…in the Details (Writing Theory Thursday)

Last Thursday I talked about the important foundations  of writing: plot, characters, premise.  Those are the cake, so to speak.  Today, I’ll talk about the icing, the little details of writing style that make or break it all.  Few people want to eat icing without any cake underneath, but nobody wants to eat a cake that’s covered in stinking, soured, spoiled icing.  And almost everybody loves a good cake with top-notch icing.

Again, I say this as a fellow journeyman, not a master who’s “arrived.”  I haven’t “arrived” in any way in my writing.  But I know just from my own improvement that I am on a good path.  Maybe not the only good path, maybe not your good path.  But a good path.  So I thought I’d share some of the things that have helped me.

God and the devil are in the details, as the saying goes, and writing style is all about details.  Readability is paramount.  Some books are much easier to read, even compared to other books with content of similar difficulty.  It’s almost as if writing styles are user interfaces to the ideas and content within.  Some applications (and some books) have easier, more intuitive user interfaces than others.

I’m working really hard on this one myself.  My instinct is to write long sentences with several clauses, sentences that sort of curl back on themselves and don’t flow directly into each other.  I know this is slows the reader down unnecessarily, so I’ve tried to stop.  But it isn’t always easy to change ingrained habits overnight.

I’ve also learned to stop qualifying my sentences with unnecessary words.  Many times something can be said directly and quickly, without “seems” or “like” or “that.”

But short, fluid sentences aren’t the end-all and be-all of writing style.  Things like character voice are also vital.  Character voice is exactly what it sounds like: each character’s dialogue should “sound” distinctive.  Readers should be able to tell who’s speaking without saying “Angie said” or “Zac said.”  This takes some practice, and it helps if you create characters who are significantly different in interests, education levels, and temperament.

The only caveat is that it’s usually best to avoid writing dialect into speech.  I say usually because sometimes it’s absolutely vital to the story or novel.  If you have to write dialect in, be as respectful as possible.

Let me reiterate just how difficult this can be.  If all the characters come from the same culture (middle-class American, for example), it can be hard to make them sound different.  If they come from different nations and cultures, it can be hard to make them sound authentic.  This can even be a problem with fantasy races … I can’t tell you how many fantasy dwarves I’ve seen who sound like a cross between James Doohan’s Montgomery Scott and Michael Meyers’s angry Scotsman.  But I can tell you that I’ve been to Scotland three times and never heard that accent from a real Scotsman, not even once.

Sensory details are another key aspect of writing style.  When writing fiction, it’s best to frequently include details that will “stimulate” the various senses.  Describing colors, smells, tastes, sounds, textures, and temperatures really helps draw people in.  It’s important to try to hit them all as much as possible, because people have different sensory preferences.

I’d suggest avoiding “sensory dumps” where you drop a heap of sensory information into one paragraph after ignoring them for two or three pages.   I’m prone to doing that myself, and it’s kind of embarrassing to go back and read later.  I mean, really?  Three pages of bare dialogue and then one jumbo economy-size sentence in which I hit every sense I can think of?  Um, no.  I don’t normally rewrite, but sometimes I have to break my own rule.  Ick.

That said, Roger Zelazny peppered his Amber novels  with sensory dumps, but they worked.  He’d hit the senses during a meal, when the narrator was really hungry, and you could practically taste the food.  During the Hellrides or Pattern walks, he’d give so much sensory information I felt I was there.  But  these were in-character sensory dumps.  The characters’ senses were going full-blast, and the text conveyed that.  They’re great books, and I highly recommend them.

But don’t take the word of some nobody blogger like me.  The best thing to do is find a couple of authors that you respect, and go read a few pages from the middle of a story you’ve already read.  That way, you’re not caught up in the story, and you can focus on how they handle character voice, how they handle sensory input, how they write their sentences, etc.

You might also like to read a story and create a plot outline, to see just how one of your favorite authors breaks down story, character and rising action.   I don’t think you should try to be “the next ____.”  You should try to be yourself, as honest as you can be, even if you’re using a pen name.  But for the craft aspect, the skill aspect, it helps to study people who’ve already arrived.