Welcome to the second rendition of The Journey of Prose. If you missed the first of the series, click here. (This will take you to the original AJFlowers author site.)
Today’s focus, 5 Common Pitfalls.
The first time you took pen to paper and tried to write a story it’s likely that it came out simply as information. It takes time to rewire the brain to spit out information as good prose. The best way to start is by understanding the major pitfalls of dull writing.
For today’s tips, I’ll use this example.
Poor Prose (51 words):
Mike quickly walked into the half-burnt living room after the fire. Looking to his left, Mike was sad as he walked to the piano stand. It stood in front of him and he considered its burnt surface from the fire. Putting his hand on it, he felt the cracked leather.
Good Prose (29 words):
Bursting through the front door, Mike stumbled to the piano stand. He collapsed to his knees and ran his fingers across the cracked leather. The fire had destroyed everything.
Before I get into the pitfalls, I want to point out one major thing. Notice the word count? The second scene is almost half the word count, but don’t you feel like it said so much more? Whenever you edit, your word count should be lower but your content should actually be more.
Pitfall 1 – Filtering
Filtering is when you describe what the character experiences as if you aren’t the character. In the example, Mike considered the piano stand. But that’s actually redundant information. As long as the Point of View (PoV) is first person or close/limited third, then anything that is being immediately described is therefore experienced through the character. I can simply have Mike interact with the piano stand or describe it (cracked leather). I don’t need to say he felt it, because if he’s touching it then I already know he can feel it.
This may be a difficult concept, so let’s try another. I said that the piano stand stood in front of him. But actually, there’s no need to point that out. If the piano stand is described at all, we know that it’s in Mike’s vicinity. And especially if he is interacting with it, then we know it’s in front of him for sure. There’s absolutely no reason to say “it stood in front of him”.
Pitfall 2 – Specifying where a character is looking
I see this one all the time as I critique drafts of beginner writers. In the example, Mike looks to his left. Why do we need to know that? It may sound simple, but I guarantee your work has this issue somewhere in some shape or form. “She glanced to her teacher” “She looked around” etc. As long as the PoV is either in first person, or limited/close third person, anything being described is already what the main character is experiencing.
In this case, if Mike is interacting with the piano stand, or if the piano stand is described whatsoever, then we already know Mike is looking at it. And even more so, the reader really isn’t going to care if the stand is on his left or right unless he’s throwing a right hook at it.
Pitfall 3 – The scene isn’t immersive (not using available senses – sight/smell/sound/touch)
If your readers aren’t getting into the story, it’s likely because you haven’t made it feel like they’re really there. You need to paint a story not only with plot and images, but also sounds, smells and tactile sensations.
In the example of poor prose, we’re just told that the piano stand is old. But isn’t it better if the reader can come to that conclusion based on what they’re feeling through the character? Have your character touch things, smell things, explore the world with all of your senses.
You don’t have to get too carried away. It would have been a good opportunity to add in how the smell of burnt material affected Mike in the example. But we don’t want to get bogged down in the details, just paint a picture and move on. (In a longer version of the scene, smell could definitely come into play.)
This can be paired with the old “show versus tell” argument. In this case, the author just told you the piano stand was old instead of proving it to you. If you often tell the reader aspects of the story instead of letting them come to the conclusion on their own, your story will be hollow and unbelievable. The reader just won’t be convinced.
Pitfall 4 – Using inefficient/repeated words
Every word counts. Don’t be redundant and don’t use a vague term when you could use a descriptive one. Inefficient words include adverbs when a strong verb will work better, repeated words, and vague terms.
Adverbs actually have a time and a place. The general rule of thumb is 1 adverb for every 250 words. That’s the average in traditionally published novels. This doesn’t mean you need to go through your work and strike out all adverbs, though it would be a start. Basically it means that adverbs should only be used when a strong verb just won’t capture the intended meaning. It won’t happen often, but there are a few limitations where an adverb will describe the scene best. Until you’re able to master it, try to keep to the rule of thumb 1/250 until you’re advanced enough to break it.
In the example, the words “fire” and “walked” are used twice. It makes the reading tedious and boring. Even if you feel it’s difficult to find a different word to use, get creative! Don’t bore the reader with something they already know. The work not only needs to be informative, but also entertaining.
We want to know that Mike made his way over to the piano stand. He can simply walk there, or he can stumble, jaunt, skip, or bolt his way there. Depending how his motion is described with this vital verb, we’ll get a different impression of how Mike is feeling. He stumbled, he’s frantic and upset. He collapsed to his knees, he’s heartbroken. We believe him and we empathize because he’s showing us how he’s feeling instead of expecting us to believe the narrator.
If you’re having difficulty with some of these concepts, I strongly suggest this book on prose and powerful chapters written by a literary agent.
The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide To Staying Out of the Rejection Pile
I also recommend the emotion thesaurus. It can be daunting coming up with creative gestures to describe how characters are feeling. This is a resource I use every day. I recommend the $5 kindle version rather than the paperback since you can click on an emotion and it’ll take you to that chapter of gestures.
The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression
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