December 23, 2010
Many aspiring novelists and short-story practitioners are advised in their creative writing classrooms to imagine a camera on the shoulders of their characters as they lead readers through scenes. The thinking is this practice forces the writer to add detail while also understanding the tactile surroundings of their story.
It’s not bad advice, but it’s far from complete as far as a technique for character development goes. The reason for the shortcoming is because characters are supposed to be three-dimensional. That means when writers rely predominantly on describing what they see they may fail to develop fully drawn characters who experience life in a truly profound way that makes them come to life.
David Morrell, who taught for many years in the esteemed English department at Iowa University, advises aiming for a ratio that will force you to add senses beyond the visual. For every visual sense, you should have two others present, says the author of “First Blood” (a novel whose literary merits have been tarnished because its lead character was transformed into a one-dimensional killing machine in the “Rambo” movie series).
Strict adherence to any formula isn’t good. In this case, it could cause you to overwrite. But if you craft your story well, then putting Morrell’s advice into practice makes your characters more fully developed than if you simply treated them like robots being filmed.
Many excerpts could be chosen to illustrate this example of writing, but I picked the following passage because it is short and comes from a great piece of fiction. It is the second paragraph of “The Chrysanthemums”, a well-known John Steinbeck story about internal conflict, isolation and sexual frustration. Notice the variety of senses the Noble Prize winner incorporates with the nouns and verbs he chooses here:
“It was a time of quiet and of waiting. The air was cold and tender. A light wind blew up from the southwest so that the farmers were mildly hopeful of a good rain before long; but fog and rain did not go together.”
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March 31, 2009
Focus is necessary – for you and your short stories and novels.
One way to maintain the focus of a plotline is to keep your characters enclosed, either by physical constraints or with a time deadline. Determining how long it will take for the arc of action to peak then resolve is one of the first details you should decide on when outlining your story.
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November 9, 2008
A newspaper editor I know once told me about an adventurous photojournalist he worked with who had found himself in a dangerous situation while on assignment in Central America. The photojournalist, a New Yorker, was working on an article about the drug trade and he had hired a translator to help him locate sources for the story. Unfortunately, the photojournalist and the translator were kidnapped by gang members and ordered into the back of a van. The gang had already taken their money and everything of potential value in their wallets. So, being driven to who knows where could only end badly, the photojournalist thought. And so did the translator, who began to converse with his captors.
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September 11, 2008
The difference between the almost right word and the right word is “the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” Mark Twain turned that phrase 120 years ago and it’s still applicable. In fact, many writers will tell you the hardest part of the job is finding the most appropriate noun or verb for a given sentence. The reason is because we aim to avoid clichés, meaning we’re constantly challenging ourselves to be inventive in ways beyond concocting plots and characters.
Whether you’re a journalist, public relations professional or author of literary fiction, expanding your vocabulary is fundamental to improving the quality of your work. If you believe writing involves craftsmanship then language is the toolbox to accomplishment. As with any field, the practitioners who best know how to use their tools will be able to differentiate themselves. Besides the thesaurus, other reference books that will help you grow as a wordsmith include “The Flip Dictionary”, “Word and Phrase Origins” and “Roget’s Super Thesaurus”. These texts go beyond dictionary definitions, giving you etymological information as well as colloquial phrases in addition to traditional synonyms.
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