By John Palmer
Grammar and punctuation are huge factors in getting published. You might have written the best story in the world, but if the reader has to keep stopping to work out why there are seven commas in a five word sentence, they aren’t going to read on. Poor grammar and punctuation are distracting and will stop people reading so it’s important to get these right.
It’s best not to rely on abstraction. Concrete details help the reader visualise what is happening far more than the abstract can. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes ambiguity can be an advantage, but most stories benefit from a concrete setting. This doesn’t mean you should describe the entire world though. It’s important to only describe details that are vital to the scene. After all, there’s no need to describe every room in the house if the story only takes place in the living room, and there’s no need to describe the contents of the cupboard if the cupboard never opens.
You should also be aware that too many historical details or interesting technologies that have no relevance to the plot can overwhelm and bore the reader. Unless you’re writing a book like The Martian, most people don’t want to read a three page mathematical equation that backs up the science in the story. If written well, the reader will accept that the peculiar device works, and move on. Similarly, be wary of info dumps. They can detract from the story. Instead, it’s better to drip feed us the relevant information.
Borrowing from pop-culture is far more obvious than you realise. That really niche TV show you love that you’ve taken your lead characters name from, yeah, we’ve seen it too. Chances are, the reader will notice your subtle easter egg and it can distract from the actual story, so if it’s not relevant, it’s better to leave it out.
You should also be wary of dreamlike narratives. Dreams are bizarre and often don’t make a lot of logical sense, but they make sense to the dreamer because they experienced it. You know when you describe a hilarious dream to a friend and they don’t get it, well writing is just like that. A writer knows the world they are trying to convey because they can see it in their mind, but the reader only experiences what you’ve actually written on the page. If you miss out important details, the reader misses important details. You have to point the reader to what’s relevant and describe the details as efficiently as possible. Doing so lets the reader experience the intricate world you’ve created for them.
Dialogue and Narration
All dialogue should be meaningful and relevant to the story. Don’t use small talk to fill space. If it doesn’t bring something to the story, cut it. We only have so much time on this earth to read as many stories as we can, we don’t want to waste it reading unnecessary pleasantries.
Accents can give flat characters a unique voice, but writing an accent is difficult to do well. A character’s speech and narration should be intelligent, clear, and have meaning. If done poorly, slang can detract from this and can become too jarring. Creating a unique voice instead of relying on slang to differentiate who’s speaking is a harder, but much more beneficial way to write speech.
It’s also important to use enough dialogue tags so the reader knows who’s speaking. However, it’s unnecessary in a conversation between two people. Finding the balance is hard, but learning when to use tags, and how often is an important step when writing dialogue.
Focus on telling the story, not putting your own political views into the narration. If your story has a message, it should come through in the story, not from a monologue. Definitely don’t write a several page monologue into your latest novel about why your fans are wrong not to like the recent books in your vampire series. It’s not a good look.
Using effective and concise words is often better than using a thesaurus to find obscure alternatives that distract the reader from the actual story. In other words…Using an extravagant syntax and a significant quantity of synonyms to bolster the magnificence of your prose can mystify and perplex the bibliophile, which in turn, will diminish their capacity to comprehend the crux of your splendorous story. It might make sense, but it’s harder to read.
The same can be said for overly poetic and flowery language with too many literary devices. It can distract from the main point of your story and destroy the readers suspension of disbelief. If the reader has to wonder what every other word means, the story itself has lost their attention. Pick your moments and use literary devices to highlight a specific point in your story or to tease out a subtle hint.
Now, subtlety is important in foreshadowing and crafting a great story, but too much subtlety can make the point of the story unclear. It’s better to have a concrete and obvious baseline with subtlety sprinkled throughout, rather than leave the reader guessing from page one to ten years later when they remember that story they couldn’t understand and still don’t.
Vary the sentence length. Short sentences can speed up the pace. Long sentences can slow it down. Repeated use of long sentences can become tedious. Too many short sentences can appear crude. Much like this paragraph. It’s all short sentences. See what I did there?
What about adverbs and adjectives. A lot of writing advice says to avoid adverbs, but that’s not necessarily good advice. Don’t avoid adverbs altogether, just don’t overdo them. It’s better to use the right one at the right time than to use them all the time. Adjectives shouldn’t be avoided at all costs either, BUT, you should avoid adjectives like very and really wherever you can. If something is very big or really big, it’s large.
Tone and Pace
The tone of a story should stay consistent throughout the whole piece. For example, horrors, thrillers, and similar genres should begin with an objective tone and become more emotional as the story progresses. Horror shouldn’t start with slapstick comedy unless it’s a B-movie, and comedy shouldn’t start with a harrowing ordeal. Obviously, there are exceptions to this, but to make those exceptions work, the tone of the piece must be consistent from the start.
Humour is a funny one. You should be wary of humour, because if it’s poorly executed, like most of my jokes, it can shift the tone of the story and create unnecessary distractions for the reader. Nothing kills the mood like a poorly timed fart joke.
Pacing is also important. A story should start slowly and build in speed until the main character, and the reader, can’t bear it any longer.
In reality, people don’t tend to act hysterically over every little thing that happens to them, and neither should your characters. Emotion should be shown subtly, not through over the top reactions or theatrics. Let the reader feel your character’s emotions as they feel them. Writing ‘She jumped up and down in a rage’ doesn’t convey actual rage to the reader. Make them feel. If they’re reading your anti-romance story, break their damn hearts.
I know I covered this before, BUT, relevant information is the key to a good story. There’s no need for an info dump about your protagonist’s long and sordid past. Don’t tell us anything that isn’t important to the story or the character’s growth. If they are widowed and it’s not that important, just say widowed.
Another good thing to do is to limit the number of characters in your story if you are struggling to give them all unique voices. It’s better to cut unnecessary characters than rely on tricks like slang and quirks to make them appear different. It is totally okay to merge similar characters into one solid character if you are able to.
And above all, try to avoid writing flat characters. There’s nothing interesting about a character who is devoid of all personality, unless of course, your story is about finding out why they have no personality, but that’s not what I’m talking about here.
Check out another article by John Palmer: Why are writing exercises important for writers?