Writing Secrets: Pay attention to character … oh, and story, and …

 In Jo-Anne Richard's blog, Tips for Writers

One of our participants once asked whether readers cared about characters. “But don’t they just care about a jolly-good story? An exciting plot which carries them along?”

Well (we told him), the fact is, there simply is no story without the characters. If we don’t care about them, we’re not concerned by what happens to them – which means there’s nothing at stake. What’s the point of reading on?

That started me thinking about what really is important in good creative writing, especially since I’ve been busy with a great deal of marking and assessment recently. I came to the conclusion that good writing is dependent on every level of the process.

Characters and Story are important. They need to hold us and draw us onward, as does every scene. These are the links in the chain of your story and we all know what they say about weak links.

Thought and consideration must be expended even further. We often fail to consider the full effect of each sentence. We simply get it down and, if it (sort of) carries our meaning, we’re satisfied.

I found support for my view in a recent Spectator article on sentences and good prose, which argued that a fluent, attractive writing style depended on shaping every sentence with care.

“This is a sentence. As is this — not an exceptionally beautiful one, but a sentence all the same, just telling you what it needs to tell you, just getting on with things, doing its job. Sentences are everyday, functional things, ubiquitous and unappreciated.”

And it’s about time, the writer argued, we started noticing them. Even when we use sentences to carry our most creative ideas, we often use them without thought, or an alertness to their construction.

In our mentoring and assessment work, I’ve noticed that we seem addicted to subordinate clauses. I’m not saying we should confine ourselves solely to simple sentences. My point is that we often lose drama when a dramatic event is tacked on, as a bit of an afterthought, at the very end of a long sentence.

Then came the sickening sensation as the bus somersaulted before coming to a shuddering halt as it crashed onto tarmac.

What’s important here is not so much the sickening sensation. It’s the bus somersaulting. Here’s another sentence which commits the same sin:

He was filled with a terrifying adrenalin rush as the aisle became a seething, screaming mass of people.

I’d go even further with the second sentence and suggest that “a seething, screaming mass” is a bit generic. It will have a far greater effect on us if the specific details of the “seething, screaming mass” are shown to us. But that’s another issue.

Here’s another sentence I came across recently (suitably changed):

The force of the sudden jolt that followed flung Julian out of his seat.

In this sentence, we lose the full dramatic effect of Julian being flung from his seat – firstly because “that followed” creates confusion, and isn’t really necessary. Secondly, because two dramatically important things are crushed into one sentence. We need to experience the jolt … and then, in its own sentence, feel Julian being flung from his seat.

At a still deeper level, pay attention to every word you use, particularly the verbs. Have you used the strongest verb you can find? Perhaps you’ve used “fought”, when you could have chosen “punched”, “pummelled” or “gouged”. Have you opted for the verb “to be”, when a more active verb is available?

Take this as an example: “The screeching sound of steel on steel was deafening”. Isn’t the effect instantly strengthened if you write: Steel shrieked on steel. It deafened him.

There are hundreds of ways you can walk, in English. You can stride, slide, slope, slouch … every one of which shows us more about the character. Then there are the catch-all words like “plonk” and “grab”, which should be avoided at all costs.

Writing requires attention at every level if it is to become the best it can be.

Read Richard’s latest blog: ‘Monday Motivation: Stories and characters for those who pay attention

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