Tag Archives: write tip

Superfluous Words – strike them from a sentence

Superfluous words—one of William Strunk’s best remembered admonitions.
Omit superfluous words—one of William Strunk’s best remembered admonitions.

In his book, Elements of Style, William Strunk Jr. admonishes us to strike superfluous words from our writing. Our narratives will be more polished and energetic for it.


Here are some examples from his book:

  • The question as to whether / whether
  • There is no doubt but that / doubtless
  • In a hasty manner / hastily
  • He is a man who / who
  • His brother, who is a member of the same firm / His brother, a member of the same firm

“Superfluous words weigh down sentences, lessening their import and impact.“

I often castigate students for writing paragraph-long sentences that confuse the reader. I suggest that the remedy is to break up long sentences into shorter ones that build through logical progression and culminate in a telling conclusion. Sometimes, however, the reverse is true. A single, well-styled sentence can deliver more. Here’s another example from William Strunk:

“Macbeth was very ambitious. This led him to wish to become king of Scotland. The witches told him that this wish of his would come true. The king of Scotland at this time was Duncan. Encouraged by his wife, Macbeth murdered Duncan. He was thus enabled to succeed Duncan as king.”

(Is reduced to:

Encouraged by his wife, Macbeth achieved his ambition and realized the prediction of the witches by murdering Duncan and becoming king of Scotland.

Brevity is even more important in screenplays, where a lean, tight style adds to a sense of pace—a requirement in many film genres.

Consider replacing wordy, action-block descriptions with punchier ones:

  • Blake’s hand flashes like lightning to the table, grabbing the gun from it and pointing it at Jake in one breathtaking movement. / Blake snatches the gun from the table and points it at Jack.
  • Matthew slows his pace down to jogging speed. / Matthew slows to a jog.
  • Bethany rushes up to the wall containing the largest window in the room and climbs on the sill. / Bethany rushes up to the largest window and climbs on the sill.

”Brevity leads to precision. Precision leads to a heightened reading experience.”

Do not repeat redundant information in a scene’s action block:

  • Burlap, now fully transformed into a werewolf, stomps into the room, thick muscles hiding under dark fur, fangs bared, great thighs ready to spring. / We already know what a werewolf looks like. Rather write: Bulap, now a warewolf, stomps into the room, ready to spring.

Although this cut-to the-bone brevity is less of a requirement in a novel than in a screenplay, all stories benefit through brevity and precision. 

Summary

Strike superfluous words from your sentences to make your stories leaner and punchier.

Obstacles and the Foundation of Structure

Obstacles in Source Code
Obstacles as reversals in Source Code

Obstacles in stories. What are they?

In previous posts, I discussed the importance of turning points to the structure of a story, suggesting that their function is to introduce new information, information that ought to be surprising yet inevitable. Surprising, because it keeps the audience or reader guessing, and inevitable because it has the ring of truth about it.

But what specific forms do turning points/obstacles take?

External/Internal

External and internal obstacles flow from the outer and inner journey of the protagonist. In the best stories, they are causally related. A protagonist who is afraid of heights but has to cross a tiny ledge on a skyscraper to save his stranded child has more on his mind than the physical task alone. 

The Specifics of Obstacles

Obstacles may stop the flow of events, forcing the protagonist to start again in a completely new direction, or they may deflect or expand the flow in a related direction, or they may even reverse the flow, resulting in an about-turn.

“One way to view turning points is as obstacles that block the way to the protagonist’s goal and force a change in direction.”

What type of obstacle should you use in your stories? That depends on the type of story you’re telling. Episodic, or biographical stories often stop the current flow in favour of a new option — one episode in one’s life comes to an end and another begins. 

Reversals, on the other hand, have effectively been employed in a type of story called multiform narrative, such as Groundhog DayRun Lola RunVantage Point and Source Code. Such stories replay events from the same starting point but with variations in outcome.

Deflection or expansion is by far the most common form of obstacle. Here the original goal is adjusted, or realigned, but still adheres to the original intent. In Unforgiven, for example, Will Manny’s intention of killing the men who cut up the face of a prostitute, expands into killing anyone who participated in the murder of his friend, Ned Logan. The original goal, which has already been achieved, has been expanded to include an additional one.

Summary

Turning points are obstacles to the status quo. They introduce major new sections of your story, presenting information that is surprising yet inevitable. There are three main types—dead stop, deflection/expansion, and reversal.

Do You Like Your Stories Up Close and Personal?

Lonely man on pierContinuing from last week’s article drawn from Margaret Geraghty’s The Novelists’s Guide, we look at the pros and cons of using the first-person technique in storytelling.

Despite its restrictions, the technique has many strengths to commend it.

When The Catcher in the Rye was first published in 1951 readers were so convinced of the actual existence of Holden Caulfield, the story’s fictitious narrator, that they scoured the streets to find him. The author’s use of youthful speech patterns, exaggeration, present tense, and slang imbued the work with a sense of fluency and authenticity that would be hard to create through the more common third person past tense narrative.

The Nostalgia of Time Travel, my soon to be released novella, concerns the struggle of an aging theoretical physicist, Benjamin Vlahos, to unite two grand theories – General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics – in one grand theory of everything.

Additionally, Benjamin is haunted by the loss of his wife that occurred thirty years previously, blaming himself for inadvertently creating the chain of events that led to her death. To make matters worse, one of the most powerful cyclones to ever threaten the coast of Northern Queensland in Australia is closing in.

As these events wind ever closer together, interspersed with fragments of memory, theoretical speculation, and a haunting sense of loss, the narrative becomes increasingly nostalgic, ethereal, and tense.

I chose to use the first person present tense for the following reasons:

1. The technique lends itself to a colloquial style which encourages a sense of collusion between the reader and Benjamin. We are made privy to Benjamin’s hopes and fears in a more immediate and direct way than is otherwise possible.

2. Because this style uses natural, fluent, speech patterns, it is less likely to descend into pretension, pompousness, and purple prose. It is also a lot easier to read.

3. Since I’m addressing the reader directly, I do not need to use intrusive speech tags. This suits a story of introspection that is driven by emotion and the tension of physical peril caused by the approaching storm.

4. Secondary characters are richer precisely because they are projected from a single viewpoint. When the young Benjamin, thinking back to his youth, says of his uncle, ‘I wished I was bigger so I could pack his bag and shove him out of the house,’ we experience this through the eyes of a six year old child and forgive him his prejudice.

5. On the down side, the protagonist has to be in every scene and the thoughts and feelings of other characters have to be filtered through his viewpoint. But again, because characters are experienced through the heart and mind of our protagonist, we are given more opportunities to explore his soul through his misunderstandings, and through irony, pathos, and humour.

5. Another criticism is that the technique forces the repetitive use of ‘I’. In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, however, the frequent use of the word adds to the sense of pathos, stasis, and eccentricity of the protagonist, as seen below:

‘I wipe my reading glasses with my handkerchief to ensure they are free of smudges, squeeze them back on my face, and tilt my equations this way and that. I dot my i’s and cross my t’s. I make sure my pluses are not really minuses resulting from a lack of concentration. I sip another cup of coffee and spread more syrup over my waffles before I study the math again.’

Summary

Use first person, present tense narration to invoke a powerful sense of authenticity, immediacy and intimacy.

Invitation

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Why Writers are Dr. Frankensteins

Man superimposed with galaxies and cyclonePeople often ask writers: Where do your characters come from? Where do you look for them? How do you select them?

The truth is that characters are most often stitched together from bits and pieces inspired by the people we have met, united by a common premise and animated by the necessities of plot.

And, like Dr. Frankenstein, writers pour themselves into their creation. We infuse our characters with our spirit and have them play out our hopes and fears.

But like Frankenstein’s monster, our creations sometimes rebel. They take on a life of their own. The result is no longer the sum of its parts. This is when our voice takes over, shaping the narrative. Some call this the muse. For me, this voice is a phantom conductor molding the numerous notes into a seamless symphony.

In my forthcoming novel, The Nostalgia of Time Travel, Benjamin Vlahos, is a man struggling to marry Quantum Theory with General Relativity. At the same time, he is haunted by the death of his wife, a tragedy that occurred years previously – something he never got over.

My protagonist is drawn from many sources. A beloved math teacher in high school, a cousin in Greece, friends and neighbours in South Africa, England and Australia, several famous physicists whose biographies I have studied. There are even elements of myself in him. My love for mathematics, relativity theory, and quantum mechanics is no secret.

But ultimately, the character will remain a corpse unless I breathe life into him. This breath typically takes the form of bestowing him with human purpose.

In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, Benjamin Vlahos has one impossible goal. To travel back to the past and prevent his wife from dying. It is this inner obsession that brings the disparate aspects of his personality together and drives the story forward. Without it Benjamin is a mere assemblage of traits serving the plot.

Summary

Assemble your characters from a variety of sources, but infuse them with life by providing them with a powerful purpose.

Invitation

If you enjoyed this post, kindly share it with others. If you have a suggestion for a future one, please leave a comment and let’s get chatting. You may subscribe to this blog by clicking on the “subscribe” or “profile” link on the bottom right-hand side of this article. I post new material every Monday.

How to Cope with Bad Reviews

ImageBad reviews tend to bother new writers more than they do old hands.

When that first stinker slams through the shiny wall of good reviews, fledgling writers tend to get down in the dumps. Some reach for the bottle. Others threaten never to write again.

The truth is that hardly anyone escapes mean-spirited, opinionated and downright nasty reviews. They seem to come out of left field when least expected. What’s worse, they appear to get things wrong — to be fundamentally unfair to the work.

My advice to writers feeling this pain is to determine whether the review is pointing to something that needs fixing, or whether it is skewered and willfully misleading.

This is no easy task. One needs to take a step back and calmly and objectively analyse the review. Once you have extracted the truth, record useful comments down in a notebook under a heading such as Things That Need Improving — for example: tighter control of theme, more authentic characters, a more distinctive voice, and what not.

Throw the reviews that are intended to crush your spirit into the trashcan where they belong, but be careful not to mistake those with an overly defensive, head-in-the-sand attitude. It takes courage, determination and a steady hand to fish out the nuggets of truth that may be lurking under the sea of negative comments.

Remind yourself that even the most popular and respected authors have garnered bad reviews.

I’ve recently reread Paul Harding’s exquisite 2010 Pulitzer winning novel, Tinkers, and was surprised to find it had garnered a high ratio of 1 and 2 star reviews on Amazon. Although not everyone’s cup of tea, the novel is one of the most emotive evocations of old age, the act of dying, and memory I have ever read. It is the sort of writing that stays with one forever.

Writers should take strength from that: If a Pulitzer winning novel of such power and magnitude has so many detractors, who are we to moan about ours?

Summary

Salvage what is useful from a bad review and discard the rest.