Monthly Archives: November 2021

Captivating Language

The Captivating Language of Jen Stanford
The Captivating Language of Jen Stanford

In order to deploy captivating language, Strunk and White (Elements of Style), admonish us to avoid verbosity and present sentences in a positive form—that is, to avoid hesitant, ambiguous language—except when hesitancy and ambiguity are the intention.

Write, “He usually came late,” instead of “He was not very often on time,” and “He thought the study of Latin a waste of time,” rather than “He did not think that studying Latin was a sensible way to use one’s time.” 

Write, “The women in The Taming of the Shrew are unattractive. Katherine is disagreeable, Bianca insignificant.” This is preferable to: “The Taming of the Shrew is rather weak in spots. Shakespeare does not portray Katherine as a very admirable character, nor does Bianca remain long in memory as an important character in Shakespeare’s works.”

These examples expose the weakness of negation. Readers form a clearer, more vivid impression from a succinct description of what a thing is, rather than waffling about what it is not.

Not honest is better expressed as dishonestNot important = triflingDid not remember = forgot

You get the idea.

This passage from Jen Stafford’s short story, In The Zoo, is a testament to the power of captivating language.

‘[…] Daisy and I in time found asylum in a small menagerie down by the railroad tracks. It belonged to a gentle alcoholic ne’-er-do-well, who did nothing all day long but drink bathtub gin in rickeys and play solitaire and smile to himself and talk to animals. He had a little stunted vixen and a deodorized skunk, a parrot from Tahiti that spoke French, a woebegone coyote, and two capuchin monkeys, so serious and humanized, so small and sad and sweet, and so religious-looking with their tonsured heads that it was impossible not to think their gibberish was really an ordered language with a grammar that someday some philologist would understand.’

Here, the language is so concrete, so evocative and direct, that it catapults us into the scene. We see what the character sees, smell what she smells, hear what she hears. We would do well to emulate this in our own writing.


Use captivating language to drive your novels and screenplays. Tell us what a thing is rather than what it is not and do so directly, concretely and precisely.

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Understanding Layered Conflict in Stories

Fight Club contains many examples of layered conflict.
Fight Club contains many examples of layered conflict.

Conflict, especially layered conflict, is the driving force behind every story. It supports narrative cause and effect and provides fuel for the tale. Conflict arises from forces that oppose each other and operates on multiple levels. Here are three types of conflict: external, internal, and mixed.

External conflict is typically represented through protagonist/antagonist interaction, but it can also take the form of environmental opposition such as a threat presented by a volcano, or a cyclone. 

Internal conflict pits the protagonist against himself, in effect, turning him into the story’s antagonist — as in Fight Club where the conflict is between the character’s wishes, goals and desires, and between defining traits). 

Mixed conflict is the most common form. Here the protagonist is confronted by a mixture of inner and outer obstacles. 

One of my favourite films, The Matrix, is a great example of how conflict plays out across the layers. At an internal level, the protagonist, Neo experiences conflict between his belief that his current existence is real, and his growing conviction that the world as he knows it is an illusion. It is only when he comes to accept that he is The One that he is able to resolve his inner conflict and defeat the antagonist, agent Smith, and the machines, which have enslaved humanity. Neo’s struggle to attain the story goal, then, is pitted against a multilayered conflict.


Layered conflict is the fuel that powers your story. The layers can be described as external, internal, and mixed.

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