To find your voice as a writer, it’s important to develop a consistent style. As your style develops over time, you will find it helpful in learning to write quickly and in making stronger choices with your writing. You want to cultivate a writing style that delivers the full impact of the story that you’re telling. Your unique style will become an important part of your brand as an author.
Even a great story can be muddled behind poor technique.
Here are a few tips which I’ve found useful for improving your style and delivering your story in the most effective way possible.
Smarten up your Protagonists. Readers experience your story through your main characters, and readers respect smart characters. Any bad decisions your main characters make should come directly from established flaws to give their mistakes a purpose to your character’s development and to your story. Otherwise readers will question your character’s dumb moves and be sidetracked from your story.
Intro-Litter. Every location, character, piece of history or magic needs some form of introduction. It could be a scene in which they take prominence, a hint of your character’s reactions, or a description which blends smoothly with your prose – or all three. You need to give enough information to inspire your reader’s imagination without challenging the images they form on their own. Track these introductions and space them out to keep your readers from getting overwhelmed.
Imply. Then tell. Drama, like humor, is strongest when the main point is understood before it is stated. But you can’t expect every reader to catch every subtlety. After watching the main character rage and fume against the world, take a moment to remind us why the character is raging in order to reinforce what your readers have come to understand and to help catch up the slow ones. Once the implications are made, tell your readers whatever you are trying to make obvious, whether through dialogue, narration or your character’s observations.
Don’t Act Momentously. Rather, the word is momentum. Writing strong action is all about generating energy through your use of language. Build your action up to its climax by giving prominence to your verbs, connecting short concepts, repeating nothing, and using a lot clear directional words such as up, above, under and beside. Keep it simple, but keep it moving, so that you can help your readers to feel the rapid suspense of action through your language.
Dialogue is Hard, Too. Writing a conversation is nothing like having a conversation. That makes dialogue the hardest part of a story to write effectively – you have to unlearn your natural speaking style and develop a separate style for written dialogue. Every line needs to deliver layers of meaning, and whole pages of conversation can often be condensed into a few statements. Try it. If you aren’t careful, your dialogue will have unnecessary words everywhere.
Time your Language Tricks. Parallelism? Alliteration? Metaphor? When you interject your style into the flow of the story, timing is everything. Strong writing can highlight the important moments of the scene, like an introduction, climax or take-away, or it can break immersion as readers notice your style instead of your story. Use those language skills when the readers are most absorbed to make a strong impression without calling attention to your technique.
Zoom: Satellite to X-Ray. Some scenes are more important than others, and good storytelling demands a degree of flexibility in order to keep your pacing from drying out. You need to be able to zoom in to show one important scene’s gritty details and then zoom out in the next scene to capture only the information that’s important to your readers. Managing your zoom function effectively will keep your story moving forward at the right pace.
Harness Your Scenes. Each scene has elements which combine to create key moments that advance the overall story and deliver the greatest impact on a reader. Identify these moments early on and construct the elements of your scene to highlight, accentuate and build up to them. Isolate each of the scene’s elements – the setting, the action, even your character’s thoughts – and consider how they impact those key moments. If a story element is not important to those moments, then it isn’t vital to the scene, so cut it.
Let the Reader Feel it First. In our quest for a perfect third person point of view, we’ve come to push every moment of the story into our character’s heads. But in some cases, poorly timed characterization can block your reader’s reaction. You’re using your characters to tell us what to feel when the action, dialogue or description should be able to evoke those feelings on its own. At the most important points of your story, give your readers a moment to react to the scene, and only then show us how your characters react.
To balance these stylistic elements, I find it effective to write in passes. I typically go for a walk to brainstorm ideas and then jot down the crux of a scene afterwards. Then I type out the dialogue and actions which form the scene’s through-line, and finally I go back over it to include narration and the character’s internal reactions. This process helps me to focus on the story’s through-line, to still give every element the attention I would like to, and to do so in less time than it would take to plough through a story that has no direction. Above all, writing in passes helps me to focus on the key lesson in writing:
Use every word on every page to deliver your story.
Even those passages of a story you as a reader might normally skip can be made appealing to an audience. After receiving feedback from several writers about a story I had written, I handed it to my wife and asked for her thoughts. My fellow writers had enjoyed the action, the fantasy and the villain’s demise. But my wife said that her favorite moment was a detailed description of the indoor garden that nobody else had mentioned.
Do you have any stylistic tips that you find helpful in delivering every word of your story? If so, please share them with us.
This is the fourth in a series of posts Brian is writing about Using Fantasy to Enhance a Story. Read the entire series or the first entry, Bridging the Gap Between Author and Character. The next article is currently scheduled for September 15th.