count on enough shared experience between readers to do away with most description. This is another reason why some old fiction feels uninspiring to modern readers. Simply put, the author’s assumptions about our experience and what will trigger our sensual responses are no longer valid due to changes in our society.

There are also plenty of things you may want to describe in fiction which you can be pretty sure most readers have not encountered in physical life. In fact, if you are describing mostly only things that are so common to the genre that they don’t need much description, your work isn’t going to be very original.

So, description isn’t going out of style. Get used to it and use it skillfully.

5. How can I make my descriptions better?

Better in description generally means more “power.”

Power? Like short, snappy sentences?

Well, sort of. Shorter and more varied sentence lengths help, but when we say “power” in description it means the power to evoke and thus bring the reader into the story physically.

Fortunately, there are some fairly easy ways to increase the power of your description. This goes right back to elementary school, where you learned the parts of speech—verbs, nouns, adjectives and adverbs.

Verbs are inherently the most powerful part of human language. It is likely they were the first actual words, given that pointing likely took care of initial nouns for prehistoric people. Nouns are the next most powerful part of language, followed by adjectives.

The weakest of the non-grammatical, substantive parts of speech are adverbs. This is why your writing instructors and how-to books tell you to avoid them.

It is much better to use a verb that describes the entire action, as in, “The officers pounded up the steps and charged into the apartment,” rather than common verbs with adverbs, such as “The officers ran forcefully up the stairs and came into the apartment fast and furious.”

The first example happens to be shorter, but even if it somehow wasn’t technically shorter, it would more easily draw the reader’s senses into the story for reasons that go deep into psychology.

The same goes for nouns. It is better to be more specific with your noun than to use a common noun and an adjective. It is better to write “poodle” than “small, white dog” unless your narrative absolutely requires the vagueness.

Adjectives are weak enough that it is better to avoid them, if it doesn’t cause other complications in the text. Adjectives ending in -ly are notoriously the weakest of all. Many writers do a search for “ly” during editing and specifically analyze each adjective with that ending to see if they can safely cut any. This isn’t to say that you should never use them, only that it is worth looking to see if there is a stronger alternative.

If a paragraph was a savory soup, verbs would be the broth, nouns the meat and veggies, adjectives the salt and spices and -ly words would be things like protein powder and vinegar that you add to some soups when it is really necessary but would not want in any significant amounts.

This advice comes with one very large caveat, Almost every writer who has learned this step has at some point realized the wonderful tool of the thesaurus and been put under its evil spell for a time. Don’t get me wrong, your thesaurus is not inherently evil. It is a good tool for reminding you of descriptive synonyms you may have forgotten.

But whatever you do in writing, resist that temptation to go window shopping through your thesaurus and pick out a nice-sounding word that you aren’t otherwise acquainted with and stick it into your sentence because it is more interesting than its common alternative.

A good rule of thumb is that you should not use a word from a thesaurus if you have never encountered it in speech or in a written work that was not intended to describe the word itself. Your thesaurus is for reminding yourself of words you knew already, not for coming up with new words. There is nothing that screams “amateur” at readers more than a writer who appears to be using unfamiliar descriptive words.

Putting it all together

Honing your descriptions to make them brief and powerful will help your current story and boost your overall writing skills. It is also fun and just as description brings readers into the world of the story, it can transport you there as well.

And that crucial for coordinating scenes and writing great dialogue, but those are issues for other posts. Check out my other advanced writing tips here.

Winning fans is more than just hooking readers

As a senior in college I bombed out of my first journalism job interview on the question, "What is the most important thing in a newspaper story?" posed by a small-town newspaper editor.

I had given up on figuring out the "right" answers because the editor had already told me he didn't think a legally blind person (or even just anyone who couldn't drive) could be a newspaper reporter. He only asked this question to confirm his biases, so I told him my actual opinion.

"Good research and real facts." 

And arguably for many readers that is the most important focus of a newspaper story. But of course, I was wrong in journalism orthodoxy.

Creative Commons image by Glenn Strong

Creative Commons image by Glenn Strong

The standard answer to that question is "the hook." The hook is technically part of the lead, the first paragraph. The hook is often, though not always, the last sentence or phrase in the lead, something surprising, snappy, intriguing or shocking enough to force a good portion of readers to keep reading for at least a few more paragraphs. 

Journalism theory has it that it doesn't really matter if readers finish the article. The important thing is that they read enough of it and other articles in the paper to A. see the ads that fund the paper and B. decide they actually need the paper and subscribe. At least that was the theory, back when print newspapers were the primary form of journalism. 

There is a similar theory in the book industry today. The cover art, the blurb on the back of the book and the first few paragraphs of chapter one play much the same role as the hook in the days of old. And we still talk about "hooking readers." 

The idea is to give the reader a little thrill of recognition—"Ah! This is a book I'll like"—a sense of tribe. You play into the desires of the given genre and provide enough momentum and adrenaline to keep them reading. If you want to catch today's readers, swimming around in a bookstore or at an onlilne shop, you need something with some punch because there are a lot of distractions. 

Both the old journalism version and the modern book-selling version are true as far as they go. The journalism lead and hook got readers who were just casually perusing a paper to actually read it. I did eventually go on to learn to write a pretty good hook as an international newspaper stringer. Thank you very much, Mr. Small-Town Editor. 

But there is something that the doctrine of the hook does not take into account—a crucial factor that is the deal breaker in today’s book industry.

Let me illustrate with another story from the trenches. In 2007, I landed a prestigious Manhattan agent for a memoir. The agent loved my book but didn’t love my hook. She insisted that I rewrite it to put the most suspenseful and violent scene first and then handle the rest of the book as one giant flashback. This is done a lot and it isn’t actually as bad as it sounds, if it is done well.

Most of my memoir was about being a blind kid from the back of beyond who got scholarships and somehow ended up in the high-pressure world of international journalism. I started it at a crucial point of no return, while the agent wanted me to start it almost at the end of the chronological story because there was an incident that involved me running from a machine-gun toting mob in the midst of an interethnic skirmish in the Balkans, which is sadly a good part of my journalistic claim to fame.

I love to read memoirs in general. It’s probably the genre I read most and I am not the kind of reader who looks for shock and awe in the hook. I look for character and an engaging narrative voice. But I’m probably not the norm. So my opening, which focused on drawing the reader in through character and voice, made the agent nervous.

I rewrote the hook and made the agent happy. But the book still isn’t published.

It was well written as far as it went, but it was a journalistic memoir by a journalist who was never famous. It should have been a memoir of self-discovery by a blind person with too much to prove, because that would have at least stood a chance in today’s book industry.

But that would have required a different kind of opening, less the traditional hook and more voice and character.

What the editors of 42 publishing houses told the agent, which both of us should have known from the beginning, was that as good as the book was, no one cares if they don’t know the author. If it’s a book about a journalist, that is even more true.

In newspaper journalism “back in the day,” you were assuming the reader already had the paper in their hands. And many readers had no real choice about which paper they were going to read. They read the local paper and possibly one national paper. They could choose among the national papers but they weren't likely to switch just because of less than snazzy hooks. They were much more likely to switch if a paper proved to be either boring overall or full of shoddy research. 

No, the purpose of the hook was first and foremost about the ads around the article. Get eyes on the article and you had eyes on the ads. That’s what advertisers wanted and because they funded the paper, their interests were paramount.

Reporters also wanted to hook readers into their particular story, so their interests coincided with those of the advertisers when it came to writing a good hook. It was more important to a writer that a reader start reading their article than that readers would love them specifically. Bylines were small and usually unnoticed.

Today writers have to contend with a very different landscape. Audiences are much less captive. The hook may get a reader to start reading but if they stop reading immediately afterward because the writing is bad, the content is non-existent or the voice is boring, nothing is gained.

No matter how good your hook is, readers can and do pick up ebooks and stop reading them within a few pages. In some ebook systems, this even means that they don't have to pay for the book. Similarly blogs are only really helpful to the writer if readers come back again and again to the same blog. Hooks are still part of the equation but they are no longer the defining skill of a writer. 

Some ad-dependent bloggers will still use hooks in much the way old-school newspaper reporters did. There are snazzy, intriguing hooks and often a sad lack of any substance or resolution of the mysteries raised.

That isn’t my blogging strategy. The reason for that--beyond the fact that I'd rather work my day job as an ESL teacher than write boring copy--is that things have changed. Today the focus is on readers rather than on advertisers, and that's a good thing for writers. Frankly, writing to the taste of readers is much more fun than writing to the taste of advertisers.

Today a writer's job is not so much to hook readers for a few seconds but to win fans for years to come. We want readers to finish the post or the book and then reach for another one and another one by the same author. That is what keeps the lights on so that writers can keep writing. 

Don't get me wrong. There are still gimmicks out there and people making money off of gimmicks but ultimately readers will figure out when something is a gimmick. There are people cranking out "ebooks" which consist of just a few pages of new material, while the majority of the pages in the book are stuffed with the author’s old material, old blog posts, promos of other work and so forth. The writing, even what new material there is, in these "books" is also not great. For some strange reason, the Amazon algorithms favor lots of releases by the same author in a short period of time, so there are people making some money that way until readers catch on. 

But what is it that will win real fans? What will grab the people who will remember an author's name and seek out the author's work or recommend it to their friends? 

Three things:

  1. Good writing craft,

  2. Consistent delivery of what a specific group of readers wants. 

  3. And a distinct and addictive author voice.

Readers become fans when the book or other material they are reading holds them in a kind of spell that feels very comfortable and which calls to them enticingly when they are doing something else. The elements that go into this spell are voice, character and story, usually in that order.

It can be argued that grammar, punctuation and spelling, the nuts and bolts of writing are an inherent part of voice. If your work is littered with typos, it is like your voice is squeaking. It isn't pleasant and it breaks the spell, no matter how lovely your characters or story are. But of course there is much more to voice than nuts and bolts.

Essentially, "voice" refers to the tone, humor, cadence, dialect and closeness of your narration. People read for a kind of human contact. It's like being friends and as such winning a fan is like being a good friend.

I don't say It's like "making a friend" because it isn't. Writers aren't friends with every reader. But readers feel a bond of friendship with favorite authors nonetheless. And if you, as a writer, can provide the kind of voice that your readers need to hear from a friend, then you're halfway home.

Naturally not every reader needs the same kind of friend or even the same kind of friend at all times. I sometimes read straight forward thrillers, sometimes epic fantasy and sometimes humorous YA, even though I'm over forty. Each of these genres plays a different role, much like different kinds of friends. Sometimes I need a more humorous friend, sometimes a serious one who gets the heavy despair I'm feeling in the world right now and has resilient grit.

So the first thing to remember about voice is that you can't please them all and you shouldn't try. The worst thing you can do to your writing--other than litter it with typos and convoluted grammar--is try to make it for "everyone." Something that is for everyone is necessarily bland. And while some authors may get away with bland, you'll notice that they are already famous. Not-famous writers like me and you will have to stand out and that means deciding who we're talking to (our target audience) and what kind of friend we're going to be (wry, dark, gritty, whimsical, etc.). 

Beyond that, voice is about making the reader comfortable. You don't want to be too long-winded but neither is this a contest to see who can use the least number of words, the way it often was in newspaper journalism. Readers today read to relax more than anything else. So your voice should be one that matches what your specific readers need and makes them feel good.

You want to have a clear and identifiable voice, so that a reader can pick up an unlabeled page of your writing and be able to name the author. That would be the ideal.

Just as the nuts and bolts of writing are a prerequisite in voice, understanding the specific needs and expectations of readers in your genre is crucial. It is possible to write in the gray areas between genres, though finding your readership will take longer. Genres need not be restrictive boundaries, but be aware that readers will latch onto you for something specific and the more you can consistently provide their the fix they need, the longer you’ll keep readers and the more they’ll turn into actual fans.

An old axiom says beginnings hook readers and endings create fans. My last post told you my low opinion of endings. I don't agree with the axiom anyway. It's a cliche that may have been true in another would where reading had a different position in our entertainment industry. Today, when you can access just about anything, anywhere, right this second, you need quite a lot of good stuff between the beginning and the ending.

On the bright side, what is hard for you is also hard for other writers. You don’t need all the fans, you just need your own tribe.

Advanced Writing Tips: Problematic and irritating disability tropes to avoid in writing

I'm going to make an assumption here. I'm assuming you as a writer, whether you have a disability or not, want to write pedal-to-the-metal, amazing plots with characters that grab readers by the throat and don't let go until they cough up cash for your next book. 

Or something like that. 

So this is not a whiny post about all the bad, prejudiced books out there that treat disability issues poorly. This is an Advanced Writing Tips post to help you avoid pitfalls that distract, lose and piss off readers. I happen to be legally blind, but I'm a writer first and I have to think things through when I write about characters with disabilities just like anyone else. 

Creative Commons image by Tim Evanson

Creative Commons image by Tim Evanson

We want our writing to be fresh and original. That goes without saying. We don't want to rehash the same stuff people have been doing for decades. That's boring. We also want our characters to be emotionally realistic (i.e. relatable for readers).  When it comes to writing about characters with disabilities it is all too easy to get sucked into cliched tropes that not only drag the story into old ruts but also make the characters more annoying than relatable.

And in many cases, even when the writing is good, tired tropes simply piss off readers with disabilities, who are at least 15 percent of the reading population and thus a hefty chunk of your market. An even heftier chunk if you count their close family members, who will likely be just as pissed off by annoying tropes.

One of the sticky problems of disability tropes is that avoiding one cliche too vigorously can make you stumble into another by accident. The most important thing to keep in mind when writing about a character with a disability is that people with disabilities are much more like abled people than they are different.

So if your character has a disability, that probably isn’t their main characteristic. It’s something of side importance most of the time, even if the story centers on something related to it. Your character has many interests that aren’t what you would expect from that sort of disabled person.

For example, I am legally blind but I’m pretty good at graphic design because I happen to have a brain wired for visual thinking. Bad combo but I didn’t get to pick. I’ll never be great at graphic design, which I might have been if my eyes weren’t screwed up. I am, on the other hand, terrible at music, which is often a stereotypical interest for blind characters. I do like music and I tried hard to play the flute for five years as a child but I was never very good. It was way harder to memorize all that music than it seems when blind musicians do it.

Other than that, here are the most common story pitfalls to avoid when dealing with a disabled character:

Creative Common image by Wheelchair Basketball Canada 

Creative Common image by Wheelchair Basketball Canada 

  1. Bounce-back magicians: Characters who become disabled and immediately (within months, weeks or even days) are able to function in amazing top form, handling everything without help and having better developed other senses or muscles. (Yes, people with disabilities find other ways of accomplishing things and can function fast and happily in almost every situation a abled person can but it takes years to learn the specialized skills, to develop different muscles and to learn to read other senses to compensate for a sensory loss. It takes years and often specialized training and education. There are already way too many stories and movies out there about a disabled character's miraculous recovery and given the propensity of fiction to speed up medical miracles, we come across characters who adapt unrealistically quickly. This is not only old and boring, it is also highly annoying to people actually struggling with these issues. There are very few stories or movies that portray a realistic struggle and show the grit of real people with disabilities. Possibly a good plot line or six there.)
  2. Superheroes in non-magical stories: Characters with super powers or super sensitive senses where they don't belong. (I am legally blind and I can throw pebbles across a ditch to tell how far I have to jump by sound, I can often sense obstacles by echolocation and I can almost flawlessly tell what my young children are up to in the other room by hearing. But I am sick to death of the cliched character who is a martial arts master and totally blind, who can hear how their opponent is swinging a sword so precisely that they always win easily. Yes, blind people sometimes appear to have super hearing to sighted people but controlled hearing tests show that we have no better technical hearing ability than anyone else. What is true is that people who have lived without a particular sense for a long time (think decades) learn to pay much more attention to their remaining senses and interpret meaning from things others would ignore. People with various disabilities have adapted skills that abled people have because they are not forced to practice such specific skills minute by minute for years. But this is about skill and muscle, not super powers. Despite my abilities in interpreting sounds, I'm still pretty tone deaf and have a terrible ear for recognizing voices. There are things you can train and things you can't. Keeping this realistic and ensuring that your disabled character has had years to adapt to their disability, if you want them to be really skilled, are essential to making characters relatable.)
  3. Gracious suicides: Disabled characters who nobly commit suicide to escape their unbearable existence and reduce the burdens on abled characters. (This is another type of trope entirely and it is the kind that will get your book or movie thrown across many rooms with enough force to break the binding. The movie success of "Me Before You" has made this trope famous recently but it has been around for decades, probably centuries. If you have any confusion on this, here's the crux. Being disabled is not an unbearable existence and portraying people with disabilities as a burden whose best shot at heroism is to commit suicide to lift their burden from others is wrong in so many ways. But from the writer's perspective it is just cliched, overdone and old hat. It is also maudlin and melodramatic, and it relegates a major character to a paper cutout prop for other characters. Just don't do it. Euthanasia can be explored in much more realistic and mature ways.)
  4. Inspiro-porn stars: Characters whose primary purpose is to inspire others through their stoic courage despite suffering. (There’s a term for this. It’s called “inspiration porn.” It’s like porn because it is designed to generate a strong, involuntary emotional response in the reader/viewer and it makes the reader/viewer feel good and almost euphoric for a short time at the expense of reducing another person or character to a prop for the edification of others. People with disabilities are not any more stoic than other people and they shouldn't be expected to be. Disabled characters should be allowed to become overwhelmed and emotional about difficult things in their lives, related to disability or not, just like any other characters. Certainly, if you are writing about a hardened detective or other James-Bond type hero who happens to have a disability and he/she is stoic and doesn't complain when their arm is severed in a fight because that's just what kind of individual he/she is, that's a different matter. But it is not “courageous” to simply live with a disability and not go kill yourself (see trope #3). Most people with disabilities live pretty happy lives where their struggles are often not related to their disability. It can be irritating to deal with a society that isn’t ready to include our differences, but it isn’t like we lie in bed in the morning and muster the courage to live. We muster the patience to deal with ableist barriers and weird social reactions but that’s more patience than courage. It can take a lot of mental struggle for people who are newly disabled to see that their new situation is livable but people handle it in various ways due to temperament and all of those ways are normal and acceptable. Here too there are several good potential plot lines that have rarely, if ever, been explored.) 
  5. The crip in distress: The dependent invalid or the one who must be saved. (This is less common today but it used to be a big trope. It is still very tired. No one really wants to read stories where a secondary character is a disabled child or other who the hero is going to save from their terrible fate. I'm not going to belabor the point. Just avoid doing this. When you need a hero to save someone in order to be heroic, it is always better to make the person being saved a three-dimensional character as well. What would be a cliched "rescue plot" can gain immense punch with more careful characterization.)
  6. Last-minute cures: The plot arch in which the cure of the disability is the solution to the plot problem. (This is a huge one today,, which has kind of taken over the 19th and early 20th century trope number 5. I see stories far too often today where the plot revolves around a character wrestling with the psychological and physical effects of a disability. Sometimes the character is a mess and has to learn the courage and stoic fortitude in trope number 4 or the adaptations in trope 1 and toward the end of the story he or she does adapt and things look okay, tolerable and the disability is mastered. But the author betrays their internal belief that disability is still too terrible and the disability is cured in the end. So the character finds that they could live well with such a disability and then they are rewarded with a cure that takes the disability away so they don’t have to. This isn’t impossible in terms of a realistic event narrative but it has been done and done and done and it is far from the norm of disability. It displays an underlying assumption in society and on the part of the author that no adaptation or psychological resolution is actually good enough and the only positive outcome is to get rid of disability altogether.)
  7. Pre-adventure cures: The disabled character who is magically cured at the beginning of the story so that they can go on an adventure or be a hero. (This is a minor but highly annoying fantasy trope. Sometimes my pulse will quicken as I read the blurb on a new fantasy book that says the main character is disabled, only to find that the initial plot point is that the disability is magically cured, so that now the formerly sedentary protagonist can now go off on an adventure or become a hero. That's what happened in The Last Words of Will Wolfkin by Steven Knight. The message in stories like this is all too clear. People with disabilities are seen as helpless and useless. They can only be victims or people to be rescued, never a hero in their own right. This is a problem and the whole premise of the disability being cured in the first chapter is just weak and disappointing as a plot spur in any case.)
  8. Fakers and manipulators (This is one that will send me and many others into vicious bad review mode faster than any other. In fact, I’ll give a bad example right here as a bad review. Yes, I’m naming names. The Netflix series "The Good Wife" would be a fairly decent dramatic lawyer show except that it uses this trope several times. The one disabled major character in the show is a lawyer who slyly and manipulatively uses a tardive dyskinesia disability to derail arguments, manipulate judges, plead for sympathy from juries and so on and on and on. It is really all his character ever does. He is the only major disabled character and here this is finally a show with a disabled lawyer as a character. Another minor character is the son of a rival politician who has leukemia. The child is used as a media gimmick to gain public sympathy for an otherwise unsympathetic politician. The fact that this show uses both these "faker" stereotypes without including other people with chronic illness or disability points to some serious bigotry somewhere in the production chain. Abled people are likely to protest that “Well, this happens in real life!” In fact, it almost does not happen. It is exceedingly rare for people to fake a disability in public to gain sympathy and it is impossible to fake a disability medically given medical technologies today. People with real disabilities do not fake or exaggerate their difficulties to get attention or sympathy. Yes, I know some beggars pretend to be missing a limb or to be blind to get sympathy and donations. These people are rare anomalies who you see relatively often because they place themselves in highly frequented areas. They are a tiny fraction of reality. The trope in fiction and the stereotype in real life that some non-disabled people fake a disability and some disabled people exaggerate their difficulties to get attention, sympathy or advantages is so tired that the dead horse has decomposed. Furthering this trope is unforgivable today in a society where everyone should know better. Works that promote it actively harm people with disabilities and cause us to be accosted and accused of faking at random moments in public. Every time an book or movie portrays such a stereotype, real events result in which disabled children and adults are mocked and dismissed. Do not do it. It's like portraying a black person as a monkey. Sure, some black children eat bananas and jump up and down pretending to be a monkey, just like some white children do. It happens. But we don't do it in fiction for very good reasons. The same goes for fictional portrayals of people faking disability. Disabilities are extremely varied and you won’t always understand why a mother with a white cane on the train who uses a disability transport card is reading a printed book to her children (that would be me). But it is just the way optics work and no one is faking.)
  9. Charity applause: Disabled protagonists who are good "for a disabled person." (This is a particularly tired one but it still comes up sometimes in children's literature. Much may be made of a character's accomplishments because they are pretty good at something "for a disabled person." There is a legitimately difficult line to walk for writers here. It is natural to write about the accomplishments of someone against the odds. We all know that it is an achievement for a wheelchair user to play wheelchair basketball. And a sports story about a kid's dream to be a star in wheelchair basketball is fair game. But it isn't attractive or interesting if the point of the story is that everyone claps for little Jimmy who tries to play with the abled kids but he's really very bad at it and the climax of the story is the one time he makes a basket. He was so good, considering he's disabled, but really he was awful by any other standard. Boring.)
  10. Automatic no-threat sign: A character's disability used to show that they are not a threat in competition. (Sometimes a secondary character in a story has all the hallmarks of a good, positive disabled character. It's often the best friend or sidekick of the main character. The thing is that the secondary character is disabled, and the assumption is made clear in the story that this means the disabled character will always be the follower and is never a competitor for top jobs. This character is a great confidante when it comes to love interests because he/she is "obviously" not in the running for romance. This is overused and obviously annoying. It's also very boring.)
  11. Prince or princess Not Sexy: The disabled hero who wins everything except love. (This is a special little trope that crops up every now and then. The most famous example is probably "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" Disney musical. The hunchback did all the things most Disney princes do and won but instead of getting a beautiful princess and everlasting happiness in the end, his great prize is that he is tolerated in public. Causing your readers/viewers to gag on vomit during what is supposed to be the heartwarming end is usually not part of the plan. Don't do this.)
  12. Gimpiness as the evil trope: The villain who is obviously a villain because of a disability. (I am personally simply perplexed by this one. There are so many villains in modern culture who are disabled. They far outnumber the number of disabled protagonists. If any racial group was so universally portrayed as "the bad guys" it would be a topic of anti-discrimination activism. But today disability has replaced the dark visage as the quick and easy way to show who the villain is. They walk with a cane, breathe with a machine, need magic to keep their body together or whatever. There are theories about how this is related to a hard-wired human fear of deformity and disease. The first zombie movies were about AIDs victims and I am sure the cheap play on people's fears has something to do with it. But quick and easy or not, it is just as problematic as having all your villains be dark-looking. At the very least, we need to balance the number and major positioning of disabled protagonists.) 

I know this list might feel overwhelming. And contradictory. You shouldn't portray people with disabilities as too good but you can't make them villains either. You can't make your disabled characters too strong and resilient without risking them having "super powers" but you shouldn't let them become weak two-dimensional props in need of rescue either.

It often seems like it would be a lot easier to just not include characters with disabilities at all... which is what most writers have done for ages. The worst trope of all isn't actually on the list, because the worst message about disability that we can promote in our writing is voiceless obscurity. When we don't give a character here or there a disability we contribute to a society in which people with disabilities are ignored, dismissed and isolated. 

It may be hard to avoid the pitfalls, but it is worth it. Including a character with a disability in your story, even without making the story about that disability, opens up a large and hungry market for your work. When there is too little of something in books, readers want it. Write well about characters with disabilities and you'll get a boost in reader loyalty and discoverability. 

So do write about characters with disabilities. Just do it smart.

Writer-to-writer critique: the boot camp of the craft

The simple technique that will teach you to write better than any other method, class or book

For as long as there have been story-tellers, we have commented on one another's work. Writers, poets and bards alike--we are a mouthy bunch.

Sometimes these comments have taken the form of criticism, ridicule, jealousy or insult. And many writers and story-tellers have been greatly harmed by the comments of others, suffering blows to confidence and motivation. 

Creative Commons image by Robert Couse-Baker

Creative Commons image by Robert Couse-Baker

And yet, the comments of fellow writers can contain gold. I know of no other way to learn the craft of writing faster or better than through the sincere cooperation between two or more writers. And based on the comments of some of my favorite famous authors, it seems clear that no writer is ever "beyond critique" or at a level where the comments of colleagues can no longer help. 

Critique--the term used to differentiate constructive criticism from tearing down another writer--isn't just useful. If done correctly it can also provide great motivation and pleasure. It is very rare that anyone, other than another writer, wants to discuss in detail the ins and outs of your writing project.

Even your most avid readers (and your immediate family) are likely to grow weary of your writerly obsessions. This isn't that different from any other profession. My husband and his buddies can bore me to tears with endless technical discussions about surveying and cartography. (Just measure it and draw a line already! What is the big deal?)

My husband assures me that even though I think my profession is creative, vastly more fun and endlessly interesting, he finds long conversations on the finer points of writing just as boring. And this is why we need fellow writers. 

While the practical method of writer-to-writer critique may be well-known and may in fact seem intuitive to many, I have found that parts of it strike fear in new writers or lead others to abuse the trust and claim authority they don't have. Beyond that readers often don't understand the tenants of the system through which their favorite books, movies and TV shows are made. 

It is worth setting down the rules for critique. This is a starting point for writers' groups as well as useful information for everyone involved in the process.

1. There are skills that can be learned in writing. Experience is to be respected.

2. At the same time, a writer of any level can usefully critique the writing of a writer of any other level. The critique may have different uses, but even the critique of a novice can be helpful to an open-minded master. It is at the very least the honest impression of a reader. No such critique should be dismissed out of hand or ridiculed. 

3. Critique may be done for compensation, in trade or simply in good faith. Critique does not have to be reciprocal but the terms should be agreed upon in advance. Critique is always of value, even if it is not compensated in which case it is a valuable gift of time and attention.

4. On average, about seventy percent of comments in any given critique will be useful or pertinent to the writer. No writer is obligated to agree with or to use suggestions made by a critique partner. 

5. Rules of grammar and style vary geographically, culturally and between genres. Arguments about the absolute correctness of a change have limited use. It is worth stating clear reasons for one's belief. Style and grammar guidebooks are useful sources. However, in the end the final decision of rightness in the given context is the prerogative of the entity taking responsibility for publication--be that a publisher or a self-publishing author. 

6. Differences of opinion are inevitable. There is no single best POV, tense, voice, distance or style. Intentional grammatical errors are not illegal and have their uses. Questions over dialogue tags are a matter of continued debate. It is worth listening to writers of long experience, but in the end each must form one's own path. Insults do not become us. 

7. Keep in mind that, as in any creative profession, a minimum experience of ten thousand hours of active writing is considered the initiation level for a professional. However, this line is arbitrary and denotes only a level of experience, not the rightness of one's arguments or the marketability of one's work.

8. By the same token, what is correct and most seemly in writing is not always what is most marketable. Each writer has his or her own goals for writing and it is not the place of a critique partner to judge, only to give the most honest advice that individual can give.

9. We all have biases. I love first person narratives. I recently met a fellow author who hates first person. It's just personal taste. We can't help but have such biases and when we read the work of other writers those biases will get in the way. The more aware you are of your own biases the more useful your critique will be. When unable to entirely get past biases it is worth stating that you are biased on a particular issue, so that the writer can keep that in mind. That said, completely avoiding critique partners with biases against your POV or stylistic choices can weaken your writing. Remember that readers have biases too and our goal is hone our craft in every way possible.

10. Critique means honest advice to improve a piece of writing. Pure and simple. That can mean spelling, grammar, punctuation, style, voice, plot or description advice and more. It does not ever mean judgment upon the abilities or prospects of the writer. That is beyond the bounds and is never an appropriate topic for comment. 

How to write dialogue readers will devour

When we read, what we really want is human speech--yelling, chatting, laughing, screaming. The reader's heart yearns for companionship and adrenaline.

If you can bamboozle the reader into the fictive dream and give them fantastic conversation within it, they'll never want to leave.

Good dialogue can be achieved by following some basic rules. Excellent, grab'em-by-the-pituitary-gland-and-never-let-go dialogue takes preparation. 

Creative Commons image by Lorena Cupcake

Creative Commons image by Lorena Cupcake

Here are the basic rules:

  1. Dialogue needs to be less formal than narration, even when it is between formal adults. Vocabulary should reflect spoken vocabulary, which is about one fifth of a character's reading vocabulary. You will not make your character sound dumb by having them use normal words. Overly formal dialogue with sentences too complete and words beyond the natural spoken vocabulary level of the type of character is the most common dialogue mistake by beginning writers.
  2. Reread lines of dialogue out loud and see if they sound natural. Use incomplete sentences, pauses, vague terms, extreme specifics and poor grammar where it is obvious that they would be used in real speech. But within reason! Dialogue must first and foremost be familiar and real to the reader. 
  3. Keep dialogue lines short. Most dialogue should be one sentence or less. Occasionally use two or three short sentences max unless your point is that the character is going on and on. And even then be cautious. Who wants to read in detail about a character giving a lecture?
  4. Dialogue should be more coherent and more concise than real speech. But remember "all things in moderation."
  5. Speech differences, slang and accents can be hinted at but do not change every word or sentence to match the difference or your text will become unreadable. Mark Twain was an incredible linguist and even so many readers have a very hard time deciphering his dialogue. Don't try this at home, folks. 
  6. Avoid obvious phrases of greetings and pleasantries unless you're emphasizing them to develop cultural setting (and even then do so sparingly). If two characters meet and each says "Hello, how are you?" hint that they did so in narration. Don't spell it out unless you have a damn good reason.
  7. "Late in, early out" applies because conversations are essentially scenes. Enter the conversation as late as possible while still giving all necessary information and leave as early as possible. Don't drag the reader through extraneous scaffolding.
  8. No "as you know, John" please! Do not have a character tell another character something both should logically know already simply in order to tell it to the reader. There are better ways to get facts across.
  9. And along with that last, don't "info dump" in dialogue. Work it in. Yes, "work" is the operative verb here. It is hard but it can be done. Information contained in dialogue must be primarily that which is natural for one character to tell another, not things the reader needs to know. Information for the reader can be contained in narration, setting and most importantly the behavior of characters.
  10. A note on tags: Mostly use the word "said." This is the exception to the rule you learned in high school language arts about using varied vocabulary and the most specific verb possible. The word "said" is almost invisible. Readers will simply understand who said something. Use other tags such as "stated," "argued," "cried" sparingly and only with good reason.
  11. A note on not using tags at all: In moderation, the tags can be cut altogether in some modern styles, especially in two-way conversations. As a general rule, tag the first lines of each character and then allow them to switch off. However, don't create strings of tag-less dialogue more than four switch-offs long. It forces readers to calculate rather than read. Try reading the dialogue aloud in a monotone and see if you would be confused about who is talking. The point is not to make the reader work. Readers are supposed to be in the fictive dream. Period.
  12. A note on actions as tags:  An even more advanced trick is to do away with standard tags involving "said" or an equivalent and use action and expression sentences instead. The key is to leave no doubt who is speaking without actually saying it. Example:  She ducked her head, looking at him out of the corner of her left eye. "I don't know. Do you think we should?" He coughed and spots of pink bloomed on his neck. "I... I..."
  13. On that note, consider the narration sprinkled in with the dialogue to be part of the dialogue itself. There have been some experiments with "dry dialogue," meaning using only the actual spoken lines without any indication of the character's actions or expressions. Usually these experiments also rely on a minimum of tag lines and they fail spectacularly. I'm not saying don't experiment, but gaining readers through this kind of experiment is equivalent to winning the lottery. It's extremely unlikely but writers do it anyway because experimenting is how everything good got invented.  When you're done experimenting and ready to write a story, make sure your dialogue includes lines of action. It is best if something is happening in the plot while the characters are speaking. But if your characters must have a conversation in which they are mostly just sitting there, you still need actions and the more sedentary the characters are the more detailed the actions need to be. Show the minute motions of hands, a flicker of emotion or picture what your character is reaching for. Watch people talk in real life. Very few people just sit motionless while they talk and if they did we would definitely notice it and put that in narration.
  14. Use the time warp. Finally, there is a strange sort of time warp that happens in fictional dialogue. Usually it means time passes more quickly in the story than the lines of dialogue can account for. Let's say ten minutes passes in your fictional world while your characters have a leisurely conversation. That conversation will probably only be four to five dialogue lines long. You then assert that ten minutes passed and the reader will feel like ten minutes really did pass. The exception would be if there is extreme tension, such as characters waiting for a timed bomb to explode in their faces. In that case a lot more than four or five dialogue lines will be noted. It has to do with the attention to detail in a suspenseful situation. Subconsciously readers know that in a scene without life-and-death tension  you aren't reporting every motion or word spoken to them. They expect you to tell only the important parts. But in a scene in which utter disaster and/or death is imminent, you are expected to tell much more. Doing that well is a matter of maintaining tension, however, and that's another post entirely.

That's how you write tolerably good dialogue. But if you want to write sizzling, page-burner dialogue, you'll need more and the ingredients are difficult to put into hard and fast rules. This is more about preparation of the writer than it is about a list of tips.

First, read a ton of the type of fiction you want to write and other types of fiction as well (for balance and perspective). Pay attention to the dialogue. When you really love some dialogue, stop and analyze it. Look at how long the dialogue lines are, what kind of phrases they use, if they use any complete sentences.

Think about the characters you most love in fiction and go through books, looking specifically at their lines of dialogue. Dialogue is much of what makes character. Observe how the character speaks. Is it consistent?  Again, what types of phrases and sentence structures does the character you love use?

Take note of these things either in your brain or on paper and keep reading and noticing. In time, the simple act of paying attention will improve your writing.

Creative Commons image by Jason Lander

Creative Commons image by Jason Lander

Record conversations and listen to them. Today in the world of smart-phones this has never been easier. Record a family argument. Record a boring meeting. Record your friends hanging out and shooting the shit. Then transcribe some conversations. Write down EXACTLY word for word what was said. Include all the messy stuff, um's... repetitions, confusion. Notice how simple the vocabulary is and how incomplete the sentences are.

Then take those transcriptions and change the statements to make them as short as possible while still containing all the important information. Remove repetitions. Leave sentence fragments and a few important pauses that carry meaning. Clean up the grammar just enough to make it understandable. Do this for as many hours as possible. The awesomeness of your dialogue will be in direct proportion to how many hours of transcription you do. 

Then before you sit down to write a scene of dialogue, sit back and imagine it. Close your eyes if necessary and play it like a movie in your head. At first this will not be easy. The better you know your characters and the emotional undercurrents going on at that moment in your plot, the easier it will be. But keep at it.

The first dialogues with new characters may need revision later, but don't worry about it. Do the best you can with your mind-movie in the beginning. Play it out.

Then write. If you can, let your mind hear the voice of the character as you write the line of dialogue. If your brain doesn't do that, reread the lines as yo go, imagining your character's voice and the expression on their face and on the faces of those listening. Get the emotion of the moment in your own head, even if it is hidden between the lines of a constrained setting or repressed by formal characters. 

Finally, after you have written the dialogue go back over it in editing and read it aloud. Try reading it in a monotone and ensure that you still know who is supposed to be speaking by context, tags and word choice. Also read it with a semblance of the voices and emotion appropriate to the scene. Does it sound realistic? Do people of that type actually talk this way?

If the answer is "No, but I want them to talk this way," you need have a long talk with yourself about what your goals in writing are. If you want to create dialogue that will reach out and grab your readers and hold on with unbreakable tentacles, then you've got to face the fact that readers will read what puts them into the fictive dream. And that dream is broken when characters sound fake. No if's, and's or but's about it. 

If the answer is "I don't know," go back to the beginning of the preparation. The problem may be that you don't have enough experience with people in whatever specific cultural, age or professional category you're writing about. Start specifically reading stories about people of the type your characters are. Analyze how they talk. Let it absorb into you. If possible, record some conversations involving people of the type you are writing about. Transcribe. Keep doing it and great dialogue will come. I promise.

This method works. You may have to modify bits of it to suit the way your own brain works, but in essence this is it. Dialogue is very particular. To be good, it has to follow some pretty strict rules. To be spectacular, it needs to make the reader forget they are reading and feel like they are in the conversation. That takes time, practice and quite a bit of intuition. 

Best wishes and keep writing!

Using the full power of language in description and metaphor: Advanced writing tips

The roar ravaged his ears, the cacophony deafened him, and he swooned into mindless unconsciousness...

Quite. 

Creative Commons image by Brandi Redd

Creative Commons image by Brandi Redd

That is what happens to readers who read purple prose, if they don't just toss the book and find something better to read. Fortunately for the readers, most of them do toss such books.

And the writers cry in lonely despair, "But it was such a beautiful phrase!"

Writing students often justify embellished prose by claiming that they wish to use the "full power of the English language" or that they refuse to "dumb down" their writing with common and simplistic words. While using the full power of our incredibly versatile language is a worthy goal and I am not in favor of dumbing down writing to the lowest common denominator, neither of these goals really have anything to do with the use of purple prose.

Purple prose is something to be avoided. Period.

And yes, as with many things in writing there is a fine line between purple prose and style. But we can get to that.

What is purple prose?

Purple prose arises when a writer:

  1. Uses unknown words from a thesaurus in order to appear sophisticated or learned or simply to vary word choice. The key issue here is the use of UNKNOWN words. A thesaurus is a good tool and varying word choice is a good idea. But the words you choose must be words you have seen in use and are comfortable using, not one you just looked up today. 
  2. Repeats the same information in multiple descriptor words. This is one reason why writing "mindless unconsciousness" is a bad idea. When a writer is first thinking through ideas, descriptors will often be repeated in verb, noun, adjective and adverb. This is what first drafts are for. Experienced writers nail these repetitions in editing and make sure each word says something new.
  3. Exaggerates or creates logical impossibilities with description. The key to good writing is allowing the reader to experience and usually to visualize the scene. Exaggerations don't help and logical impossibilities stop visualization cold. I know that mostly we're talking about fiction, so you might ask how I know if someone is exaggerating in fiction. Take for example my statement that  "the roar ravaged his ears." While certain extreme body metaphors are permissible--"Her voice was strangled," for instance--we have to be careful with that. Trying to picture a sound that ravages someone's ears throws the reader off. Test such phrases by visualizing them. If it looks like a cartoon and you aren't writing a cartoon, then don't do it. 
  4. Employs more and longer words than necessary to impart information, atmosphere and style. This is the most thorny of the issues, because some styles do call for a bit of "flowery" language. Where would fantasy and historical fiction be without a good turn of phrase. But there are ways to distinguish style from purple prose. They usually go back to the first three problems in this list in some form. Purple prose often over-describes in multiple ways, uses a longer and less-known word when a shorter one would do just as well and/or drives all descriptions to extremes. But there are times when a writer simply wallows in description, dragging the hapless reader along until the reader gives up and goes to find something with more plot (i.e. conflict).
Creative Commons image by Alice Popkorn

Creative Commons image by Alice Popkorn

No reader enjoys purple prose. Some writers will argue with this because writers sometimes enjoy their own purple prose. But writers don't really count as their own number one reader. Purple prose isn't legitimate description, which may bore some but inspire others. Purple prose is always boring, annoying and embarrassing. 

That said, almost all writers go through a stage of purple prose and many of us struggle to weed it out in editing even as professionals. Struggling with the demons of purple prose is no sin. Allowing them to cavort drunk and unhindered through the temples of our word gods is.  

Fortunately, the methods for stamping out purple prose and making your descriptions shine twice as bright are relatively simple. Here are the basics:

  • Say what you mean. Get the image or other physical sensation of your scene in your mind and show it.
  • Know the full (surface, secondary and deeper) meanings of words. Study dictionaries, notice how words are used, and use words you know well. 
  • Be specific. Use the most specific noun or verb you can think of. If you write an adjective or an adverb be aware that you do so only because you do not know a noun or a verb that can replace this particular combination of adverb and verb or adjective and noun. If you mean "hurry," don't say "go quickly."
  • Whenever choosing between two words that mean the same thing, use the shorter or more common of the two. This isn't primarily about helping a wide range of readers to easily understand your story, although it may help with that. It isn't the same as dumbing down, which is more about content than anything. This rule really just makes your writing better, smoother and more intelligent. It is an odd but undeniable fact that too many long words make a writer appear unsophisticated and pompous. 
  • When editing, read through your paragraphs and cut out any word that can be cut without changing the meaning of the paragraph. At first you'll have to experiment with taking out a word and rereading over and over again, but eventually your brain will start identifying likely culprits automatically. Start with adverbs, interjections, prepositions, adjectives and exclamations. Always look at "really," "just" and "still." There are many times to use these words. But if you can take them out without changing the connotations of the sentence, do it.
  • Identify words and phrases you personally use too often. Then do a search with your word processor and look at each instance in your story. Try to get rid of any repetitions of the same word or phrase that are unnecessary. Each of us has a certain style and more over we go through phases in which certain words or phrases pop out constantly. This is normal, but it should also be kept in check. Repetition, when used, should be deliberate and purposeful, not accidental.

On top of these common guidelines, there are a few specific tips professed by George Orwell, the father of the genre of dystopia and a writer of extraordinary clarity and descriptive prowess: 

  • Don't use any metaphor or analogy, you've seen more than once. A good general rule, though there are times to break it. If you set that as your goal, you will be much less likely to riddle your story with cliches. 
  • Use active voice whenever you can and use passive voice only when you have no other choice. Beginning writers learn that "passive voice" is bad. And it usually is. But when you need it you really need it. If you need to show the unwillingness of characters to disclose who did something, you will definitely need passive voice. It is said that you identify passive voice by looking for the word "was" but that can be misleading. Don't confuse passive voice with past continuous. You can recognize passive voice by asking "Who did it?" as if you're a detective. If the answer is not at the beginning of the sentence or phrase, the verb is passive. So "she was shocked" is passive. But so is "she is shocked."  And "they were shocked." Who shocked her/them? It's not at the beginning, so it's passive. However, "Her mouth was gaping open" is not passive. It is past continuous and depending on the context and style, it may be correct.
  • Don't exaggerate, especially if it's "only" fiction. This bears repeating. Say what you mean. Give the reader the true image of your story.

Finally two advanced tips from my own hard won experience. 

  • Never use a phrase or word because it "sounds good."
  • And kill your "babies."

These two rules are related. In the professional jargon of writers a "baby" is any word, phrase, plot twist or device that you are unreasoningly attached to during the editing stage. You will notice the pull of these bits. They are the parts that make you smile when you run across them and yet they rarely entrance anyone else. You know for sure that you have a "baby" when you find yourself thinking or saying, "But it just sounds so good!" or "It's only that I really like it that way."

These are red flags. 

Sure, we are allowed to have preferences, but if your only defense against problems with a word, phrase or plot twist is that you like it, then you should almost certainly get rid of it. This is painful but will vastly improve your writing. It is called "killing your babies" because all writers know the pain of it but we have to laugh at ourselves a little in retrospect. If you look back on the "baby" phrases and words you were so attached to a year or so ago you will know what I mean.

This is a safe place for writers and readers alike to discuss these issues. I read all comments and I love to hear from you. What are your experiences with using description and metaphors? Any particularly harrowing stories about "killing your babies?" Comments of your own experience are always welcome. We are concerned with improving our own writing, rather than judging others. 

The #1 secret to writing gripping characters

When I was in high school my teachers, mentors and family members gushed praise over my talent as a budding writer. I'll bet that if you're reading a post about the secrets of the writing craft, yours did too... or perhaps they still do.

Creative Commons image by UNC CFC USFK of Flickr.com

Creative Commons image by UNC CFC USFK of Flickr.com

I have seen many talented students in writing classes and writer's critique groups over the past twenty years. And there is one terrible affliction that affects them all at some point--the same one that has at times afflicted me. That is the belief that I had made it. 

I don't mean financially. There are only a handful of writers in the whole world who have made it financially through their craft. But I'll admit it. I've suffered through times when I thought I had become such a good writer that I had little left to learn of the craft. I'm glad to say that as I've gotten older, that particular affliction has recurred less and less often. 

Before you get offended and go off certain that you are the exception, sure that you have learned all the basics of writing and only need to polish the brightest jewels in your prose, please stop and consider. I was seventeen when an article I wrote in a small-town newspaper won a statewide competition. I didn't even have to submit the article. It was noticed all on its own. My first writing professor in college initially scoffed at the idea that I would double his required word count and make it all high quality as well. He wasn't scoffing after two semesters in which I delivered before every deadline. And yet when I look back on my writing from that time, I can only cringe and laugh and tell myself it is good that I've improved.

Creative Commons image by Stuartpilbrowof Flickr.com

Creative Commons image by Stuartpilbrowof Flickr.com

I had the spark and many others do too. I am not saying you're a hack, just that many new writers who are good still don't have the best skills of the craft. And after twenty years of writing non-stop, I stand in awe at all I have left to learn. 

So, don't despair. Keep your current writing in good clean folders and notebooks. Make sure you keep it safe. You will need it in ten or twenty years, when you will look back and be astounded by how far you have come. It will make you cringe but also give you courage. 

But I promised you the big secret of writing gripping characters, not all this blather about how much you have yet to learn. Don't worry. That wasn't click bait. 

It's only that my writing students have been teaching me that new and talented writers who can dance with language, produce dazzling sentences, craft sturdy and beautiful paragraphs and plot a snappy narrative believe they have it made and often refuse to consider technical terms. They assume they know the "rules" already, even when they don't. 

My writing students recently swore to me that they know what P.O.V. means. Their manuscripts tell another tale. 

So, I decided to put this out there. The single most important key to writing gripping characters is the correct and deft use of Point of View. As you probably already know, Point of View (abbreviated to P.O.V.) refers to the perspective your story is narrated from. It goes beyond the difference between first person versus third person. Or the mandatory caveat that stories can technically be written in second person, but that just because a thing can be done doesn't mean you should. 

There is also the difference between limited P.O.V. and omniscient, i.e. whether the reader feels like a bug sitting in your character's brain, listening to his/her thoughts and watching the action through his/her eyes, or feels like the God of monotheistic religions, sitting on a cloud and viewing the whole thing from above. As the terms hint, the former is called "limited" P.O.V. and the latter is called "omniscient."

Creative Commons image by Dennis Skley

Creative Commons image by Dennis Skley

If the terminology of "first person" and "third person" gives you trouble, here is an excellent beginner's guide to P.O.V. But what I am discussing in this post goes a bit beyond the bare bones. 

Many writers think of P.O.V. as a simply a technical decision you make at the beginning of a writing project, like the verb tense you will use. You decide whether or not you will tell the story as "I" and in the present moment, so that the reader feels like they are the main character and the events are happening right now OR if you will tell a story about another person--a guilt-ridden old man, a reckless young woman or some other "he" or " she"--and in some long distant fantasy age or possibly a yet unforeseen future.  And ,many writers believe that once the decision has been made that's the end of it and that gripping characters can be had with any tense or P.O.V.

Many will argue that P.O.V. is not character development and thus it has nothing to do with how gripping your characters are.

But they'll be wrong.

Deciding which P.O.V. to use is no small thing. It's a momentous choice and not one you can change easily. I can tell you from bitter experience, that if you change your mind two chapters into a story and decide to change your P.O.V. you should definitely not attempt to edit your chapters to reflect the change. You should start from scratch and write the chapters again. P.O.V. affects everything, every turn of phrase and many things too subtle for anyone to consciously edit well. 

The reason for this gets at the root of why P.O.V. is the key to gripping characters. 

Here is a hard truth. Despite all this talk of different P.O.V.s in fiction, there is in reality only one P.O.V.:

Creative Commons image by Jimmy Baikovicius

Creative Commons image by Jimmy Baikovicius

The reader.

I'm serious. At the very least, it's the only one that matters. When you read George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire, you are presented with a myriad of different P.O.V.s but they all meet at one point. They all meet in the reader. The reader feels and understands the various characters, knows their fears and anger, grits their teeth in frustration and clings to fleeing hope. 

How does Martin manage to get readers so hotly engaged in the characters and the story and keep them that way for years... a lot of years?

It is primarily because when Martin wrote, he clearly took the position of each character in turn, put himself in those shoes and smelled what that character smelled, felt what he or she felt, burned with the anger of that character and knew the history of that character--even the history not specifically stated in the pages. 

New writers make P.O.V. mistakes a lot, chief among them being what we call "head-hopping." You can technically avoid head-hopping by learning what it is and how to avoid it from a technical standpoint. But there is an easier short-cut to avoiding it and one that will inevitably make your characters grip the reader more.

Try this exercise. After you finish reading this, take your hands off your keyboard, close your eyes and form the image of the character who you want to tell your next story. I don't care if this is the kennel boy, the vapid alien, the plucky rookie cop or an omniscient God.  Make up an image. Then make up an image of a video camera in your hand. Put your eyes into the camera and then your ears and lastly your heart. Make sure they are firmly inside this camera. And then hand the camera to your character.

Creative Commons image by Ed Brambley

Creative Commons image by Ed Brambley

Good. Now, go write. But write ONLY what that camera in the hands of your character sees and hears and feels. 

If you are writing the next big thing after A Song of Ice and Fire and you need to jump from character to character, take a moment each time you want to make the switch to a different character. Envision the next character and clearly see within your mind the character who had the camera last handing the camera to the next character. Then continue writing. 

Don't just switch without taking the time for this exercise or some similar moment of concentration and visualization. You must take this time and engage in a conscious process of switching. That is the key to writing gripping characters.

Not just deciding on a P.O.V. and not just choosing the "correct" one for your type of story, which is a debatable issue. But rather the clear understanding of what your P.O.V. can see and hear and feel.

Your book may not be a movie and you may not even want it to have a film-like feel. That doesn't matter. Your narrator still can only experience what he/she/it experiences. No more. 

You can have the camera held by one person and thus see all closely from that person's perspective, including understanding their inner world and feelings of that one character and misunderstanding and guessing at the feelings and thoughts of other characters. Or you can give the camera to God and point it at the characters, seeing all of them more objectively, yet not delving deep into their inner thoughts and emotions. But you cannot have it both ways without a clear break.

Keep in mind that characters cannot actually see themselves, unless they are looking in a mirror. You cannot start a sentence describing a character's facial features and ending with his inner, unspoken fears. Well, physically you can of course, if you really want to. There are plenty of examples of a character looking into a mirror and noting their appearance and then continuing with their inner thoughts. But this is an overused technique and should only be employed if it comes up as a completely obvious choice for your character. If you create this kind of sentence without the mirror and thus imply looking from the outside and then the inside of the person at the same time, you will destroy your reader's experience and turn readers away from your character. Such a character does not hold interest or empathy. 

When I explained this in classes, one student responded by pulling out examples from classical literature in which this rule has been broken by famous authors of the distant past. The question was plain. Do I dare to challenge the titans of fiction?

Well, in some ways I do. We don't look down on the great medieval painters because they painted stiff, portraits of children with faces that appear middle aged. But neither do we emulate them. Crafts progress and P.O.V. is one way in which the craft of fiction writing has developed over the past several hundred years. 

Creative Commons image by Isawkins of Flickr.com

Creative Commons image by Isawkins of Flickr.com

On the other hand, many early works are quite good and have a magic of their own. I didn't claim that P.O.V. is the answer to everything, just the key to gripping characters. Engaging character development was not always the highest goal of the fiction writer. In the ages before Facebook and on-demand TV, fiction could take at least a little longer to get around to the point and characters could be a bit less gripping in favor of other virtues of the prose.

Today, however, they can't.

Either you grip your reader or you die. All writers must die as George Martin would probably say. The question is whether or not you will die in obscurity without your stories being read.

If you want to grab readers, make your characters grip. And in order to make them grip, be absolutely certain of your P.O.V. and stick to it. Never forget who is is holding your camera at any given moment and be firmly inside their experience as you write. 

There is more to writing gripping characters of course, things like character description, motive, character arc, background and believable interactions--all things I will discuss in other posts. But getting the P.O.V. right and sticking to it is more important than any of that. Without a solid and steady P.O.V. there is no character to develop. 

I love connecting to fellow writers. Let's share our experiences. Drop me a line below and tell me and other readers about your experiences with writing P.O.V. Have you made any dramatic mistakes with P.O.V.?  What is your favorite P.O.V.? Are these terms new to you or have you been wrestling the beast for some time?

Be well and keep writing.

Four magic spells you can cast on your novel with a fictional language - Advanced Writing Tips

In my last post, you learned about the building materials needed to make a fictional language. Nuts and bolts, verbs and nouns, bricks and cement—that sort of thing. You could stop there if all you need is a few sentences of dialogue to add an exotic feel to a character who is supposed to be from another culture in your story. But the real magic and usually the whole reason for creating a fictional language for your story goes a lot deeper--to a level that makes your settings and characters live and breathe.

Creative Commons image by Nick Kenrick

Creative Commons image by Nick Kenrick

Language is part of culture and culture is part of your fictional setting--the environment that shapes your characters. As such, when writers invest time and effort in creating fictional languages the purpose isn’t just a generalized exotic atmosphere, but rather a technique for shaping characters and social setting in specific ways. With languages, we can play with psychology and symbols and get deeper ideas across without having to spell them out and spoil the plot.

Creating a fictional language is a wonderful way to manipulate the culture and setting of the world in your novel because you become like a true magician. By uttering a few words, you create massive changes. As such, you must be careful what you wish for. Subtle things in a language can have far reaching effects. 

Here are a few of the magic spells you can cast—or avoid casting—depending on your needs.

1. Play with gender and other social divisions

I mentioned gender briefly in the post about grammar. Many languages show the gender of a person being spoken about. Others even make clear the gender of the speaker, meaning that little boys and little girls actually have to learn to speak in two different ways. But it isn't a given. Some languages may not point out gender so much.

Creative Commons image by Jason Pratt 

Creative Commons image by Jason Pratt 

Take a moment to think about the possible consequences for the culture. As a general rule, linguists have found that languages that emphasize gender are found in cultures where gender roles are very clear cut and inflexible. English makes it very hard to avoid spelling out whether or not a person being spoken or written about is a man or a woman. This has caused a lot of frustration for English-speaking feminists, who wish to break down stereotypes and avoid the second reference to a theoretical doctor or repairman as “he” or a nurse as “she.” In recent decades, many people have tried to avoid this with cumbersome constructions, like “he/she” or “they” used in the singular, or with obscure, made-up pronouns like “ze” and “xe.”

That may seem like a big problem to English-speaking feminists, but take a language like Spanish, where even the adjectives show what gender the person you’re talking about is, and all nouns are associated with a gender. Talk about stereotypes and assumptions!

Then there are the Slavic languages—like the Czech my children are growing up to speak—where it isn’t just pronouns, nouns and adjectives but even verbs! You cannot say anything about what you have done in the past without giving away your gender. Avoiding the gender of a person is almost impossible even in the shortest sentences. As a result, gender-neutral names are anathema and officially illegal. They would cause no end of confusion. Small boys in this culture—my son included—often encounter a strange problem because as toddlers they are exposed primarily to women’s speech at home and thus inadvertently speak like females for a few years, not having heard enough male speech to form it correctly. Men often come down heavy on this quirk of little boys and thus reinforce the patriarchal idea that being female is shameful. Gender roles are often starkly defined.

What does this mean for your fictional language? Well first of all, if your story takes place in a culture with heavily defined gender roles, make sure the language has lots of gender definition in it. You can point out these issues, even if your dialogue is actually written in English. How characters think about language and the mistakes people notice others make in language are both keys to cultural norms and can say volumes about the social environment without you having to explain. 

On the other hand, if you want to claim that your fictional culture is not hung up on gender and is thus more equitable, you will need to do away with this sort of gender differentiation in the language. Preferably don’t even use separate pronouns for “he” and “she.”

My own example comes from The Kyrennei Series. It isn’t until Book 5, that the Kyren language is more deeply explained, but there are earlier hints about gender neutrality. As in many fictional languages where the author wants to emphasize gender equity, there is no specific pronoun for “he” and “she” in Kyren. 

However, almost all societies do have divisions. (If yours doesn’t, where will your necessary, fictional conflict come from?) It is an excellent idea to emphasize the most crucial social divisions in your grammar. What if instead of “he” and “she,” you had separate pronouns for peasants and nobility?  Your social structure would be locked in place even more rigidly than medieval Europe. Peasants and nobility might not even be considered to be of the same species! 

In my Kyren language, the division that is not apparent between genders exists between the old and the young and between those who are Kyren and those who are not. There are four different pronouns for “he/she” (and another four for “they” for that matter. In Kyren, you get no breaks for speaking in the plural.) 

Creative Commons image by  Rusty Clark

Creative Commons image by  Rusty Clark

There is a pronoun for a young Kyren person and one for an old Kyren person. There are also pronouns for a young non-Kyren outsider and for an old, non-Kyren outsider. Just to make it more fun, all nouns come in these categories too, just as nouns have gender in Spanish. The verb endings  reflect the same differences. 

This tells the reader—without anyone ever saying it outright—that the ancient Kyren culture was obsessed with age, respectability and Kyren versus outsider status. There are important reasons for this as any Kyrennei Series reader will know. That’s why it's magic. This kind of game with gender and social divisions can paint vivid pictures and spark massive conflict in your setting. 

But go cautiously at first! As with all powerful magic, there are costs and pitfalls. Keeping the words of the spell (and the grammatical endings) straight can be an immense task, if you complicate your language in this way. At the very least, you should play with it a bit before inserting it into a book. If you want to tackle encoding social divisions in your language, make sure that everything I wrote in the last post about the building materials of language is very familiar first.

2. Fun with time

Most languages change their verbs a bit to show when something is happening in the present (you’re reading), in the past (I wrote), or in the future (you’ll write). There are some languages that don’t entirely separate these ideas of time, however. Or they may do so in ways English speakers would find unsatisfactory. 

One could say that English is a bit obsessed with pinpointing time exactly. We have at least twelve basic verb tenses, all of which we consider to impart crucial bits of information. Consider the differences between the sentences “I will have written it by tomorrow” and “Tomorrow I will have been writing it for a week.” Most languages would have to go into quite a lot of explanations to make sure you got all the nuance of difference between those sentences.

Why does English have so many verb tenses? Possibly our ancestors worshiped clocks. Hard to say but if you want to make a society obsessed with time, you had better give them at least a moderate number of verb tenses. 

Creative Commons image by Alice Popkorn

Creative Commons image by Alice Popkorn

Conversely, if you want to protray a society where people live in the moment and emphasize their phlegmatic relationship with time, you don’t have to give them verb tenses at all. If they really need to specify that they fought a battle yesterday, they can just say, “We fight yesterday.” The point gets across. And there are real languages like this.

What if you’re writing science fiction and you have a society that is very familiar with time travel? They would almost have to do without verb tenses. Thus it would not be so important whether the battle already happened or will happen in the future. That’s relative and might even be changeable. 

As with gender and other divisions, be careful with over complication. But also have fun. Time is a lovely play thing.

3. Making your characters prejudiced

A prejudice is simply an assumption or a pre-conceived notion. It does not mean your character is bad. Everyone, even good people, make assumptions all the time. And many assumptions and prejudices stem from the very language we speak. 

Terminology, such as the word “disabled,” creates assumptions. When a person (or a machine) is called “dis-abled” our English-speaking brain assumes that this means it is less able in general, even though what we actually mean is that one certain function works differently. In today’s society some “disabilities” such as deafness, may not really “dis-able” the individual in any significant way. Deaf people simply speak a different language. We all have differing abilities and lack of ability in various areas. Whether you are called “disabled” or not, you know if you are a fast runner or if you have perfect pitch. Often certain abilities will be mutually exclusive. You can’t have both the strength of a body-builder and the speed and agility of a prime soccer offense player. The two don’t work well together, but neither is considered “dis-ability.”  

In fiction, you could construct a language where terms for bodily abilities were different and thus created different, possibly more open-minded assumptions. Of if you want to heighten conflict in your story (always good for your plot), you could construct terminology that actually increases assumptions. Consider the interesting real-world fact that the word for German in many Slavic languages literally means “those who can’t talk.” It is very similar to the modern word for “mute.” One can see what the ancient Slavic tribes thought of the ancient Germanic tribes. But the assumptions carry over subliminally even until today. You can do this in fictional languages as well.

In the Kyrennei Series, the term “Kyrennei”  means “people of the night spirits”  or something of the like. Their term for people who aren’t Kyrennei is “Nyttanah”  which means “people of the day spirits.”  There are all kinds assumptions and prejudices that pop up because of these two terms. I don’t mean by this that my characters are bad and evil racists. I simply mean that they are reawakening an ancient culture which makes certain assumptions and this does play into some of the conflict. 

Another way to show assumptions and prejudices is in the use of adjectives and nouns. As I said earlier, putting a certain gender to each noun will automatically cause people to leap to certain associations with that noun. School is feminine in many cultures and castle or fortress is usually masculine. If it were the other way around that would say something interesting about the culture. But there are many other ways to do this beyond gender.

The best way to show this trick is by example. In my fictional language, Kyren you cannot say an adjective such as “big”  or “small”  without giving away what you think about the person or thing being described. Adjectives have endings that show whether the speaker thinks the attribute (such as largeness or smallness) is temporary or permanent. Thus if you say a child is small, you will use a temporary ending. But if you say an adult is temporarily large the connotation is quite different. In fact, in the world of the Kyrennei an adult can be only temporarily large--generally those who carry Kyrennei genes but are born into Nyttanah bodies. If they undergo a genetic change, they will become smaller, more the size of a young tween.  

And the ending also changes depending on whether or not the speaker thinks that all similar people or objects generally share that attribute--in this case temporary largeness and whether the person or object is unique in being being temporarily large. So, if you speak about a child as small, you will either say the child is temporarily small like all children or temporarily uniquely small to say the child is small for the age. There is no middle ground. You have to choose in order to use the adjective “small” in Kyren. 

This is a very advanced linguistic trick but it can define your society in interesting ways. If you force the language to reveal the assumptions of the speaker, whether those assumptions are about groups of people or objects (as in Kyren) or about whether or not actions are completed or not (as in many real-world languages) you will force your people to be cautious in their wording and create cultures where offense is given easily. 

4. Showing the love

Good fiction must have conflict and that is why most of my language-tweaking suggestions involve giving your fictional culture problems and tensions. But there is another way to create conflict—love. 

That’s right. Make your people love something and then threaten it, abuse it or deny it to them and you’ll have more conflict than you know what to do with. But the deeper the love runs, the greater the passion will be. 

Creative Commons image by Gisela Giardino

Creative Commons image by Gisela Giardino

And there is nothing deeper in psychology than the way we use language. 
So, if you want to make your fictional characters love something with a deep, irrational passion or show a cultural reverence for age, wisdom, freedom, youth, piety, virginity, sex or whatever, encode it in the language.

First of all, you can make words connected to those things you want your fictional people to revere romantic and beautiful in sound. This can be particularly effective when the thing you’re adopting as a social obsession is actually something modern society thinks of as negative, such as death or sex. 

This is a good place to make up idioms. You can make positive associations between words that today’s real-world culture might not see as positive.

Here's a real world example from the Czech language. When a person wants to say that a situation, idea or thing is NOT good in Czech, they might say, “It’s not greasy and salty.” While not being greasy and salty (especially applied to things that aren’t food) is generally considered a good thing in modern culture, that phrase dates back to a time when the poor peasants in this landlocked country desired salt and fat (usually a priceless bit of lard) above all else. And the phrase is still widely used today. Language shows what we desire and love.

Obviously idioms can just as easily show what a culture despises or does not value. In English, when we say, “The CEO made a blind decision,” we aren’t just saying a bad thing about the CEO, we’re also expressing a cultural assumption about blindness as unwise or stupid. If you are aware of these markers and use them in the dialogue of your characters as fictional idioms, you can create complex loves and hates in a reader without ever having to resort to the more obvious tricks of the trade.

These are a few of the advanced, professional-grade power tools used by writers when constructing a fictional language. Pulling it all together can take time, especially if you make the language overly complex. But you may not need as much of it as you think. Insert a few specific idioms into your English-language dialogue and you’ve essentially hinted at a fictional language. If used consistently and with care the bits and pieces can make the cultural setting of your story shine.

Creating a fictional language - Step 1: Mastering the building materials

J.R.R. Tolkien has long been seen as the master of fictional languages—a genius in fact—and many writers I talk to say they would never attempt to repeat his feats because that would require being an academic linguist.

Creative Commons image by Dianne Lacourciere

Creative Commons image by Dianne Lacourciere

My bachelor’s degree is in linguistics—Slavic linguistics to be exact. And I had the great honor to study with professor George Smalley at Lawrence University in Wisconsin in the 1990s. However, I’m not an expert or a true academic linguist. And still I can make a very credible fictional language, and I can tell you that it isn’t as difficult as it looks. There are amateur pitfalls to avoid, certainly, but the background necessary to start a fictional language can be laid out in a few steps.

The first and most indispensable step for making a fictional language without looking silly is mastering the parts of speech or the building materials that you'll use to construct your language. The essential issue is that you don’t want to take a sentence like, “I’m going to cut off your stinking head, you barbarian!” and translate it word for word simply by making up a word for each word in the sentence. That would result in something like “Gwa’l tori ik akshi ma lu yelim krat, dre marano!” 

Even if you wrote each one of these words down in your notebook and remembered them well enough to use “dre” for “you” the next time you wrote a sentence, it still would be silly. For one thing “dre” doesn’t appear to be related to “lu.” And it should be, because “you” and “your” always have some relation in any language. Beyond that “am going to cut” is one verb and in most languages it would be one word, maybe two. English is a bit strange that it makes so many little words out of one verb. 

If you tried to make a fictional language by the method of translating every word from English, it would not only be silly, it would be insanely difficult to maintain for more than a sentence or two because of the finicky little words you'd have to keep track of, like "am" and "to." 

Creative commons image by Avenue G of flickr.com

Creative commons image by Avenue G of flickr.com

The key to making a believable fictional language and not going nuts while you do it is having a good grasp of your building materials and making your own rules for them. For most people, the most difficult part of creating a fictional language is reviewing what you learned in middle school English class about verbs, nouns, adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, articles and the like.

Now stop that! Your eyes are glazing over. I can smell it. I’m not going to make you diagram sentences. But essentially if you can keep these few terms straight, you can make a fictional language that no one can sneer at.

Verbs

A verb is an action. (Sit, run, be, am, am going, are sitting, was running, has been reading—be careful of the fact that many verbs in English are made up of more than one word but that’s really the only tricky part.)

There are no known languages that don’t have verbs of some sort. The main trick to this part is making sure you’re using the whole verb. In the sentence “I will have been writing for ten years next week” the verb is “will have been writing.” That’s four words in English (not even counting the pronoun), but in many languages it would be one word. It is much easier to simplify your verbs in this way. You don’t need a word for each of the four words “will have been writing.” .

Instead what you need is a rule. Take the most important word from that verb—”writing”—and make up a word that means “to write” in your fictional language. Let’s say you make up “Falimanesa.” Great! That sounds suitably grand for our noble profession. 

But stop a minute and look more closely at your fictional word. You must decide what about it makes it basic verb in your language. Is it that it starts with F?  Or is it that it ends in “esa” or just A? Usually it’s the beginning or the ending. Just as English has “to” to show that we’re talking about the basic verb “to write” other languages have their own ways to mark a verb.

Let’s say you decide to go the easy route, like I would. Looking at your first fictional verb, you decide that all basic verbs will end in A. (Vowels are a good choice for the standard ending.) So "Falimanesa" is "to write" and "Bida" is "to eat," and so on. Just build a word list as you go. If you only need a few sentences of a fictional language in your book, it won't even be that many words but it will look like it's a real language.

Then it’s time to decide how complicated your grammar will be. In the beginning, it is best to start out simple, which means you probably won’t have much beyond a past tense, a present tense and a future tense. 

Past tense is things like “I wrote,” “I was writing,” and “I had written.” In your fictional language you do not need separate words for these different English phrases. They’re all just past. They happened. It’s over. 

Present tense is things like “I write,” “I’m writing,” and “I have been writing.” Don’t complicate it. Make them all the same. The same goes for future tense. There is no need to have a different form for “I’ll write,” and “I’m going to be writing.” They are in the future. If you want to make your life difficult and have a degree in linguists somewhat more advanced than mine, feel free to ignore this.

Now you need to have a simple rule for your three verb tenses. Let’s say you make all writing in the past be “Falimanesan,” all writing in the present be “Falimanesat,” and all writing in the future be “Falimanesas.”

Creative Commons image by Juhan Sonin

Creative Commons image by Juhan Sonin

Simple. Elegant. Easy to remember. Past verbs end in AN, present in AT and future in AS. Yes, most languages have exceptions but don’t tinker with that until you’ve mastered this. You can also theoretically make your verb change depending on what the subject is. It can be as simple as the difference between English “I run” and “he runs.” But it isn’t necessary and at first it is better to keep it simple. It will look complicated enough both to you and to your reader by the time you’re done.

In the fictional example of my sentence about cutting off heads. We need a verb for “to cut.” Let’s make it dramatic like, “aksha.” To show that the cutting is going to happen in the future (however near) we’ll use “akshas.” 

Nouns

A noun is a “person, place or thing.” (Yup, you probably remember that from grade school. "Dog", "house," "houseboat," "you," "Mr. Blip the alien" and "I" are all nouns.) 

Theoretically, nouns can be simpler than verbs. You don’t really NEED to have various forms of nouns. But you should be aware that most languages do have some rules. In many languages, nouns have a gender—masculine, feminine or neutral. Some languages have even more than that, although they aren’t called gender anymore but “noun classes.” The basic thing is that if you have a gender, it’s best to find a way to show which gender your noun is by its spelling just as we did with basic verbs ending in A. You could say all masculine nouns will end in O and all feminine nouns will end in hard-sounding consonants like T, K, G, B and D. It all depends on the gender roles in your fictional society. 

It’s also good to know that many languages change their nouns depending on where they are in a sentence or context. This is called “case.” You don’t have to do it and I recommend not dealing with it if you don’t yet know what a noun case is. But you will need to have a way to show the difference between singular and plural nouns (dog vs. dogs). You will also need to add something to your nouns, when you run into prepositions like “to” and “for” and determiners like “my” and “that.” But those can be saved for another section. Just be aware that you’ll probably need to add something to your nouns, either as separate words or added to the beginning or end of the noun.

In my example, we have four nouns “barbarian,” “head,” “you,” and “I.” Let’s say “head” is feminine. So we’ll say, “krat” and the barbarian is a male, so we’ll say, “marano.” 

Now one of the more important parts of a fictional language is what you do with the pronouns. “I” and “you” are not your average nouns. They are pronouns. They’ll get used A LOT. And they don’t have to follow the same rules as other nouns. This is one place to make exceptions. 

If you have made very simple verbs that don’t change depending on who is doing the action, then you really need good pronouns. Make pronouns short and easy to differentiate. We’ll say “I” is “Gwa” and “you” is “Dre.” At this point, it would be a good idea to make up your equivalents of “we,” “he,” “she,” and “they” as well and to decide if you’re going to have separate pronouns for different genders. Just as we have “he” and “she,” you could easily have different genders in the words “I” and “you.” But you don’t have to. In fact, you don't have to have separate words for "he" and "she." Feminists will be thrilled. But it's worth thinking about what gender is like in the society where your language is spoken.

Adjectives and Adverbs

An adjective describes a noun. (Green, huge, multi-faceted and monstrous—all prime suspects.)
An adverb describes the action of a verb (slowly, wildly, on Tuesday, for weeks on end—are all adverbs and like verbs in English many of them are actually phrases of several words.)

Some languages are less likely to use adjectives and adverbs and more likely to have a special verb meaning “to eat slowly.” You can play with such things in a fictional language, but you can also just copy English when it comes to this sort of thing. Tolkien did, so you’d be in good company. 

It will be helpful to you and it's general good linguistic policy if there is some way to tell what is an adjective and what is an adverb by the spelling, just as we did with nouns and verbs. English has the ending “ly” to differentiate a lot of adjectives. Let’s say adjectives are going to end in IR and adverbs are going to end in ESE. In this fictional language. To make it simple they all will. Not just some as with the LY ending in English.

The one place to be careful is in adverb phrases like “on Tuesday” and “for weeks on end.” These usually tell how long something is going on and it is better to use one word for these phrases or at least come up with a consistent way of making them. 

The only descriptive word in my example is “stinking.” Let’s say “yelimir” but make a little note in your notebook that “to stink” had better bear some resemblance to this word and end in A. Probably should end up as “yelima” for the verb “to stink.”

Prepositions

Prepositions are words that prep another word or phrase. 

“In,” “at,” “under,” “around,” “before,” and “of” are all prepositions. Some languages don’t make them separate words but rather add a prefix or a suffix to the word that the preposition preps, as if they wrote “the dog is the kitchen-in” instead of “the dog is in the kitchen.”

You can simply translate prepositions straight across. Make up a word for “in” and always use it for “in” when you translate a sentence. Many languages work almost like that. At least they have a word that is a bit like “in” even though it is often used in a few situations where English would use “at” or isn’t used in some instances where English does use it. But in general you don’t have to play with your prepositions. But you can and it is one of the easier ways to make your language more authentic and less like a direct code of English. 

In the fictional language Kyren in The Kyrennei Series I made many prepositions into prefixes, so that instead of a separate word, the preposition is attached to the word it preps. Thus, “of the Kyrennei” becomes “i-Kyrennei.” 

Many real languages use a grammatical function called “case” which essentially acts like a preposition but instead of a separate word, it adds an ending to or otherwise changes the words being prepared. This is very common and English is a bit of an exception because we use almost no cases. (We do use cases when it comes to pronouns. That’s why you say, “You see ME,” instead of “You see I.”)

Some languages use a preposition word in some situations as well as the case ending, but in other situations it is only the ending. For instance, in Czech the word for train is “vlak.” But “in the train” is “ve vlaku.” There is both a preparing word for “in” and an ending. 

If you have not learned a language which uses cases, it is better to avoid using such complexities. But you can easily make a special ending denoting each English preposition word. Your language would then appear at first glance to have cases and no one could really argue with you.

In Czech, going "by train" is simply "vlakem." There is no preposition word for "by" only the case ending. You could think of the ending EM as the equivalent of "by." It isn't quite that simple in Czech, but in a fictional language it would look very authentic.

Let’s use that trick in our example. We need the preposition “off” for the example sentence. But we’re going to add it as an ending to the adjective and the noun, instead of a separate word. So, I say “off” will give a word the ending ARA. So, “Gwa akshas … yelimirara kratara, dre marano!” We still need a word for “your” but we’re getting a lot closer and the sentence is starting to look like a real language. 

Articles and determiners

The English article is “the,” “a” and “an.” The easiest way to deal with these words in a fictional language is just to drop them all together. Most languages do and it doesn’t hurt a thing. Although writing without article in English makes you sound like barbarian, it really doesn’t sound too bad in other languages.

Creative Commons image by Jem Henderson

Creative Commons image by Jem Henderson

However, other words like “my,” “your,” “some,” “any,” “this” and “that” are very necessary. There are more complex ways to handle them, but for the purpose of making your first fictional language relatively easy, it is best to simply designate a word for each of these. 

Just keep in mind that they should be short and they can’t be entirely arbitrary. Possessives like “my” and “your” should have a clear connection to the pronoun they are related to. So, if “dre” is “you,” then we’ll say “drem” is “your.” 
Words like “this” and “that” are also good to keep slightly related. But that’s a detail.

Other words

Other words such as the connectors “and” and “but” or interesting constructions like “would,” can be handled by simply making up a word to correspond to the English equivalent. That’s the simplest way, even though you can get complicated with many of these concepts as well. 

It’s only advisable to think before you leap. Some words like “since” can be a preposition and a connecting word. And a word like “could” actually is a combination of “can” and “would.” Be aware that some words ending in ING in English look like verbs but they are really nouns. A "human being" is one example. Make your words relate in logical ways as much as possible. You’ll save yourself a headache when trying to use your fictional language and it will look much more believable.

Now go play with your words or else. Gwa akshas drem yelimirara kratara, dre marano!