Write or wrong word

Another blog in the series on creating voice in writing.

Write about what?

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Diction is one of the building blocks of voice that pushed far enough can become a two-edged sword, making the written word dangerously inaccessible to readers. When teaching Shakespeare’s plays to students I frequently pointed out that it was not the formal speeches that were hard to comprehend. Rather it was the lines full of common slang and innuendos of Elizabethan English that the students failed to grasp. After all, the bard did write to entertain the “man on the street.”

Beginning with the Renaissance there was a movement toward more formal diction in writing, and then sometime before the twentieth century writers started backing away from that same kind of diction. You could blame or praise Mark Twain for this, but he was not the only one in concerned in this swing. Today, the media has morphed into users of an informal brand of Standard English that is sprinkled…

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Tone of voice

Creating tone–second in the series on the writer’s voice.

Write about what?

ink1007 sunsetTone of voice… you have probably heard this phrase used frequently, such as in “I don’t like your tone of voice.” As a child I often assumed that phrase was the adults’ way of reprimanding someone whose statement was not malicious or false, but brought up an inconvenient truth. In speaking, tone is typically associated with a certain timbre, pitch or intensity that expresses an attitude, such as amusement or disdain. However those cues disappear if the words are written.

How are we to betray underlying emotions in writing? That is one of the keys to creating a distinctive writer’s voice.  Authors often use imagery to create the tone through their descriptive passages.  It does make a difference if the setting sun is “red as a ruby” or” red as blood.” A skillful writer uses imagery, full of connotative words with emotional undercurrents, to draw their characters and set the…

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The writer’s voice

Chasing the elusive writer’s voice…

Write about what?

voiceWhen people speak they produce many different signals that  the audience can interpret–facial expressions, gestures, and timbre of voice can add to the meaning of the words, or reverse them. For example, a person saying “Good job!” in a lusty voice with the right corner of his lips raised in a sneer of disdain means that he thinks you’ve done anything but a good job. However, when we write, we only offer one stimulus–words on the page.

Your style of grammar, tone, and inflection, which make up your voice when you are speaking out loud, offer so many modes of expression that must be converted to words when writing. When I hear people say creating a “voice” in writing means simply writing like you speak, I cringe. Only putting down the words you say in print is a pale, tasteless version of what needs to be told. However, writing done…

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Ancient Name Dropping


Photo by Peter Church, CC BY SA

In the George Lucas’ film The Empire Strikes Back, the furry Wookiee, Chewbacca, holds the head of robot C-3PO in the same way that Hamlet is usually shown holding a skull. Many people assume that Hamlet recited his fateful soliloquy “To be or not to be…” as he stared at the skull.  But, that occurs an act later. Actually, Hamlet said “Alas poor Yorick, I knew him well.” Yorick was the king’s jester, a bit of comic relief serving the same purpose as the protocol droid, C-3PO. This distinction is not important to understand the point of this allusion in The Empire Strike Back.  Chewbacca was wrestling with the nature of life, death and existence, just as the doomed Danish prince did.

If you find yourself dangling too close to the edge of sanity trying to come up with the perfect words to describe your character, you can lean on what past writers have done. Allusions are the literary equivalent of name-dropping. Once, I heard an acquaintance refer to another person as an “Adonis.” Despite knowing over fifty people in common, I immediately knew who she was discussing. There was only one man in our circle handsome and charming enough to fit that comparison (and he just happened to be from Greece). Alluding to a well-known character, fictional or real, is a short cut that quickly gives the readers already developed concepts.

How do you determine to which characters or works you should make your allusions? You want to make sure enough people recognize the same literary characters that you do. Use your friendly internet to supply lists of the most famous people, both real and fictional. Then cross out anyone who wasn’t walking the earth or in a book more than one hundred years ago. Not only have you shortened your list dramatically, you have selected the people with staying power.

Is it necessary for readers to read the same books as you for this kind of name dropping to work? Not always. On almost any list of the famous classics that authors use for a source of allusions the Bible and Shakespeare’s plays sit on top. However, people who have never read either one still know that “Judas” is an epithet for a traitor, and “Romeo” describes a male with romantic intentions.

Of course, when you allude to a character from Shakespeare’s works, everyone knows that you aren’t claiming personal friendship with the playwright. But they may assume that you know his works quite well, when in truth you may not have read any of them, just like your reader. However, that is where the difficulty lies. Comparing a character to Romeo because he is old and lecherous is not the kind of romantic male that Shakespeare had in mind.  Unless your you call him “Romeo” in a sarcastic manner, readers who have actually read Romeo and Juliet may start making fun of your work, or simply stop reading it.

If you are intent on using allusions you should be well-read.  It is not enough to watch movies that pale in comparison to the work that inspired them. And, you must read the classics, not just recent best sellers. Finally, you must be aware of all the shades of behavior epitomizing the characters before you allude to them. Drawing on the already developed descriptions of classic characters will add depth to your writing. However , if used incorrectly, you simply sound pretentious.

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More than what you see

Write about what?

IMG_4708 imagery2The term ‘imagery’ brings to mind, of course, images–verbal pictures that allow us to peer into the world which an author has dreamed up.  Imagery sometimes implies page after page of descriptive detail–in which case you might risk having the readers fall asleep and start dreaming up their own worlds.  But, a story without enough visual detail leaves the characters moving in an unsubstantial shadow land.

Imagery should includes more than what you see in your mind’s eye. It also needs to bring to life the sounds, smells, tastes, and textures of the world you have created. One of the appealing aspects of writing is that you do not have to stick with the conventional. Music can be  ultramarine blue or a person’s scent can be rough and sand papery. Using these metaphors which cross the senses is  called synesthesia, a term referring to a neurological condition in which senses…

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Vibrant verbs

Write about what?

fun run 2Writers can throw around the terms used to describe interesting language – sensory images, unusual syntax, well-developed descriptions, and vibrant verbs. But incorporating these into writing and preserving the flow is a challenge. Recently I worked with some nascent writers trying to conjure vibrant verbs to replace the old, tired, common ones.

Actually, the common verbs are quite useful (which is why they are common). Did you ever try to carry on a conversation and not use some form of have, get, go, do or say? As the first exercise the participants had to tackle finding vivid variations of the past tense of “said” the past tense of say.

When I write dialogue I am acutely aware of how many times I have employed “said.” However, it interferes with the flow of the dialog if I have to keep stopping to search for alternate words. My own solution was to create a handy list…

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The forgotten sense

Write about what?

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For an recent practice in sensory description, emerging writers chose a photo from their childhood–playing on a snow drenched hill, seeking warmth in the flicker of a fireplace, or splashing in a plastic pool to escape the summer heat.  For many  the photo showed them posed in starched clothes in front of a birthday cake. As part of the exercise, they were required to use descriptors for all their senses. Well, not quiet all senses but the five major ones. However, one did include the sense of balance in the dizzying sled ride down the snow drenched hill.

When it came to illustrating the required sense of taste, almost every nascent author choose to describe something that tasted sweet. Granted humans are only suppose to be able to differentiate between five tastes: sweet, sour, bitter, salty and the newly discovered one that we have been attracted to all along, the…

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Creating pungent memories

Write about what?

Vanilla1webcThe sense of smell is such a powerful memory enhancer that at one time people in the training business tried to capture its potential.  However, the difficulty with using smell to help people retain what they had learned is that very few smells are considered neutral. Most smells carry an association, either with something pleasant, or unpleasant. And people do not always agree on feelings evoked  by particular smells.

For example many people enjoy the pungent smell of vanilla, especially combined with sweet overtones such as in vanilla cookies. However, long ago when I was in college, I was approached by a shuffling, old man in a grocery store as I pondered which fresh fruit would best supplement the rather insipid, college cafeteria food. There was a familiar pungent smell exuding from him as he kept pestering me.  Then, I realized what it was when the stock boy shooed him…

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Physiological writing

Write about what?

blush de roses et de roches aWhat exactly are physiological reactions?

Imagine you are a young teenage girl. You are waiting in the math hall, and that handsome senior with an air of indifferent confidence strolls past you on the way to calculus. Normally you are watching unseen, but today he looks you in the eye and says “Hi, how’s your day going?” Your heartbeat increases, you breath faster, you start to feel warm, and your face begins to turn red – otherwise known as blushing  – these are the physiological effects of surprise, even a pleasant surprise.

Now, imagine you are a soldier sent to scope out the number of men guarding an enemy compound. After stealthily scaling the chain link fence, you slide between the fence and building, treading softly, trying to conform to the shadows.  You can hear unintelligible conversation. Then, there is sudden silence followed by the click of a semi-automatic weapon…

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The foundation of world building

earth 045As a child, the stories that fascinated me the most were set in other lands. As an adult, reading passages that describe an unknown world still intrigues me. Simply throwing me into a story without a describing the setting leaves me floating in a void without stimuli, similar to floating in an isolation tank. At first this may be enjoyable experience but soon I become disoriented. I prefer the sights, sounds, smells and feel of a concrete world around me.

Basing the alternate world loosely on some existing culture or mythology transported to another time and space, does not do away with the need to flesh out the environment. That is the foundation step in world building. In The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R, Tolkien gave personalities of regions within Middle Earth– the humble, homey Shire, the angry Misty Mountains, the eerily unnerving Dead Marshes and delicately balanced Isengard, trying to flourish on the border of a wasteland.

Before embarking on creating your own world, you need to decide exactly what are the differences between the real world and your imaginary one. Of particular importance is the limitations imposed on it. If your world has alternate laws of physics that allow your characters to escape a sticky problem, introduce them in advance.  In the writing business  revealing solutions just-in-time is the mark of an amateur.

What kind of things need to be considered for your new world? How about a brief human geography lesson:

Population: Who lives there? Are they like earth-like people, animals and plants, or something else? If they are something else, limit your species drastically to prevent writing an alternate biology book.

Settlements: What kind of places do they live in? Metropolis, cities, villages, nomadic camps or massive hives?

Culture: How do language, religion, and education differ between groups in the society?What kind of political state predominates and  how is it organized? Even in a small group such as a family there has to be structures of leadership and division of labor.

Economics: How do the inhabitants gain sustenance, protect themselves from the elements, produce goods and trade with others? Denizens of imaginary worlds must do some kind of work to survive. What is the standard of living and quality of life in your world? Is it changing…. for better or for worse?

Medicine and Health: The medical rules depend on the species inhabiting your world and their level of development. Characters will have to deal with the challenges of illness and death.

History: This is an area that I like to spend a lot of time on which prevents me from actually writing. Most readers don’t want lengthy back stories, so it often works best just to give hints about the history as needed,  unless it is a very intriguing history.

The final challenge is informing your audience about your world without writing an alternate history at the beginning of the novel.  The rules of your world should be introduced in small doses before they are actually needed for the plot. Remember, the alternate worlds in Science Fiction and Fantasy works share more with the “real world” than they differ from it. Otherwise the world you have built would simply would not make sense to the readers.

Artwork by S.L. Listman

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