We all make choices when we write and the decisions we take fit together to shape our style. Becoming aware of these choices helps the author when planning to write and when writing. Here are some further thoughts and learnings from the coal face of an active writer who is writing while learning to improve the craft of his writing. I hope you find these ideas useful for your own projects.
First person, third person or omniscient?
Whose head do you want to get inside when you write? And who are you most comfortable writing about? This makes a big difference to whether you enjoy the writing process and also how convincing the outcomes will be. Expressing motives, thoughts, emotions and characters’ voices are vital to building sympathy or antipathy for the main characters. Of course the writer builds up the story and chooses who to build up in their written characters – the question is – can you be convincing as the part you are portraying in the first person? Or would it be better to observe their actions from a third person viewpoint?
Balance of parts
How much narrative, descriptive, speech and internal voice?
Seasoned authors move between the different parts of writing with ease, at least in their finished work. The key choice here is what is needed, when and how long to stay with each part of writing. A long narrative can quickly become dull, too little action and the plot will not move forwards. Also be aware that an internal viewpoint can help build depth, but too much deep thought can also become tiresome. In other words it’s all about choosing the balance point for the work in progress. Pieces build up into a tapestry and readers need some space to fill in with their own imagination.
Emotional journey of your protagonist & antagonist
To drive the story you need plot points (events) and an emotional arc to support the main characters’ development. It’s essential that the hero / heroine has an emotional journey at the heart of the plot or the reader will not feel sympathy or pathos for their plight. In other words they need to go through hell and back metaphorically. As writers we need to map out this journey and show how it affects them, then review it in flight to ensure it makes sense and has plenty of twists and turns as the writing on the page develops. I find it useful to have an outline and to allow myself to evolve that outline as the characters react to events in the written story. I also constantly review whether it makes sense how the characters react or adjust to each situation they face. In this way the characters becomes alive on the page or demand a better script – and that’s when you know something is happening…
What to leave out
As writers we choose what to show and we choose what to hide or skip over. This applies particularly to twists, love scenes, violence and how much of the story our chosen writing perspective allows us to show. Often, hinting at events and writing around the outcomes can be as powerful as taking the reader to those places. Then again we have to decide what the book genre needs and how to keep the writing engaging. Wall to wall action, description, erotica and such like can quickly become dull, hence our need to choose what needs to be left out and what is essential to the telling of our story.
Choice of words & structures
Obviously the words on the page can be written in many ways. I recommend reading widely and choosing a style that sits comfortably with your own preference for reading. It is often said that creators create primarily for themselves. That being the case, we choose what kind of book we would like to read and set about writing in a style we would like to read. As a personal check if I find myself reading back work that is clunky or dull, I cut or rewrite. If I don’t recognise that I wrote a paragraph and I like it, that for me is a kind of success. I also recommend collecting lists of words, phrases and structures that you enjoy and to set about using them in the appropriate context.
Pace of your writing
It is often said that the middle of a book can drag or be flabby. I have found this to be true even with genuine bestselling authors. There are remedies available, such as speeding up the pace or introducing new twists at the point where this becomes apparent. In truth, any part of a book could drag and as writers we choose the pacing of each book we write. Too much and heads can spin, too little and they hit the pillow. Perhaps we should start at the end and race to a conclusion? At least it’s an option when plotting out a book or working out how to write in an engaging way. Personally I am easily bored by detailed everyday life accounts when nothing much is happening in the plot. Then again if the writing includes insights and expressions I enjoy, where’s the harm.
Humour and darkness
What overall tone are we seeking to put across? Further choices are how we balance light and darkness and the extent to which we introduce humour and horror. My suggestion here is to identify points at which light relief is needed and to crank up the intensity where a climatic sequence is due. Surprising the reader can work, but too much of a good thing can quickly become wearing. Comedy only works when someone is having a bad day, horror only works when it is a contrast to the setting. Much like real life. A series of choices lead to the sequence of scenes and tone that we write, being aware of those choices is therefore the starting point.
Twists and surprises
Clearly we design the slights of hand, the twists and surprises that we include in our work. A recent trend I’ve noticed in some bestsellers is excessive use of these devices to the extent that nothing that’s left is reliable or plausible. Sometimes the work can become too clever clever for its own good. This may be a good thing for movies, but I suggest choosing a balance and keeping the surprises as big shocks with little or no clues because this can be more effective. Also taking lateral leaps beyond the well trodden path and taking an alternate view can be refreshing.
As writers we first edit ourselves and then submit to whatever it takes to be published. We should remember the choices that we are willing to accept and reject those that have no proper basis in improving the work. Anything that improves quality and reduces flabbiness is most likely a good thing, but there is a line that someone needs to understand implicitly for each piece – i.e. what makes it work? Perhaps the detail makes the work or the depth of a character. We need to understand this of the work on the page and choose to ‘direct’ the improvement of the work from that perspective. As the saying goes, you can only serve one boss. For me that’s the reader. Editing out all the good bits would of course be a bad thing. The question is – what are the good bits? And are there enough of them?
That’s all for now folks. I hope these ideas help your personal writing journey. I’ve been busy of late writing Sean Yeager Claws of Time, which will see the light of day when my own choices have run their course.
D. M. Jarrett