Tag Archives: revising

Pro-Tip: Characterization

6 Oct

How do you talk to your friends? To your family? Bosses and coworkers?

For every person and situation, there is a way we present ourselves. Why should this be any different for each of your characters? It shouldn’t.

I remember when teachers used to say, “Don’t start a sentence with ‘because,’” or “You can’t use contractions in formal or serious writing.” And they had lots of rules about slang. To a point, those rules were useful. In the context of their classrooms, they were golden. Following such laws ensured decent grades. After all, breaking a rule so explicitly stated would render the teacher unable to take you seriously beyond that point.

But now, it’s time to forget it. It’s rubbish. Rules like that have a place in the classrooms of the teachers who value them and little place else. Try writing a realistic character without breaking them. It’s nearly impossible if you want that character to sound like someone you could really meet. And that’s the key—creating characters that we see ourselves and others in, even when the character isn’t a human. Characters are textual embodiments of our human experience. Even a talking dog on Mars will be based on the actions and emotions we know because it’s impossible to invent an emotion or characteristic fully new and alien. It may seem different but, somewhere at its core, every new creation of fiction is rooted in the human experience. If characters aren’t experiencing and acting organically as you or I would, then what are they? Caricatures of prescriptive rules, rules which tell us how language ought to be but do not reflect how language is actually used.

Example: “Tom, it is late. I find we will miss the movie if we do not leave now. Are we not going to the movies after all?”

“No, Summer, we are not. I have to complete this project for chemistry lab. It is due tomorrow, and I neglected to begin work earlier. I am very sorry.”

Ok, so there’s nothing technically wrong with that exchange between Summer and her boyfriend, Tom. The scene is clear. But how forced did that feel? If you were Summer would you talk like that? If you were Tom? Maybe if this was an exchange between Data and a Vulcan… otherwise, I doubt it. Plus, would a Vulcan actually forget to do his homework? I digress.

Many readers play the scenes of a novel like a movie in their minds. Less visual learners may not, but chances are, they at least listen to the soundtrack of the words. Reading a conversation like the example is as awkward feeling as it would be to watch that scene play out in real life. It doesn’t flow. It sounds like a business exchange between strangers, not a dispute between partners, lovers. The formality slows the natural rhythm of reading. It gets in the way. In more colloquial speech, the words run together. They sound in a reader’s head as they would out of the reader’s mouth. Smooth, easy, and with more personality.

When writing, make sure you’re not stalling the tension and momentum of your scenes by being overly formal. Fiction novels aren’t research papers, agent queries, resumes, or instruction manuals. Make your characters talk like real people.

Since you’ve thrown out all of those rules I mentioned earlier, replace them with this: Each character must have a unique and realistic voice that reflects personality. All quirks will at that point appear purposeful because they will be unique to the character.

Perhaps one character really DOES talk that way in the novel. The choice to leave the dialogue formal, or fully informal, at all times, or even riddled with slang or nonsense words would be obviously purposeful to your readers because no one else would be quite the same. The way we talk is a part of our personality, and it is no different for the characters you create.

Keeping that in mind, let’s try the example again.

“Tom, aren’t we going to the movies? We’ll be late.”

“No, Summer. I’ve got this project for chem that’s due tomorrow. I forgot all about it. Sorry.”

OR

“Tom, we’re not going to the movies, are we?”

“Nope. I just remember I have a chemistry project due in the morning.”

“You promised.”

“I’m sorry.”

“See, you always do this. You plan all this great stuff and then you’re all, ‘Oh, well, I gotta do this instead.’”

“I don’t sound like that.”

OR

“You ready to go, Tom? We need to leave now.”

“I’m doing this chem lab. I can’t stop in the middle of it.”

“Really? You knew we were going out at 4. You saw me getting ready. Why did you start the project if you knew you couldn’t stop until the end? Why didn’t you say something an hour ago?”

See how a simple exchange can escalate if you let the language develop to who the characters are individually and what their situation is as a whole? With additional characterization and narration, the reader may already know or soon learn that these two always bicker, that she’s a little spoiled, but that her irritation is justified due to his aloof attitude and transient interests, or maybe it’s a first fight and the reader has to continue to find out if their relationship can withstand it. With more surrounding description, the reader should be able to say these sentences in the voices set up for each character—the reader’s own variation of what the author has led her to imagine.

The takeaway here is, within reasonable consideration of appropriateness to your target audience, abandon all rules that don’t suit the reality of a character or scene. If your character uses contractions in speech or starts sentences with “because,” let him. If the scene requires slang, go for it. If your protagonist only curses when surprised because she hates to be surprised, let it fly, but only in the proper scenarios. Stay true to the character. All of them should talk in the text like they would talk to you in real life.

Happy writing.

Amanda Marsico,

Editor, Proofreader, Red Ink Enthusiast

Pro-Tip: Setting

5 Oct

It’s important to ground your writing in a time and place. This isn’t just for fiction writers, either. Every discourse needs a context. It’s not enough just to say that someone is in Philly on a Saturday afternoon. Yes, that is a place and time, but it doesn’t tell the reader anything about the larger scope of the scenario. Is this past, present, or future? Go beyond that, as well. If your character is in Chicago in the present, but your narrative flashes back three years to that time she visited Quebec, you’ll still need to tell the reader when NOW is and when THREE YEARS AGO was. Is NOW actually now, 2015? Or, is the NOW in your story 1955? From that point, the flashbacks and flashforwards will be greatly impacted. 2012 was a lot different than 1952. So, while visual (and other sensory) descriptions of your setting are very important in order for the reader to get a sense of what physically surrounds the characters, that setting isn’t just floating in some ambiguous time in history.

Example: Marley and Chris rounded the corner of 5th Avenue to hail a cab. It was a beautiful summer day, and there were lots of people about. Chris stepped to the littered curb and coolly signaled the yellow minivan. When it skimmed the sidewalk, leaves and papers rustled past. Marley approached, lost in thoughts of three years earlier. Not much around her had changed. The air smelled the same—hot, vaguely polluted, with mingled aromas of ethnic foods—and the buildings around her still stood watching in their fading brick skins. Beneath that, though, deeper, where the city had no jurisdiction over her thoughts, autumn was creeping in, and with it the rusty color-change of her feelings for Chris. Leaves drying before a fall.

Now, the paragraph above has a physical and geographical setting. It has a seasonal setting. It has sensory details about where they are currently, where they were three years before, and how that is impacting her emotionally. However, this paragraph would not be able to hold its own in a novel if this were the only indication of time and place. There are no markers to tell me when NOW and THREE YEARS AGO actually happened. The inclusion of a vehicle gives a better indication of NOW, but it still isn’t exact. We also can’t tell how old they are. Old enough to have been in a relationship for three years, but that still leaves a lot of options.
If this were a scene in the middle of a novel where those factors in question had already been established, there would, of course, be no need to repeat that information. If Marley frequently flashes back to three years ago, and that year was detailed in depth during the first flash back, it would be redundant to dig up those details every time. A casual reference of this kind would suffice.

The take-away, then, is situational. If you’re placing characters for the first time, the reader needs to know enough about that moment to ground them in the geography and era. You don’t want your readers imagining your futuristic, silicone body suit-wearing protagonist in a 1920s flapper dress. I assume. The pictures we imagine as we read are informed by what the author chooses to disclose. If you want a certain conclusion reached, or in this case a certain visual, lead the reader to it. Assess your situation scene by scene. Decide if you need that additional information or if it would be redundant to include it. Write accordingly.

And remember, this isn’t just for fiction despite my first example. A research paper, a piece of journalism, and editorial, a blog all need a context. It might be sufficient to say of a blog piece, “I’m on my couch with the cats writing this to you now.” A blog post will be time-stamped by the hosting website. Readers will know when NOW actually happened. An editorial on a great new restaurant might need more. “In order to miss the dinner crowd, I ate at Chez New Restaurant with my husband at 4pm. They just opened a week ago, which is a shame because opening a week earlier could have earned them the last of the summer vacationers, but I digress. We ordered the…” You get where I’m going with this. Without being overly detailed, the reader sees that I ate dinner, but early in the day, and that the restaurant is new as of the end of summer/early fall. Even without a specific date in the narrative, it gives a clear picture of the setting/season. I won’t bore you with more examples; the point is clear. Assess your scenario and the need-to-knows of your readers. Premeditate their questions and answer in advance by being detailed.

How do you ground your readers in a setting? I’d love to hear your methods in the comments!

Thanks for reading.

Amanda Marsico

Editor, Proofreader, Red Ink Enthusiast

Join me on Facebook http://www.facebook.com/marsicowritesite

Pro-Tip: Clarity in Paragraphs and Transitions

30 Sep

It’s easy enough to say that each paragraph you write should make sense. It’s an obvious thing for me to say, and all of you reading this are probably thinking,”Well, that’s not advice.” And you’re right. But beyond that, clarity in a paragraph means that each segment of text should have a distinguishing factor, a reason that it is its own paragraph. In short, a main idea that is summarizable. So, if a paragraph is separated from the one before or after it just as a break in text, for visual appeal or as a small breather, that’s not enough reason for the segment to stand alone. If that separate segment doesn’t have its own main point, its own idea or skeleton that makes it exist separately from the previous paragraph, then it shouldn’t be separate. 

Don’t let high school lessons on paragraphs trip you. Forget the “a paragraph has about five sentences” lesson, and forget the “that paragraph is the entire page” complaint. If there is a reason for all of those thoughts to exist together, then so be it. BUT, that is the great and determining question, both for deciding if you need to break into a new paragraph or group smaller segments into one large piece. Ask yourself: 

  • Are like ideas together?
  • Does this paragraph have a main point?
  • Although related overall, does it exist independently of the previous and following paragraph?

Depending on your answers, you’ve either created a clear paragraph with backbone and purpose, or you haven’t. Revise accordingly.

If you have no reason for a paragraph to be on its own, if it’s a continuation of the previous paragraph, put it with that other paragraph. Keep like ideas together. Otherwise, have a good reason for your choices.

  • Example: Breaking a paragraph in the middle of one narrative moment because the paragraph looks too long on the page versus purposeful/stylistic dislocation or repetition of an idea apart from the main narrative that contains it to achieve flashback or flash forward

When you do need to start a new paragraph, use topic sentences or transition sentences. They say, “Here I am. I am related to the general ideas of the text as a whole, but I am my own entity. I am taking you from the idea in that paragraph to this one, and even though we’re different, we belong together. I’ll prove it.” And then you use the body of that paragraph to prove it. I’ve always said, and any of my formers students reading this can attest, that if you want your reader to reach a certain conclusion about your ideas, you must lead them there with transitions. What you see as related may not seem so apparent to others without that clear signal. You’re the writer. Of course YOU know what you’re trying to say. Will your reader? As such, use that transition as the topic sentence which lends the new paragraph clarity for being its own thing, clarity/summarizabiltiy in its topic, and clarity in its purpose for existing in the story at all. Again, if the paragraph doesn’t do these things, it probably shouldn’t be there (either on its own, or maybe at all–see pro-tip on letting go of the junk).

Finally, keep in mind that all of this advice on paragraph breaks applies only to narrative and content paragraphs. Dialogue, of course, does not fit in this scenario because all new beginnings of dialogue, whether switching between speakers or switching between speaker and narrative, begin a new paragraph. This is a rule of formatting not to be confused with what I’ve said here about lumping large pieces of text together if it all has the same main idea. Please don’t do that with dialogue. 

For more discussion, see the comments section below or email me at marsicoam@gmail.com! In the meantime,

Happy writing!

Amanda Marsico

Editor, Proofreader, Red Ink Enthusiast

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