Some Thoughts on Writing Fiction, Part 3

In my previous two posts (here) and (here), I talked about setting up a structure and a process for writing fiction, and I mentioned that the details could be filled in at a later stage. So let’s look now at how one goes about filling in the details and what sort of details they might be.

Here are a few ideas and examples for bringing characters to life. Think about real people you know. What do you notice about them? What do you already know about them?

Marcia wears a ring that’s a little too big for her. She twists it around and around and seems to do it more when she’s upset. I think the ring used to belong to her mother, who died a couple of years ago. Maybe touching that ring gives her comfort.

Not only did I tell you something about Marcia that you can picture as you read, but I gave you some detail about her past and her state of mind.

How do you think your character would react in certain situations? And how do people in your story carry on their lives?

Jack was horrified when he heard that I’d bought myself a dress that cost three hundred dollars. It seemed like such an unnecessary extravagance to him. Jack is one of those guys who knows how to squeeze every penny’s worth out of a dollar. He’s always looking for bargains, and seems to consider it a major victory if he buys something at a deep discount. Maybe Jack is right. He never worries about how to pay the rent or whether he’s going to be able to retire when he reaches 65. Jack has peace of mind. But me — I’ve got the most perfect little dress I’ve ever seen. I’m the one smiling today. So what if I have to skip lunch for the next three years?

You learned something about Jack and you learned something about the “me” character. He’s very frugal and plans for the future. She’s more interested in instant gratification even if it means she ends up paying for it later. (This truly is fiction, by the way. In real life, I’m a lot more like Jack.)

What has happened in the past that helped build each person’s character? What experiences have influenced the events of today?

Melanie stood in her garden looking at the roses. The bushes were full of buds — the promise of bouquets that would soon grace her little house. Every summer, Melanie was overcome by a mixture of sadness and nostalgia. Rick had carefully planted each of the bushes and tended to them like a doting parent. After the divorce, her first inclination was to tear them out of the ground, one by one. But she never could bring herself to do it. And as time passed, she had come to love those roses, which now represented what she and Rick had shared in their early years. It didn’t last forever, but it had been very good.

Can you picture Melanie standing there? Can you see the garden? And now you know that she’s divorced, that it’s been a while, and that she’s mellowed about it. You’ve got lots of information about Melanie in that little passage.

I’m just writing these examples off the top of my head. They’re not Shakespeare, but I hope they show you the type of narrative that adds dimension and the kinds of details that paint a more complete picture for your readers.

What will you come up with?

Not So Fast

Don’t Abandon Formal Writing Skills Just Yet

I’m old. There are three ways you can tell.

1. I have more gray hairs than brown ones.

2. I remember the theme music to St. Elsewhere.*

3. I write using complete words and sentences.

Social networking sites like Twitter and the phenomenal popularity of texting have changed the way people communicate in writing. All the old rules are out the window. Now, the faster you can write it, the better. The more acronyms you can use in your message, the less likely your parents or your boss will understand what you’ve said. It’s a new language – a useful language – driven as much by the capabilities of electronic devices as by the need to express information or thoughts. And by itself, it’s a good thing. I’ve already hinted that I’m a purist when it comes to writing, but even I can appreciate the practicality of being able to say in a few thumb taps what I might choose to convey in an entire luxurious line of carefully constructed prose.

So what’s the problem? You write your way, I’ll write mine. But there is a problem, and it’s reflected in the growing numbers of people who can no longer write in the formal, professional style that businesses and academia demand. It may be fine to text a buddy in ten keystrokes about meeting at a favorite hangout, but that sort of shorthand doesn’t cut it when you want to explain or discuss anything of substance or depth. It certainly won’t suffice for college application essays, letters to prospective employers, or the content on your website (if you’re trying to sell to anybody over the age of 18). And the more young people use the short writing style, the less practice they get using correct English.

I’m not just guessing about this; I see it every day in my work as a Writing Repair consultant. People who are unable to write clear, correct English are limited in their careers and in dozens of ways necessary to simply conduct the business of life. Schools aren’t doing enough to impress upon students how very important it is that they develop strong writing skills. Too many teachers are more interested in having the kids feel self-esteem than in having them earn self-esteem through achievement. So they avoid pointing out writing errors, choosing instead to praise the content – as though content and the ability to articulate it well were two unrelated things. They send young people out into the world with an unrealistic idea of what is acceptable. What a huge disservice they are doing! You can probably tell that this is one of my pet peeves.

Texting-style short writing is probably here to stay, and that’s fine. If all you want to say is: GF, R U THERE? NE14KFC? BBFN**, then use whatever means you like and enjoy that delicious salty, crispy, greasy meal to your heart’s content (or heart attack – whichever comes first). But if you want to serve up ideas that can’t be contained in the 140 characters that Twitter allows for, if you want to be able to handle nuance, explain a process, build one thought upon another until you’ve said something worth reading, worth thinking about, then please recognize that there’s another way to write that’s just as practical and just as useful as the short style you’re so adept at. Remember that English contains immense variety, subtlety, emotion, and beauty that enables us to express in the most precise way, every shade of meaning imaginable; and that the more capable you are of using this fantastic language, the more you will connect. And isn’t that the purpose of writing, after all?


* A great little piece, by the way. You can feel the heartbeat in the bass line. Click here if you want to hear it.

**Translation: Girl Friend, are you there? Anyone for KFC? Bye bye for now.

The 25 Funniest Analogies (Collected by High School English Teachers)

UPDATE: Tens of thousands of readers have found this post and hundreds of you have commented. A few have said that these analogies were actually taken from other sources and were not written by high school kids at all. Now, we have a link that ends the debate. These analogies are the winning entries in a 1999 Washington Post humor contest, and there are more than 25. Please look at the comments sent August 3, 2008 by “Jiffer” to get to the complete list and the names of the authors.

ORIGINAL POST: I have to share these “funniest analogies” with you. They came in an e-mail from my sister. She got them from a cousin, who got them from a friend, who got them from… so they are circulating around. My apologies if you have already seen them.

The e-mail says they are taken from actual high school essays and collected by English teachers across the country for their own amusement. Some of these kids may have bright futures as humor writers. What do you think?

1. Her face was a perfect oval, like a circle that had its two sides gently compressed by a ThighMaster.

2. His thoughts tumbled in his head, making and breaking alliances like underpants in a dryer without Cling Free.

3. He spoke with the wisdom that can only come from experience, like a guy who went blind because he looked at a solar eclipse without one of those boxes with a pinhole in it and now goes around the country speaking at high schools about the dangers of looking at a solar eclipse without one of those boxes with a pinhole in it.

4. She grew on him like she was a colony of E. Coli, and he was room-temperature Canadian beef.

5. She had a deep, throaty, genuine laugh, like that sound a dog makes just before it throws up.

6. Her vocabulary was as bad as, like, whatever.

7. He was as tall as a six-foot, three-inch tree.

8. The revelation that his marriage of 30 years had disintegrated because of his wife’s infidelity came as a rude shock, like a surcharge at a formerly surcharge-free ATM machine.

9. The little boat gently drifted across the pond exactly the way a bowling ball wouldn’t.

10. McBride fell 12 stories, hitting the pavement like a Hefty bag filled with vegetable soup.

11. From the attic came an unearthly howl. The whole scene had an eerie, surreal quality, like when you’re on vacation in another city and Jeopardy comes on at 7:00 p.m. instead of 7:30.

12. Her hair glistened in the rain like a nose hair after a sneeze.

13. The hailstones leaped from the pavement, just like maggots when you fry them in hot grease.

14. Long separated by cruel fate, the star-crossed lovers raced across the grassy field toward each other like two freight trains, one having left Cleveland at 6:36 p.m. traveling at 55 mph, the other from Topeka at 4:19 p.m. at a speed of 35 mph.

15. They lived in a typical suburban neighborhood with picket fences that resembled Nancy Kerrigan’s teeth.

16. John and Mary had never met. They were like two hummingbirds who had also never met.

17. He fell for her like his heart was a mob informant, and she was the East River.

18. Even in his last years, Granddad had a mind like a steel trap, only one that had been left out so long it had rusted shut.

19. Shots rang out, as shots are wont to do.

20. The plan was simple, like my brother-in-law Phil. But unlike Phil, this plan just might work.

21. The young fighter had a hungry look, the kind you get from not eating for a while.

22. He was as lame as a duck. Not the metaphorical lame duck, either, but a real duck that was actually lame, maybe from stepping on a land mine or something.

23. The ballerina rose gracefully en Pointe and extended one slender leg behind her, like a dog at a fire hydrant.

24. It was an American tradition, like fathers chasing kids around with power tools.

25. He was deeply in love. When she spoke, he thought he heard bells, as if she were a garbage truck backing up.

Published in: on September 12, 2006 at 4:56 pm  Comments (544)