“Prose is architecture, not interior decoration.” —Ernest Hemingway
This week is for the writers out there. We’re going to be talking about story architecture.
The mechanics of how to build a story.
What is writing …?
Yes, writing is an artistic endeavor. We’re ripping open our souls, engaging in silent scream therapy, vomiting worlds out of our heads and all that good stuff. That being said, craft is a huge part of writing. Not just telling a good story, but telling a good story well.
“Writing” is telling a story through the medium of writing. In my view, the real art is the story. The writing is the process–artistic, yes, but a process.
Let’s start with a few words on words. This is back to basics.
TIP: If a short, simple word will do the job, use it.
That tip is courtesy of George Orwell.
Short Saxon-based words are usually preferable to long Greek- and Latin-based. Consider these two sentences:
A: “I retrieved the cookie from the container and masticated it.”
B: “I took the cookie from the jar and ate it.”
In the second sentence, every word except one (cookie, which has 2) has one syllable. Not very fancy, but it communicates. “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” —Elmore Leonard
TIP: A surprising word that stands out can add richness to a story or express voice as long as it doesn’t overly call attention to itself.
Ideally, such a word will titillate or appeal to the senses.
A: “I took the cookie from the jar and popped it in my mouth. Ah, sweet mastication.”
B : “I took the cookie from the jar and promptly flung it in my mouth.”
Either A or B here works. The use of the adverb here sets up the odd word “flung.”
TIP: Avoid generic nouns and verbs when a more descriptive word will work.
A: “I entered the room and gave her the flowers.”
B : “I limped into the room and handed over the roses.”
While A reads very quickly, nothing pops in the imagination. In B, we have a distinctive verb, “limped,” and a distinctive noun, “roses.” The “limped” obviously means the narrator was hurt before coming into the room. “Handed over” is discordant with giving someone something special like roses. The choice of “roses” instead of “flowers” has a romantic connotation.
TIP: A well-timed adjective can appeal to the reader’s senses and make the story come alive.
A: “He picked up the sword.”
B: “He picked up the ancient sword.”
B: “He picked up the red sword.”
B: “He picked up the snarling sword.”
B: “He picked up the heavy sword.”
Each of the above changes the meaning and punches a particular human sense. The first a sense of wonder, the second a sense of sight, the third the sense of hearing (obviously this is a magical sword with a personality), the fourth the sense of touch. “Snarling” sword gives us a nice touch of alliteration, so we might prefer that to other words like growling.
TIP: Be specific when going for description, inventive when going for imagery.
Of course, the imagery must match the voice, whether it’s dialog or narration.
Here’s another tip about imagery. One way to use it is to effect imagery that supports the operating theme. So if it’s a horror story, the images could be dark. If time is an important element in the story, the author could include images of clocks, clocks ticking or toning.
TIP: Avoid dead weight words like almost, suddenly, nearly, that, of, etc.
A: “It was almost time for class.”
B : “Class started in one minute.”
A: “All of the students attended.”
B : “All the students attended.”
A: “Suddenly, the lights went out.”
B : “The lights went out.”
A: “He knew that the monster had come.”
B : “He knew the monster had come.”
Editing involves pruning.
Of course, as with other rules, they can be broken when needed, such as to create believable dialog, as this is how people talk. Or for some other emphasis. The point is 9 times out of 10, getting rid of the word will improve the story. That tenth time should be intentional because the word choice serves some purpose.
TIP: Avoid repeating a distinctive word unless it’s intentional for dialog, link paragraphs, etc.
A: “The door was ajar, so I entered. I took the cookie from the jar and ate it. The texture was odd, jarring.”
B : “Yes,” I shouted, “I ate the cookie. Not just ate it, I savored it. Savored it as if it were the last cookie on Earth. The last cookie in the galaxy. I savored each crumb.”
A is unfortunate, probably an accident but something that should be caught before the book sees the light of day.
B works, though both “cookie” and “savored” are used three times. “Savored” could be used again in the next paragraph to link them and act as a transition, as in “What I really savored was her company.” Or later in the story.
TRICKS: Use Word or Scrivener to find repeat words.
The result in Word is pretty clunky, but the result in Scrivener is fairly elegant.
And that’s it for the day. A few words on words.
Tomorrow, we’re going to talk about sentences.