Monday, November 11, 2013

Fine-Tuning Your Prose, PART II

Perfect prose won’t resuscitate flat characters stuck in a dull story. But when you invent a fascinating tale about sympathetic people and their compelling struggle to win love, you’ll want to tell it like a pro. So let’s take one last look at some nitpicky prose details that experienced writers keep in mind.

            Place words you wish to emphasize at the start or end of each sentence or phrase. Read the next two sentences out loud. “Throw your sainthood away.” “Throw away your sainthood.” The second sentence places the more important word at the end. Hear the subtle difference? Following this rule both clarifies and intensifies the drama your words convey.

Don’t overuse or misuse attribution. A simple she said or he said suffices to keep readers on track as to who is speaking each line of dialogue—and that is the sole purpose of attribution. When attribution is not needed to follow the conversation, leave it out. And by all means, resist the urge to use attributions to explain the scene. Agents and editors roll their eyes at this kind of writing:
“I like it when you touch me like that,” she whispered throatily.
“That so?” he asked innocently.
“Come closer,” she purred.
“Guess I know what I’m doing,” he chuckled.

Skip the travelogue. If you show your characters moving from one setting/scene to another (on sidewalks, stairs, elevators, subways, taxis, and so forth), make sure the trip tells something important about the character or plot. If not, leave out “getting there.” Think of cuts between movie scenes: first we see two lovers chatting in a romantic restaurant; next we find them in bed. If it doesn’t matter to the story how they got from bistro to bedroom, the director does not waste a scene showing those irrelevant details.

Omit information that doesn’t add to the mood, character or plot. You’ve probably heard the rule, “Show, don’t tell.” But it’s not that simple. You must decide when to show, when to tell, and when to ignore. The two examples below are not “right” or “wrong,” but the second uses tighter prose, which drives a story forward in a faster pace.

·        The kitchen phone rang. Lara padded across the Mexican tile floor in her bare feet and snatched it from its wall cradle on the fourth ring. “Hello,” she said.
“Hello,” said a male voice with a nasal tone. She didn’t recognize it.

·        The kitchen phone rang. Some guy with a nasal voice Lara didn’t recognize.

Don’t overdo first impressions. Give character description to the reader in small doses. Mention only a few things about a character initially and move on with the action; you can insert more features along the way. “A lanky, red-haired kid with a firestorm of zits” is plenty of information for the first look. The character will go out of focus if you toss in too many descriptions at once (…and cobalt blue eyes, large-knuckled hands, with one shoulder lower than the other.)

Keep to a minimum as and -ing constructions. They make the depicted actions seem simultaneous, and the first move appears somehow less important than the second. In the examples below, the third reads best.
·        As she slipped out her dagger, she spun to face the soldier.  
·        Slipping out her dagger, she spun to face the soldier.
·        She slipped out her dagger and spun to face the soldier.

Purge stale language. It’s fine when your characters speak in occasional clichés, because we all talk like that. But aside from writing realistic dialogue, don’t grab the following phrases off the cliché shelf: an emotional rollercoaster, little did she know, better than ever, as fate would have it, needless to say, well in advance, in over her head, for some curious reason, a number of, as everybody knows, things got out of hand, it came as no surprise, it was beyond her, the time flew. Obviously, the list continues. Set your cliché alarm to buzz a warning.   

            Be wary of “very.” Modifiers (very, so, just, still, quite, somewhat, rather) muddy your prose. If the adjective needs the crutch of a modifier, replace it with a better descriptive word (“very weak” does not sound as feeble as “puny”).   

            Feeling intimidated by so many rules to bear in mind? Let me suggest a strategy many writers employ. When you first set your story to writing, switch off The Editor and let your wild heart roam. Only after you’ve captured words on the page—at the end of a day, or scene, or chapter—put your editor’s mind to task, analyzing and improving story structure and polishing your prose. And remember what Pablo Picasso said: “Learn the rules like a professional, so you can break them like an artist.”

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