Writing Quick Tips
by Allen R. Kates, MFAW
Book Editor, Writing Coach, Ghostwriter
Writing Quick Tips Copyright © 2009-2012 by Allen R. Kates
You may reprint them only in their entirety as long as you give credit.
“Allen helped me with my book and has earned my utmost respect for his professionalism, mastery of his craft and creativity.”
—Vui Le, author of The Forgotten Generation
#1. Description—Who Cares What They Look Like?
Many of us are uncertain about how to describe a character’s physical attributes. Too often we describe a character the first time we meet him by burying the reader in facts—blue eyes, brown hair, broken teeth, tweed jacket, shiny shoes, beady eyes, long nose. As a result, the sheer volume of description tends to overwhelm the reader.
Instead of describing a character all at once, describe him during action. Refer to Doug’s sparkling blue eyes when Mary is falling into his arms. Describe Sam’s broken teeth when he tries to beat Harry to death. Tell us about the cop’s shiny shoes when he throws the purse snatcher to the ground and his face lands on the cop’s shoes.
A great tip: Give your characters one physical attribute that makes them stand out from the others, whether it is an injury, a way they walk, a facial tick, a brush of the hair, a wink, a certain smile, whatever. That will make them memorable and not drive your reader crazy trying to figure out who is who.
#2. Melodrama—Cue the Violins
During intense love scenes or violent episodes, it is easy to slip into melodrama. Melodrama occurs when a scene is overwritten, exaggerated, or theatrical. Unfortunately, melodramatic scenes become comical although that may not be your intent. When you write intense scenes, less is more. Cut down on the hot prose and let the scene carry itself. Often the material is so hot that all you need to do is write it matter-of-factly, almost as if you don’t care.
A great tip: When the material is hot, write cool; when the material is cool, write hot. For instance, I wrote a story about the brutal death of a six-year-old boy. The material was so intense that if I had tried to punch up the narrative, the reader might have laughed. It would have become exploitive and melodramatic. Instead, I wrote cool. I wrote the story with little intensity, just stating the facts, because the material carried itself. As a result, I avoided melodrama and the story became more shocking and heartfelt for the reader.
#3. Dialogue—Say What?
Our dialogue is often too long and too complete. Real people don’t talk like that. Give variety to your sentences. Make some long and some short. And sometimes end a sentence before finishing it.
A great tip: Write an exchange between two people, and then ask yourself what their individual goals are in this piece of dialogue. After each character reaches his or her goal, delete the words that follow, as they are often meaningless. In other words, look for the key word, circle it, and then consider cutting the rest.
#4. Clichés—Really? Amazing. Life is full of surprises.
Too often we riddle our manuscript with clichés. You can get away with a cliché during dialogue because you can rationalize that that’s how the character talks, but avoid it in the narrative. At the same time, good writing is not about getting away with things.
What’s a cliché? “Cat and mouse,” “swept off her feet,” “at the drop of a hat,” “played hard to get,” and so on. Clichés are vague and boring. They’ve been used so often that they now have little or no meaning, and if you use too many of them, before long your reader will become disinterested in your story because the clichés prevent them from becoming emotionally attached to your characters. If you use a cliché, then rethink it. Invent. Ask yourself what you are really trying to say and then expand the meaning.
A great tip: After the Nazi Adolf Eichmann was captured, investigators interviewed him for hundreds of hours. But because he spoke in clichés, (“I was only following orders”), investigators got no closer to knowing who the man truly was. You could devise a character like him who only speaks in clichés in order to hide his motives. However, if overdone, it could make for some very dreary dialogue.
#5. On the Nose—I Love You, I Love You Not
On the nose is more a movie or television term, but it applies to writing. When a piece of dialogue or description is “on the nose,” it means you are saying something that should be left unsaid because saying it ruins the mystery. For example, if your main character says “I love you” on the first page, and the person she loves says it back, you might as well end the story. What else is there to say after that?
But if you hide feelings, and make it difficult for somebody to say “I love you,” then you have created character and conflict. In the movie, Ghost, Molly says to her husband, Sam, “I love you.” He replies, “Ditto.” She complains that he never says “I love you.” He says “Ditto” means the same thing. He obviously has trouble saying “I love you.” But at the end of the movie, he finally says “I love you.” Then the movie’s over—there’s nowhere else to go.
A great tip: In books and movies, characters rarely say what they mean. This helps create mystery and suspense. Whenever you are tempted to write “on the nose,” try to say the opposite. Instead of having your character say “I love you,” have him say “I hate you,” even if the reader knows he’s lying, and see where your writing goes from there. In the Spiderman movie, our hero’s girlfriend asks him if he loves her. He says, No, although we know he does. What happened as a result? Another Spiderman movie.
What is the official definition of “on the nose?” The meaning is as plain as the nose on your face. Which means it’s boring, a cliché, it’s not entertaining. It may also mean that your dialogue stinks.
#6. Dialogue—To Speechify or Not To Speechify
Sometimes we give our characters far too much to say at any one time. Cut their speeches down to their essence. Ask yourself if the dialogue advances character or story. When the dialogue seems to do nothing, cut, cut, cut…
When I was a kid, I went to see the movie Cleopatra. Marc Anthony, played by Richard Burton, was dying and his death speech went on for 20 minutes or more. My uncle got so bored, he yelled out in the theater, “So die already!”
A great tip: If you don’t want your dialogue to die like Anthony, shorten it, interrupt it, and even use poor grammar—because that’s how we really talk.
Allen R. Kates, MFAW, PO Box 399, Cortaro, AZ 85652 USA
Book editor, Writing Coach, Ghostwriter, Book Producer, Publisher
(520) 616-7643 firstname.lastname@example.org email@example.com
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Copyright © 2009 by Allen R. Kates