- Incorrect punctuation
- Description – or lack of it
- Dialogue Tags
- Going to/starting to/began to
Saturday, 17 December 2016
Last week we looked at some common mistakes such as viewpoint/POV, exposition (show, don’t tell) and superfluous description, so this week we’ll take a look at the other common mistakes authors make when writing:
Getting tenses in a tangle a very common error among writers, whether they’re new or established. That’s because sometimes, during the throes of writing, it’s easy to slip from one tense to another without even noticing.
Past tense – he did/she said/they were etc, is the most common tense to work with and an easy one to use. Problems occur, however, when writers choose the present tense, (I do/she is/they are etc), which is a little more difficult to get to grips with, certainly in terms of the choice of POV. Many will inadvertently slip from the present into past tense without realising. Here’s a simple example:
I get out of the car and make my way to the foyer, knowing she was waiting for me.
The first half of the sentence is present tense, but the second part has slipped into past tense. ‘Knowing, was and waiting’ are past tense. The sentence should be:
I get out of the car and make my way to the foyer; I know she waits for me.
Because of the similarity of certain tenses, writers make errors and often it takes a professional editor to spot them. But writers can help themselves by paying attention to tenses and being vigilant in order to keep tenses in check. Practice using present tense – it’s by far the best way to learn how present tense works, and read stories that have been written in present tense to gain an understanding how it works.
Present tense isn’t suitable for those who are inexperienced, which is why it’s so important to practice, practice, practice.
Incorrect punctuation comes in all forms, but most errors occur when writers place commas and full stops (periods) incorrectly, or not at all. Other writers get confused about using a comma or a semi-colon.
A comma acts as a pause in the narrative to stop the reader from tripping over words, but also to define sentences properly, for example:
After Jane had finished her drink, and with time pressing on, she got up and made her way to the door.
The commas give a brief pause and make the sentence clear. Errors occur when the writer omits the comma, or places it in the wrong section of the sentence, for example:
After, Jane had finished her drink and with time pressing on she got up and made her way, to the door.
The placement of the comma after the word ‘after’ is incorrect and the comma placement after ‘way’ is also incorrect. It renders the sentence incomplete and unclear.
Writers also use the comma to join two main clauses – known as a comma splice, for example:
Jane finished her drink, time pressed on.
This is a typical comma splice and the best way to improve the sentence is to either introduce a full stop or introduce a conjunction, such as ‘and’, for example:
Jane finished her drink. Time pressed on.
Jane finished her drink and time pressed on.
So what happens when a writers misuse the full stop? Well, it creates all manner of confusion. Writing should always be clear, regardless of the story. Here’s an example of incorrect full stop placement:
She knew she had to. Do it right.
This causes what is known as fragmentation, where an incorrect full stop creates two separate sentences that don’t make sense. The reader will stumble over the sentence. It should be as follows:
She knew she had to do it right.
As for other punctuation, never use more than one exclamation mark. One is sufficient! Two or three exclamation marks make you look like a seven year old!!!
Semi-colons are also often used incorrectly, mostly because writers don’t understand what they are or what their function is. They are useful to join two separate parts of a sentence, or two independent clauses, for instance:
He turned full circle; knew the light was his only escape.
She poured the drink; the breath lodged in her throat.
These examples show how two independent clauses can be joined by the semi-colon to add to the sentence rather than detract from it. This is especially useful for retaining tension and atmosphere in action scenes, because it keeps the momentum without needing to slow the pace with independent clauses.
Description – Or Lack of It
Two things can happen with your description – it will either be too sparse, which will leave the reader dissatisfied and short-changed, because they have nothing to help them imagine the story or characters, or the description is too over the top or too flowery.
Where description is concerned, many authors make the mistake of assuming the reader will know what’s going on and will fill in the gaps themselves in the absence of descriptive narrative. Some writers blatantly disregard description and simply tell the reader. This just doesn’t make a good writer, or a good novel.
Description is vital. Without it, your reader simply won’t engage with the story or the characters. The idea is to find a balance, so that important scenes get more description – which helps to visualise the story to the reader – and less important scenes only get a line or two of narrative.
Are you guilty of using dialogue tags like, ‘she squealed’, ‘he whispered’ or ‘she smiled’? If so, you’re committing a very common transgression.
Writers, especially beginners, can go overboard with dialogue tags, in the belief that they should use alternatives to ‘said.’ While too much instances of ‘said’ can become annoying, good writers can construct sentences that minimise its use and therefore make ‘said’ almost invisible to the reader. Done properly, ‘said’ and ‘asked’ (the most frequently used tags) simply fade into the reader’s background. And most of the time, these two tags are all that’s needed.
There will be occasions, however, when writers splash their dialogue with some other tags. But they do it sparingly, which keeps the dialogue interesting and dynamic without it being overdone and tacky.
Incidentally, characters can’t smile, squeal or chuckle a conversation, because they are actions, not dialogue, so tags like these don’t belong, for example:
‘I’ll bear that in mind,’ she smiled.
This is incorrect because ‘smiled’ is an action. Instead, such actions should be shown before the line of dialogue, for instance:
She smiled with hidden charm. ‘I’ll bear that in mind.’
Dialogue should always be clear and uncomplicated and shouldn’t be clogged by unnecessary dialogue tags that more often than not are actions rather than speech. It makes dialogue messy, so choose dialogue tags carefully.
I would like to thank you for your support in 2016, and wish you all Merry Christmas/Happy Holidays and a Happy New Year. AllWrite will return 7th January 2017.
Saturday, 10 December 2016
What better way to end the year than with a timely reminder of how to avoid those common writing mistakes that plague all writers? We’re all guilty; we all fall prey to them from time to time – no one is perfect.
Writing is never static – we are constantly learning as we go, and even the most experienced writers have to double check themselves to catch even the most obvious errors.
We’ll be looking in more detail at these very common mistakes:
- Show, don’t tell
- Prologues/Info dumps/indirect exposition
- Superfluous description
- Hanging participles/dangling modifiers
- Incorrect punctuation
- Description – or lack of it
- Dialogue Tags
- Going to/starting to/began to
Show, Don’t Tell
This is probably the most common mistake that writers make. Telling a story is one thing, but ‘showing’ a story is another. So instead of writing flat, dull, unimaginative description that does nothing for the story, show the reader, let them visualise what you describe. Show them with atmosphere, emotion, thoughts, the five senses, actions and dialogue etc. Enhance the story and make it real for the reader, so that they become emotionally invested enough to want to experience the story on a deeper level.
Telling just doesn’t cut it. You need to show the reader. Let the characters show the reader their thoughts and feelings. Let their actions show the reader. Let the descriptions show the reader. Don’t just tell them.
Knowing which POV will work for your novel/short story is important, because each one is different in many ways and can offer readers different perspectives.
Certain genres benefit from first person, because it creates immediacy and reader connection. This is because it can only be told from the protagonist’s viewpoint. Everything is felt through the main character. It’s used effectively in literary fiction and young adult fiction, although it has to be said that this POV lacks the emotional punch of third person. The same is true with short stories, which are more personal if told from a first person POV.
Third person POV, on the other hand, provides a broad spectrum of experiences and emotions which can be explored through all the main characters in order to tell the story. It may not have the same immediacy as first person, but it more than makes up for it in pure detail.
Writers often choose the wrong POV for the type of story they want to tell. Choose wisely and if necessary, experiment which point of view works best for the story.
The other grave mistake is flipping from one character viewpoint to another in the same scene, commonly known as ‘head-hopping’. You can only write one character viewpoint at a time in any given scene.
One last mistake is that authors fall into is the habit of revealing information to the reader that the main character does not or cannot possibly know. This is surprisingly common because of the omniscient voice; however your main character won’t know everything that is going on. It’s impossible.
The main character won’t know what another person is thinking or feeling, yet writers make the mistake of telling their readers. Or they write about another character’s movements that are not privy to the main character, while still in the protagonist’s viewpoint. These are common errors, so be careful about the information you impart while in a particular POV.
Prologues/ Info Dumps/Indirect Exposition
This is a very common writing error, which almost all writers have made at one time or another.
Prologues, info dumps and indirect exposition all slow the story down or cause the narrative to stutter, and this is simply because it lacks pace or it’s just not dynamic enough. Narrative needs to have pace – action scenes require a quicker pace, while reflective scenes should slow the pace, and normal narrative/descriptive scenes should be mid-paced.
A prologue will defeat any attention-grabbing opener because all it does is explain stuff that normally isn’t included in the main story. Prologues are not dynamic by nature – they plod. If the intention is to grab the reader and grip them from the outset, a prologue can be considered the complete opposite and may well send the reader to sleep.
Info dumps also bore the reader. They don’t want to be confronted by huge chucks of information that could be better spread throughout the story at the right moments and in a subtle way. Important information is needed to help the story, but reveal it when it’s necessary, not in large doses, and especially not in the first chapter.
Indirect exposition is pages full of boring narrative – usually background information - that that reader doesn’t need or want to know. As with any information that’s pertinent to the plot, sprinkle it throughout the story, don’t write large amounts of tedious text, and especially not in chapter one.
This happens when the writer describes more than is necessary to create a scene and is very common among new writers when writing non-important narrative (in other words, the ordinary narrative, transitional descriptions pertinent info descriptions etc). The aim of any writing is to be clear and concise, and over-description can disrupt narrative flow, and bore the reader, for example:
John opened the front door and headed to the car. He opened the car door, climbed in and started the engine. He checked the mirror and pulled away from the kerb and made his way to the warehouse.
This unimportant transitional description over describes what is, in effect, a single action. And since the action is a non-pertinent scene (it’s merely being used as an intermediary scene), it can be tightened, for example:
John left the house and drove to the warehouse.
All the superfluous words are gone and all that is left is the most useful information for the reader. But what about those important scenes, the ones that need description?
Key scenes – those that move the story forward, reveal information, show action etc, rely on well written, visual depiction, but at the same time they also don’t need superfluous descriptions, so it’s up to writers to make sure their narrative is always clear and concise.
Hanging Participles/Dangling modifiers
Dangling modifiers can cause all manner of confusion. A modifying phrase that hangs or dangles at the front of a sentence, or by inserting a comma incorrectly, can render the sentence ungrammatical and illogical. Not only that, but it may confuse the reader, for example:
Having painted the door, the cat will stay indoors until it’s dry.
This example shows how the modifier ‘having painted the door’ is not correctly modifying ‘the cat will stay indoors’, so therefore it creates ambiguity by suggesting the cat painted the door, then dried off indoors! A better sentence structure would get rid of both the dangling modifier and the ambiguity:
Once I’ve painted the door, I will let my cat stay indoors until it’s dry.
Sometimes the dangling modifier acts as a misplaced modifier, which happens when the word that is being modified is not placed next to its modifier, for example:
As a product of poverty, piano lessons ensured John’s success.
In this example, the dangling modifier has been placed after the comma in the sentence, after the word ‘poverty’. But it causes confusion and ambiguity because it reads as though the piano is the product of poverty, not John. And as we all know, a piano is cannot be poor. The sentence, therefore, doesn’t make sense.
The other huge mistake in writing is the use of hanging participles to begin sentences, which modify the subject of the sentence. This can cause uncertainty and ungrammatical sentence structures, for example:
Running for the door, he glanced over his shoulder and tripped over the wire. (A character can’t run, glance over the shoulder and trip at the same time). The correct sentence is:
He ran for the door, glanced over his shoulder and tripped over the wire.
Rounding the corner, the sun shone down the street. (The sun cannot round the corner of the street, since it’s an object in the sky). The correct sentence is:
The sun shone down the street as I rounded the corner.
Looking through the curtains, the moon looked bright. (The moon cannot look through curtains). The correct sentence is:
The moon looked bright as I looked through the curtains.
Answering the telephone, she knew it would be bad news. (She can’t answer the telephone and know it’s bad news unless she hears that it’s bad news first). The correct sentence is:
She answered the telephone and heard it was bad news.
These kinds of constructions can have a negative impact on the narrative and should be avoided. Ambiguity and confusion has no place in fiction. The aim is to always be clear and concise and to avoid writing illogical sentences. Hanging participles and dangling modifiers don’t create clear sentences, yet writers still make the mistake of using them.
In Part 2, we’ll look at some more common mistakes made by writers, and how you can avoid them and make your writing that much better.
Next week: Common Writing Mistakes to Avoid – Part 2
Saturday, 3 December 2016
In the previous article we looked at why it’s beneficial to do some story development, by pulling together the most important aspects such as plot, characters, genre, themes, subplots and setting. Now that you have an idea of the important ingredients, here are some ways to help visualise and develop the story.
Many writers use storyboarding as a way to develop a story, by using sketches to visualise key scenes. It’s a practical approach used in movie making, with scenes drawn out that show the unfolding action and ‘snapshots’ of the important turning points and plot twists.
This is useful if you’re artistic and want to truly visualise your novel with a graphic overview.
Chapter Outlines/Story Arcs
Favoured by many writers, the chapter outline is a simple summary of each chapter and briefly details what might happen, together with likely actions. It doesn’t have to be in-depth (though there is no reason for it not to be, if you want to do that), but the outline should contain enough information to guide you through your chapters as you write.
Another similar thing is to plot a story arc, which shows the development of the story from the beginning, the rise of action, the pinnacle of the conflict and the descent towards conclusion and resolution. Story arcs are more complex that simple chapter outlines because they involve every important moment that happens within the story. These are useful for writers who like to plan in great detail.
Character Outline/Character arcs
This is good old fashioned characterisation. No story is worth reading without well developed characters. For believable characters, a character analysis or outline is paramount. You need to know everything about your characters to the point they could be real people. Having characters who are multidimensional and larger than life make the story writing process that much easier because the more information you have, the easier it is to visualise them.
A more detailed approach is to use a drawn character arc which shows the character’s development and growth throughout the story, just as with the story arc. Some writers even go as far as to sketch out their main characters or use photographs or real people as a model to visualise them.
Some writers opt for more simple ways of developing their story and they do this by using line graphs to highlight key moments, turning points, revelations and so on.
There’s no doubt that having a visual aid to story development is extremely helpful. As writers we deal with words and imaginary places, but sometimes we have to envision more than what we imagine; we have to make it as real as possible.
What kind of maps? Mind maps or bubble maps are useful to bring together story ideas and subplots and tangible story threads. They’re easy to work with and provide an easy visual prompt.
Those who love to plan things in great detail may go as far as sketching out layout maps for their imagined houses, towns/villages and other places. They do this in order to provide a realistic perspective to the places they’ve created, and to provide continuity in the writing process, for instance, if a prominent coffee table appears in chapter four, but then is described in a completely different location by chapter fifteen, then it’s an inconsistency that would need addressing.
Whether you use graphs, maps, lists or complex story boarding, the more ways you can visualise the story, the better you are able to develop it.
Next week: Common Writing Mistakes
Saturday, 26 November 2016
All stories need some sort of development, to a degree. Writers are as individual as their stories and everyone approaches fiction writing in a different way, so there are authors who like to develop and plan their stories in great detail, and those who write ad hoc, commonly known as “pansters”.
It’s entirely up to the writer what they do, however some planning and development is encouraged, otherwise the result could end up an incoherent mess.
There are a number of benefits for story development. It’s the difference between driving a car in the dark with the headlights on and driving without any light at all. Without lights to see where you’re going, you’re quite literally in the dark – in every way. Story development works in the same way – you can choose to be in the dark about, and just hope for the best, it or you can plan your story/novel in as much detail as you want.
Story development makes the process so much easier, it helps the writer not just to put together a story, but to understand the underlying complexities of that story, because of the varied elements involved – everything from structure, the characters, plot, themes, sub plots, outcomes and ending. Writing a story isn’t just about sitting down and just writing. What goes on behind the scenes to make the story happen is just as important.
Good story development entails all the elements you want in your novel or short story. But to put the development into action, you have to have some basic foundations to work with first:-
The Story Idea/Plot
- What is the story about? What’s the plot?
- Whose story is it?
- What is the message of your story?
- What will it achieve?
- How will it end?
You need to be fully familiar with the premise of your story, and that means you need to know what it’s about, whose story it is, what it wants to say and what it will achieve; otherwise you may find yourself on a road to nowhere.
- Who are the main characters?
- What motivates them? Why are they involved with this story?
- Why do they behave in certain ways?
- What is the protagonist’s relationship with the antagonist? Why is there conflict?
- What does the protagonist want to achieve? What’s his/her prime goal?
- Which character might be involved with a subplot(s) and the main plot?
Familiarity with your characters makes it much easier to write them because they become almost real. This level of awareness eliminates common problems that occur as the story progresses, such as knowing how your characters are supposed to act in an unfamiliar situation, without them reverting to stereotypes, or by acting out of character. Characters need to be believable in all they do, so you have to know their behaviours, reactions and what drives them.
Other problems that arise without some planning is becoming stuck halfway through because you don’t have any idea what your characters should do next or how they move the story forward. It’s important that characters are thoroughly developed prior to writing.
- Where is the story set?
- What is the time frame? Does it happen over a few days, or less, or over a period of years, or even decades?
- When is the story set? Modern day, decades ago, last century, or further still? Or perhaps the future?
- What kind of locations might also appear?
Know the setting, or locations, and know where and when the story will take place. Writers often zig-zag from location to location (James Bond style) in the belief that including loads of cool places will impress the reader, when most of the time the locations just distract from the story rather than enhance it. A little planning is required to set the story correctly and make it credible and believable.
- What subplots might there be?
- Which characters might be involved?
- What impact will they have on the main story and characters?
- What will they achieve? What are they trying to say to the reader?
- How will the subplots they be resolved in relation to the story as a whole?
Every story needs a theme or two. They underpin and add layers of depth to the story. Themes such as love, betrayal, deceit, forgiveness and so on, all add to the strength and weight to the story.
What’s the genre? Is the story horror, fantasy, a romance, sci-fi, or a hybrid of genres? Too often authors write their novels but don’t have a real indication of what genre it actually is, and the type audience it’s aimed at. Sometimes their stories start out as one thing and change halfway through the process, thus making things messy, so knowing the genre you intend to write helps to define the whole story from the outset.
Now that the basic ingredients are ready, you can now start to develop in detail. There are many ways to do this and writers can use as many or as few as they like. Next week we’ll take a look at the different methods to adopt for developing your story.
Next week: Developing a story – Part 2
Sunday, 20 November 2016
This is a common question asked by almost all writers. At which point is the right point to start the story? Where is the best place to start?
The obvious answer is to start at the beginning, because that’s where every story starts, but in truth, the story shouldn’t start at the beginning, not in the literal sense. This sounds like contrary advice, but it actually isn’t. All good editors and writers will agree – a story should start just after the beginning.
But what does that actually mean?
It’s the general accepted principle that a good story opens at a crucial or significant moment in the character’s life. Often, you will come across the ‘Open with a bang’ statement, which advises to open the story in such as way as to grab the reader’s interest. In essence, this means the story should jump right into the action, and that means the beginning of the story should reflect this.
In real terms, however, this action probably wouldn’t happen until chapter two, when things get going and stuff happens. That’s because most writers make the common mistake of first ‘setting’ the scene and establishing the story for the reader, which means they spend the first chapter filling several pages with exposition and backstory before anything significant or important actually happens.
The general advice, then, is to start not at the beginning – not in the true sense – but to open the novel bang in the middle of that important, significant moment or with the action, and forego all backstory and exposition. In reality your second chapter most often should be your first chapter.
Start the story where it’s most appropriate. Don’t bore the reader with pages of backstory or a prologue or huge info dumps. The idea is to grab the reader’s attention immediately and keep them interested. This won’t happen if you spend half a dozen pages explaining everything, otherwise you lose this effect and you lose the reader.
To maximise your opening, starting points should be:
- Interesting or intriguing or mysterious
- Action led
- At a critical moment of the character’s life – a pivotal, decisive turning point.
- In real terms, the crux of your story would most likely be found in your chapter two, so in fictional terms, make chapter two your chapter one opening.
To avoid problems of boring your reader or not engaging them sufficiently, don’t start the story with any of the following:-
- Indirect exposition
- Info dumps
When you hear advice not to start at the beginning, it means you should do just that and start at the moment that is really the most important.
Next week: Developing a story
Sunday, 13 November 2016
In much the same way that story arcs work, as discussed in last week’s article, character arcs encompass how a character grows and develops throughout the story, from beginning to end. But what are they exactly?
When writers refer to character arcs, they’re referring to the continuing development path of a particular character, which begins at the very start of the story, when he or she is usually at his or her most vulnerable or weakest, and follows this development right to the end of the story, when the character is at his or her strongest. It’s that change the character undergoes that is captured in a character arc.
Again, like story arcs, when we talk of a character arc, it’s a figurative thing, rather than a physical one. It is a representation of the chronological journey your main characters take through the entire story and the transformation that occurs because of this - his or her motivations, main goal, expectations, conflicts, important events, revelations and turning points, and how such events are overcome or dealt with. It incorporates how a character grows and changes and emerges at the end of the story a changed person because of what has happened to them.
Often the crux of characterisation is the fundamental changes the character goes through – which can be physical, emotional or psychological. Not only that, but the character has to have learned something about the world or themselves by the conclusion of the story, otherwise the reader will not be satisfied with the resolution you offer. In real life, every major life experience changes us in some way, (sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse), and so fiction is no different.
Essentially, there is only one real character arc for your character and not the half a dozen or so ‘types’ to be found on the internet, such as the ‘character growth arc’, the ‘change arc’ or the ‘hero/villain arc’ and so on. These are superfluous and unnecessary. That’s because every type is already found within the character arc – it encompasses the character’s growth, their emotional and physical ups and downs, their ability to adapt and their change of a character etc. There is only one type.
So who gets to have a character arc?
Generally speaking it’s usually only the main characters that have character arcs, rather than secondary characters, since they are the ones that undergo change and growth – whether that change is self awareness, a change of character or outlook or the ability to adapt to the significant changes that have occurred within their life.
The character arc also runs parallel to the story arc, in that the character progresses with the story, with the events and incidents and with the key turning points etc. Like the story arc, it must chronologically track the beginning, middle and the end of the character’s journey.
While a character arc may only be a figurative thing, some writers like to plot their character’s paths with an actual arc to help them characterise and visualise the character’s journey through the story. This is actually a good way of bonding the character to the story so that they run parallel and a practical way of ‘seeing’ the way.
When considering a character arc, allow for the following aspects:-
you can see, character arcs aren’t that much different to story arc; they follow the same structure and path and development. They can be figurative or they can be real, plotted arcs, but nevertheless they can help the writer visualise their protagonist’s journey within the heart of the story.
Next week: Starting points – where should the story actually start?