We don’t pay a lot of attention to tense when we talk. It feels natural and easy to slot our words into past, present or future. In writing it can be more complicated. If we are writing in past tense, the past is our ‘present’ in the story. To write something in the past we may need something different than simple past.
To start out, there are four kinds of verb tense, each in past, present and future.
|The clowns chased me.||The clowns chase me.||The clowns will chase me.|
|The clowns were chasing me when I ran into you.||The clowns are chasing me.||The clowns will be chasing me before you get here.|
|The clowns had chased me out of town before you came.||The clowns have chased me all over town.||The clowns will have chased me away by the time you get here.|
|The clowns had been chasing me all day before you saved me.||The clowns have been chasing me all day.||The clowns will have been chasing me all day by the time you arrive.|
When we read through the chart it is easy to see the subtle differences in meaning.
Simple indicates an action in past, present or future. There are more nuances than that, but for the moment that will do.
Continuous, as its name suggests indicates ongoing action. In the Past, it shows an action which is interrupted by another action, or an ongoing action. Many writers have a habit of using Continuous more than Simple which has two effects. The first is the writing feels static as Continuous suggests something which doesn’t change. The other is the confusion when they want to show interrupted action, and it looks the same as everything else.
Perfect, is for completed action. In Past Perfect the action has started and stopped before another action. In some cases, the second action can be unwritten. Flashbacks are Past Perfect, though one doesn’t need to write the entire scene Past Perfect. Introducing the flashback in Past Perfect, then using Simple Past for the rest makes it easier to read.
Perfect Continuous is for an action which started in the past and continues to a specific time. The important difference between Continuous and Perfect Continuous is the emphasis on that specific time in Continuous.
There are many charts on the internet with more examples and greater detail about the nuances of the verb tenses. It is important to keep the basics of tense clear so in our writing the reader is clear about the nature and time of the action.
There are a couple of other things which can confuse us in our use of tense. One is Passive versus Active Voice. In some ways it may look like a tense issue:
Bob tied the donkey to the fence. Active Voice.
The donkey was tied to the fence. Passive Voice.
Note both sentences are in simple past. The verb is ‘tied’. ‘Was’ here acts to indicate an action performed on the subject of the sentence. The uses and abuse of voice is the subject for another article.
The other confusion is the Conditional. As the name suggests, the Conditional tells us about actions which may occur if the conditions are right. Bob could have tied the donkey if he’d had some rope.
Or actions which didn’t happen but ought to have. Bob should have tied the donkey to the fence. The important information being that Bob didn’t in fact tie the donkey.
The last is about intent. Bob would have tied the donkey if he’d had rope. The difference between this and the first example, is this sentence shows Bob wanted to tie the donkey, but something prevented him. The first example makes no indication of Bob’s intent.
Like Voice, the Conditional is not about tense. One can use both Voice and Conditional in any of the tenses, but it is easy to mistake it for tense. It is important to use Conditional properly and not to overdo it. Again, a subject for another article.
This will get you started thinking about tense in your writing, but a few final notes to consider. Whether you write in Past or Present, you need to stay consistent in your use of tense. Moving from Past to Present and back is confusing for the reader. There are a couple of exceptions. If you are writing in Past tense, dialog and direct thought are written in present tense. The reason is the characters are moving through their present, so they talk and think in the present tense. We need to be careful with our policing of tense we don’t unintentionally muddy the water.
The other exception is esoteric and I’ve only seen it done well a couple of times. This is where the narrator has been describing past action, then the story arrives at the point in time at which the narrator dwells in the story. So, say a narrator is tell us about a murder mystery, and most of the story is about how the narrator arrived at a specific time. Maybe stuck under the ice in a river. When we get to the point where we’re stuck under the ice, the story become present tense because we are now in the same time frame as the narrator. What has happened is most of the book is a flashback bringing the reader to this moment in time.
So, there we are, you can relax and work more comfortably with tenses. If you have questions, or things to add etc. please comment.
The Fall is filling up quickly, and I’ll be booking in the New Year soon. If you’d like to get your book edited, contact me to book a slot.
I have also started taking a limited number of slots doing coaching. Contact me if you’re interested.
Writing may be a hobby, but if you’re publishing your books or stories, you have a responsibility to produce a quality story. I’ve got lots of articles on how to do that. What I want to address today is what to do when a story is awful.
I’m not talking normal first draft awful, but awful in the way that makes you stare at the screen and wonder What am I writing?
Now I know most authors go through this point somewhere in their story, mostly in what I call the swamp. That’s the hardest part of the book to write. No flashy battles, no introduction of interesting characters. The swamp is about the character flailing around in the final efforts to chase the LIE before they give in to the truth.
So how do you know if you’re stuck in the swamp or your story is awful?
First and foremost – is the concept solid? The idea of basing a story on La Traviata featuring telepathic aliens and vampires might have looked great when you started. But can it carry an entire story or is it an extended gimmick? The easiest way to check is imagine your story without the characters being aliens or vampires. Will it still work? If it does, you’re writing a gimmick not a story. The way to fix this, if you want to is to make sure that being alien or vampire is essential to the plot, not in a side show way, but as it is involved in a major plot point way.
Second – Maybe you’re working the wrong character. The sidekick is a lot more interesting than the MC. You sigh every time you bring the MC on stage. Maybe you’re secretly rooting for the villain. Examine your protagonist. Are they really the right person for the job?
The fix, and KM Weiland deals with this brilliantly, is simple. So go have a look and come back, please. 3 Ways to Choose the Right Protagonist
Third – do you have all the pieces of the plot in place? I’ve seen authors miss the inciting incident, or have it right at the beginning. Plot points out of order or missing entirely. Outline your story, just hitting the major points. Even ending the story before the mid-point. Have you covered each point? Have you made the scene do the right work? Again, KM Weiland talks about structure in great detail, so if you haven’t bookmarked her blog, you might want to.
Lastly – are you writing only one story? This might seem to be a strange question, but I’ve seen it happen. The author was creating two perfectly fine stories, but tried to cram them into one book. Not all melodies work together, and if your story is feeling like two bands playing different tunes. Look at your structure again. Have you doubled up on any of the parts of the structure? There should be only one inciting incident. The fix is to go through the story and separate them. Put one aside, work on the other, then go back. Let each breathe on its own. It can be a lot of work, but in the end, you have two books not one.
I’m going to give you a case study. I’m working on a short story where the main character is a troll. It also needs to show him as fair, generous, and kind. It was fun to write, but the further I got into the story, the worse it got. I was changing scenes so much I had trouble remembering everyone’s place. Then I got stuck and had no idea what had gone wrong.
The concept still intrigued me. Part of the story told of the troll’s coming to understand himself and his place in the world. Making him the antithesis of trolldom worked, and was necessary for the story to work. He’d learn and move toward a more complete view of the people around him. Particularly compassion for the trolls.
The troll needed to be the main character, it was the entire point of the story. But I had two other characters I really liked with very cool backstories. Their interaction got in the way of showing the troll’s character. I needed to move away from them. This is a short story, not a novel, there’s no room for two more strong characters and their story.
I outlined the story, refocusing on the troll as the one who acted at each of the plot points. The other characters had their part, but I’d severely cut them back. I expect they will show up in another story, or the short will become a novel and I’ll have time to develop them the way they deserve.
I ended up renaming the first version with Deep Six in the file name, and rewrote the story following the outline and keeping a laser focus on the main character. I’ve arrived at the point where I’d given up in the first run. I’d thrown the MC off a cliff. But the reason this time moved the story forward and it became a turning point in the story. More importantly, it no longer functioned as just a fun thing to do to my character.
In summary, a story may be truly awful, but only if you go through these three steps, and it’s still awful, should you give up on it entirely. Even then, don’t delete, you never know when some chunk of that awfulness will be exactly what you need in a new setting.
I never throw anything out. Words don’t take up a lot of space on your hard-drive, and there is no worse feeling than wanting that snippet and finding you no longer have it.
Preparing your Manuscript for Editing Workshop
This the outline I used for a workshop to help prepare writers to make the most effective use out of an editorl
- Content/Structural Editing
- Foundational issues: Plot, character, tone, structure, world building
- Copy/Line Editing
- Prose, sentences, paragraphs, pacing. Word use and over use.
- Grammar and spelling
Foundational Self Edit
- Using an outline as an editing tool.
- Lots of people will talk about writing with an outline, but they can be great tools for editing. If you aren’t sure about your structure and arcs, putting the bones down in an outline will help you check things, and balance the space between major points.
- How technical with story structure do you need to get?
- There are countless books and blogs dedicated to story structure, KM Weiland’s Helping Writers become Authors is one of the best with lots of examples.
- If you are an outliner, you’ll want to mark the major points of your plot arc and character arcs so you have that going from the start.
- Don’t get focused on structure to the detriment of your story. I’ve seen people warp their story trying to make it fit a structure they’ve read about. The story needs to come first. If you work on telling the story well, most of the structure will take care of itself.
- Are your characters well rounded, heroes with flaws, villains with good sides?
- Another popular tool for writers is character sheets where we fill out their favourite colour and what they like in their coffee. The problem is once we have that information, we want to include it all. What is important is what makes your characters human. Does your hero make mistakes, get angry, hurt people? Why not? Perfect characters are boring. Ones who struggle internally as well as externally will hold the reader’s attention. The same is true of villains. Too many times the villain is all bad, which makes it easy to cheer for their downfall, but doesn’t add much tension to the narrative. Make your villain a hero with an opposing goal to the MC’s and you have a gripping story.
- Does everyone have sufficient motivation for their actions?
- I say everyone, but most important is the villain’s motivation. Why are they opposing the hero? What will they get out of it? I read somewhere there are several classes of villain. The greedy villain, the power-hungry villain, the insane villain, and the scariest, the saintly villain.
- Knowing the motivation doesn’t mean explaining it, but letting it come out in action and dialogue.
Copy Self Edit
- Does each scene have its own internal structure?
- Just as stories have a three act structure, your scenes should begin somewhere, move through some conflict to a resolution.
- Do fights/love scenes/chases etc have their own plot?
- Like scenes, these events need their own structure. Also each fight etc needs to increase the stakes leading up to the finale.
- Does each scene move the story forward?
- If a scene doesn’t move the plot or character forward. Rewrite it or chuck it.
- Pacing with paragraph and sentence length.
- Pacing is important. The length of chapter, paragraph, sentence will either speed up or slow down the story.
- Beats vs Speech tags
- Do your dialogues become talking heads? If a reader were to read only the dialogue scene, would they know about the setting, mood, etc?
- Beats are snippets of description or action or thought which highlight and enhance the words being spoken.
- Control F is one of your best friends. It will help you find out that you’ve used ‘really’ 149 times in your book. Make a list of the most commonly over used words: just, only, that, really, actually, was, were
Using grammar programs
- There are a number of grammar programs out there, from the grammar checker in Word to Grammarly to Prowritingaid.com They have their place, but like spellcheckers, they don’t replace careful reading. What they can do is point out where you have too many pronoun starts, or consecutive sentences which start with the same word. They will help with the overused words and to a greater or lesser extent with sentence structure and length. All of them have free versions and they are worth trying.
- Reading out loud.
- Reading backwards.
Why you still may want to hire an editor.
- After all this work, why hire an editor?
- Editors aren’t attached to the story, so they will see things you miss. They may also spot your habits and point them out so you are aware of them.
- Editors will know story structure and point out where it needs work, and how you might fix the problems
- Editors are enthralled by darlings.
- Working with an editor will make you a better writer.
How to hire and editor and work with them.
- Just as there are publishers who are scams, there are editors who will take your money and give little or nothing back.
- Not every editor is the same. You need to be able to work with this person and trust their advice.
- Get a test edit, preferably get several editors to do test edits on the same section of work. I prefer the first 5k (which is a huge test edit but I have my reasons). This test edit should be free and no obligation. Read through all the comments and pick the person who is going to grow your story. I’ve had more than one client tell me they picked me because I made them cry. Not that I was mean, but I saw so much more in the story than the people who told them everything was brilliant.
- Negotiate a schedule and process. If you have deadlines, tell your editor up front.
- Ask questions, argue. The editor is not always right. This is your book, and in the end, you decide. The editor should be able to adjust their work to fit your vision of the book. You want your book, only refined, not your book the way the editor would write it.
- Pay for the work. This person is taking hours of their time to work through your book. They deserve to be paid on time and without griping. If they are too expensive, you are better to find someone else than try to talk them down.
Over the years I’ve dealt with being fired, poor, homeless, not to mention time as a single parent after my wife’s accident left her unable to parent for the better part of a year. There’ve been some real highlights too, the resurrection of our marriage, the continuing joy of being a parent and now a grandparent. Through all that and more I have been an author and reviewer. None of it stopped me from writing though some caused more turmoil for my characters.
The first thing to slow the flow of words is the literal pain in the neck which I carry around as a daily challenge. Think of a mild migraine headache which started some five years ago and hasn’t let up since. If I listed all the things I’ve tried in that time I would double the word count for this post. Let’s just say, if you’ve thought of it, I have tried it.
So what does this have to do with writing? Imagine my capacity to get through the day as an eight ounce glass of water. In a normal day I might use four to six ounces to do the things I do, including being a loving husband and an author/editor. The left over goes into a reserve which I can draw on during family crises or NaNoWriMo.
Dealing with the effects of the pain takes about two or three ounces. Not too bad, I’m over some days and under others. Problem is I don’t sleep well, so my total capacity is lowered to five or six ounces. On a good day I have nothing left, on a bad day, I’m overdrawn.
What happens now is I take the part of the day between the cracks and I write. Mostly working on my client’s books to not fall too far behind. That’s important, as I need the editing money to pay the bills, not to mention my commitment to help those authors with their craft.
In the remaining cracks, in the car or grocery line, at a coffee shop waiting, in the wee hours of the night when sleep is scarce, I write my stories in my head. Over and over and over so I won’t forget them. Then with five minutes here or ten minutes there I type them into the computer.
I’m a writer, I write. That sounds trite until you’ve spent ten minutes staring at the screen trying to remember what you blocked out at the store. Yet the words build up, the story takes shape. I achieve a few victories, book are published, reviews suggest people like them. Also I take new blows which threaten to knock me down. I’m on long term disability for the pain and depression. It’s not only hard to move, but hard to care. I’m single again as after seventeen years, my wife has decided again, she doesn’t get what she needs from our marriage. All of it goes into the stories to be transformed.
I’m a writer so I write, even when it is impossible to write I write. I’ve typed pages with my eyes closed because of the pain. Because I’m a writer.
When I die, my heirs will find unfinished stories on my computer.
One last thing about writing and pain, I believe my writing is richer, has more depth. I know pain so I can write pain, my characters can be twisted by life and still be whole. And one more blessing yet, they may find their way free.
And in that second, that moment of transported joy, I become free too.
I am not made out of my pain, but out of the stories I’ve been given to tell.
Alex McGilvery visit me at http://alexmcgilvery.com
In all the critique groups I’ve been members of, the writers have been quick to accuse authors of head hopping. This is not necessary an automatic reality when you show the thoughts and feelings of more than one character in a scene.
Third omniscient has a long history, it was much more popular in years past, especially in children’s’ literature. Though it is an older style, that doesn’t mean no one uses it today. Stephen King has written in Third Omni, The Lemony Snicket Books are in Third Omni as are others.
Like every other aspect of writing, you don’t want the reader to stop and think, ‘Wow, this is in Third Omni.’ The purpose of Point of View is to frame the story for the reader and pull them into the story. Third Omni can do that as well as any other POV.
Having said this, one can’t simply dive into a multiplicity of character’s head and call it Third Omni. Let’s back up a bit and define what we’re talking about here. Third Person Omniscient is a point of view in which the narrator knows everything, what everyone is thinking, feeling, no matter where they are. They also know how the story ends, and what comes before. However, there are shades between Third Person Limited and Third Omni. The author can show thoughts and feelings just within the scene and setting. You can have a narrator who doesn’t know how things turn out and so on. It is important to pick what the narrator knows and what they don’t, then be consistent with that level of knowledge.
I keep talking about the narrator. The narrator can be a character like the one in Lemony Snicket, or barely visible as Stephen King’s tend to be. The important thing is to establish your narrator and keep them in front of the reader. The easiest way I’ve found to manage the narrator is to use description as a way to remind the reader of the narrator’s presence.
Say you have a scene in a coffee shop, in third limited you’d show the coffee shop through the eyes of your POV character, the smells, sounds, sights etc. With a narrator you step back and move to a wide angle view to show the coffee shop as the character moves through it. Instead of riding on the character’s shoulder we’re watching them. We may see what the cook is thinking, or feel the waitress’s painful feet. Once you’ve done this you can zoom in closer to the characters and their dialogue/thoughts/feelings. Since you’ve reminded the reader of the presence of the narrator, they’ll take in the extra information without getting confused.
Even in Third Omni, you want to work hard on showing feelings etc., not just labelling them. Think of writing from the narrator’s POV, and that narrator can cut from one place to another like camera angles in the movies.
The challenge of Third Omni is getting your reader to attach to your characters. This is why the narrator is so important. If the narrator cares about the characters, the reader will. Narrative voice and whether they are trustworthy is vitally important to a good story, even more so in Omni than in other POV’s.
Next time you’re in a critique group, shock the group by not complaining about head hopping, but suggest how the author might more effectively work in Third Omni.
The person that you write your story in will have a big effect on your Point of View. Person is whether you tell the story as if it were happening to you – I pulled up my gun and yelled “This is a stick up!” The advantage of first person is the immediacy. The reader is right there with the character and knows everything the character knows though sometimes the narrator is untrustworthy and withholds information. The challenge with first person is that the character can’t read minds or know what is going on in the next county so you have to use a lot of dialogue and other tricks to show the story in its fullest to the reader. While there are a few first person novels that switch POV to another first person narrator, they are few and far between. The ones that do it well are even fewer. If you are going to change into a different first person POV, you not only have to change the POV, but you need to change the voice of the narrator so it doesn’t read like one character with two different names. It is possible to mix first person and third person, but again, voice is essential as is making clear whose head the reader is inhabiting.
Third person is when we sit back a bit further and use ‘he’ or ‘she’ instead of ‘I’ – Jim Bob ran into the bank waving his gun and yelled. “This is a stick up!” You have to work a little harder with third person to achieve immediacy because the reader is at that much greater distance from the character. The advantage is that you have a wider field of view. You can have the bank guard pull his gun to shoot Jim Bob in the back, and Jim Bob doesn’t know it. You can’t do that in first person.
There are a range of options in third person stories. You can stay pretty close to ol’ Jim Bob and just describe the action in the bank. Or you can pull back and watch the bank robbery in progress, but also comment on the action further away. The danger is that you lose even more connection with your character. There is also a style that is even further back called the omniscient narrator. In that case the narrator knows everything including what is going on in other people’s heads. This is rarely used these days.
So now we’ve defined the different persons a story can be written in, and some of the varieties of POV. Let’s look at that bank robbery and see what head hopping does.
Jim Bob ran into the bank, his heart pounding. He was finally going to do it. He was making the big time. “Hands in the air!” he yelled, “this is a stick up!” People looked at him with looks ranging from fearful to puzzled. Oh yeah, Jim Bob thought, the gun. He pulled his gun and shot a hole in the ceiling. Now he had their attention.
Frank was cleaning his nails when the idiot ran into the bank yelling about a stick up. Somebody high on something. He didn’t even have a gun. Then the idot pulled his gun and blew a hole in the ceiling. Plaster dust wafted down on the screaming customers. Frank pulled his gun and took careful aim at the bank robber’s back before pulling the trigger.
Marion was counting hundred dollar bills for Mr. Smythe when she heard a shot, but she felt a sharp pain in her chest before she could push the alarm. Her legs gave way and she fell to the floor.
Mr. Smythe didn’t know what to do. Was the money on the counter still the banks, and thus insured, or was it his and not covered? He felt the hot steel of a gun barrel poke the back of his neck and decided that perhaps it didn’t matter after all.
Jim Bob grabbed the rich dude and spun him around to be a shield between him and the bank guard. He fired two shots at the guard.
Mr. Smythe’s ears rang. He might be permanently deaf from the noise.
Frank forced his shaking hand to be still and fired back.
Dang it, Mr. Smythe thought, that’s going to ruin my suit. Then he fell dead to the floor.
Jim Bob put both hands on his gun and emptied it at the blasted guard.
Frank knelt on the floor and steadied his hands before emptying his gun at the robber.
“Freeze,” shouted Sheriff Jones as he ran into the bank followed by his deputies. The bank robber and some old geezer in a guard uniform were pointing guns at each other and pulling the trigger though only the clicks of a dry fired gun sounded.
It was Deputy Bill’s first day on the job and he was pumped that they were responding to a bank robbery. That is until he saw the bloody corpses of employees and customers sprawled on the floor. He staggered outside to lose his donuts in the bushes.
I got confused about what was happening and I was writing the scene. That’s an extreme example, but even if you had several paragraphs for each POV it would be hard to follow. The problem is that we aren’t inside someone’s head long enough to empathize with them. If you re-wrote the scene all from one character’s POV you could create some emotional connection. The way I have it, it is more like telling than showing, even without the usual markers for telling. You can get much more out of the story that way. I’ll show you what I mean.
Jim Bob ran into the bank, his heart pounding. He was finally going to do it. He was making the big time. “Hands in the air!” he yelled, “this is a stick up!” People looked at him with looks ranging from fearful to puzzled. Oh yeah, Jim Bob thought, the gun. He pulled his gun and shot a hole in the ceiling. Now he had their attention. The customers were screaming and running around in a panic. He was THE MAN. There was a teller counting out bills for a guy in a suit. They looked like hundreds. He wanted some of them.
Jim Bob pushed his way to the counter. He heard a shot from behind him and the teller made this funny gasp as red blood stained her blouse. As she slipped from sight, Jim Bob grabbed hold of the guy in the suit who looked like he was dithering over the money. The guy would be a good hostage. Jim Bob poked him with the barrel of his gun, then spun around.
There! An old geezer in a uniform was pointing a gun at them. Jim Bob fired a couple of rounds at the old guy. This gun thing was harder than it looked. He missed the old guy completely though a customer that was hiding behind the guard swore softly and fell to the floor. The old guy fired back and the suit grunted and fell to the floor. Jim Bob had nowhere to hide. He had to take this guy out. He put both hands on his gun like they did on the shows and pulled the trigger.
The sound of his shots and the old guy’s were deafening. But he couldn’t stop. It was kill or be killed. He was still pulling the trigger when the Sherriff barrelled in through the door and shouted.
Jim Bob stopped pulling the trigger. He didn’t know how long his gun had been just clicking instead of banging. The bank looked like a battle zone. There were dead and injured people lying on the floor and he could smell the blood, and other things. One deputy went white and ran out the door faster than he came in.
It is possible to write a good story with quick multiple POV, but it is a challenge. Check this story for an example The Drive Past Devil’s Butte
Description is essential to your story. It is possible to write a story without any description, but it’s likely the reader will find it dry as dust. Stories are much more interesting when you have a good setting and create atmosphere. Now, I know everybody says to start with action, and it is true that tossing your reader into the deep end is a good way to start, but it isn’t the only way to start. Another way is the wide shot that focuses down to the character. Think of the opening of a movie. The action start is a James Bond movie, the wide shot is Forrest Gump. The reason the wide shot is tricky is that it can’t be an information dump.
A little valley nestled in mountains. The soil was rich and fertile and the crops were ready to harvest. There was only one town in the valley and it was shaded by a magical tree. As long as the leaves stayed on the tree the town and the valley would be safe and at peace.
That paragraph tells you everything you need to know about the valley, but there is no life in it. It’s supposed to be magical, but it comes across like a geography lesson. Try this:
Sun and clouds fought for dominance over the valley and shadows chased themselves across fields and orchards ready for the harvest. The breeze played in the leaves of the huge tree that stood immense and protective in the center of Plaskili. Under those branches the people of the town felt safe. Fire wouldn’t threaten, storms wouldn’t shake as long as the golden-green leaves of the tree shaded them.
The breeze found a new toy as a leaf fluttered free from its branch it fluttered and danced on the wind. The leaf skimmed over the thatched roofs and contented people until it landed on the dusty ground in front of a young girl. Leanne wondered if she were the only discontented person in the valley. It wasn’t she didn’t love her home and trust in the tree, but there was something she couldn’t name that kept her eyes lifting to the mountains that towered on all sides and wondering what was on the other side.
At first she didn’t notice the leaf, then she thought it was from some lesser tree. She picked it up with equal parts awe and terror. It lay weightless and delicate in her hand. She could see the tiny veins that ran through it, yet already it was turning brown in her hand. Leanne turned to look at the tree and gasped. The air was full of leaves. They were dancing, spinning, falling. It was impossible to see the tree through them. She heard silence spread as others saw the falling leaves, then after the silence she heard muttering and a mounting panic. It no longer mattered what lay on the other side of those snowy peaks. Leanne knew change had found her.
Now we know how the valley feels, we know that Leanne doesn’t feel like she fits in, and that something terrible is happening. It is shown not told.
Now go back and count how many adverbs there are. (Adverbs modify verbs or adjectives, many have an ‘ly’ ending.) None. Adverbs are usually a sign of telling. If you want to write “Jill walked lazily down the path.” Think about writing “Jill sauntered along the path.”
Now go count the adjectives. I count ten. (Adjectives modify nouns) Adjectives are not as bad as adverbs for telling, but you run into a different problem if you use too many of them. If you put one or two adjectives on every noun in your writing the reader won’t know what is important. The idea is to use the adjectives to highlight the things that you want the reader to notice, the rest can just fade into the background. I still suggest that you use a broad vocabulary. Don’t just say birds, say robins, or swallows or crows, it isn’t a car, its a truck, a heap, a limo.
The next thing about descriptive writing is to put emotion into the words on the page. One way is to use adverbs, but no one is going to shed a tear if you say. “John walked sadly down the street.” You need to create the sadness by showing the feeling of the character and how that sadness is reflected in their actions. You can use setting to increase the emotion by adding to it or by contrasting with it. This is called evocative writing in that you don’t tell the reader the emotion, but you evoke the emotion in the reader as they follow the story.
John forced himself to put one foot in front of another. He’d long since given up brushing the rain from his face. The night deepened; the streetlights lit as he stepped into a puddle. It was deeper than he thought and his ankle turned and sent him crashing to the pavement. He tried to stand but it hurt too much. Everything hurt too much. Not caring he sat in the middle of a puddle he tilted his head to the sky and screamed his pain. All he wanted was one thing in his life he loved, and he messed it up.
John didn’t notice the whining, not until the rough, wet tongue licked water off his face. He thought his heart would stop. DogThing was licking his face. John threw his arms around his friend and held on as DogThing wiggled in ecstasy. Suddenly rain, dark, pain didn’t matter. All was right with the world.
The final point for this article is the difference between passive and active description.
Passive description has nothing to do with passive voice (that’s another article). It is what I call description in which the character (and thus the reader) stop everything to look at the scenery.
Anthony stepped through the door. The butler stood on his left, a look of disapproval pasted on his face. All around the great hall hung the portraits of Anthony’s ancestors. Each with varying degrees of disgust trapped in paint on canvas. The floor was polished marble; he used to get in trouble for sliding in his stocking feet. Straight ahead the staircase spiraled up to the gallery. His mother stood on the third step, just high enough to look down on her son.
That’s a lovely setting, all kind of emotional things going on in the background. We learn a lot about Anthony just by the way he sees the hall. What is he doing while we read the description? Standing in the doorway, frozen in time until he takes the next step. If this is part of a highly emotional homecoming, he have had to work himself up to knock on the door. We expect an emotionally laden dialogue with mother dear, and in between -he’s stuck in the door. There may be times we want that ‘stuck in the door’ moment, but it means we need to use it to forward the plot.
What I like to do is have the character interact with the setting. Thus, active description.
Anthony stepped through the door. He nodded at the butler with disapproval pasted on his face.
“My coat.” Anthony offered his threadbare garment. The butler lifted it with one finger and carried it away, probably to burn.
The paintings still hung around the great hall, Anthony strolled along the line of his ancestors, each with varying levels of disgust captured in paint on canvas.
“Sorry, Father.” Anthony stopped in front of the newest portrait, trying to feel anything but relief.
Anthony turned to the grand staircase where his mother waiting. For a mad moment he wanted to kick off his shoes and slide across the polished marble floor. His mother’s frown deepened as if she’d read his thought. He dragged himself over to stand at the foot of the stairs. As always, she stood on the third step, just high enough to look down on him.
All the same elements are present, but the plot moves forward. We see the emotion in the hall, but also feel Anthony’s shame and reluctance.
I hired Alex as an editor but it turned out that was the least of what he did! This morphed from an edit to a super detailed, custom designed writing course. At the end of the course/edit I have a book that my readers are raving about.