Friday, April 10, 2009


Good technique is difficult to see in a well-written piece because the better a story is done, the less we notice how it’s done. What the author says becomes more important than how he says it. Technique is the mortar that holds the stones together, but in good writing all you see is the stones.


Do play your key scenes: This means milking the drama--enlarging scenes to capture and “play out” important moments. . . .giving key scenes the lines, the pages, they deserve.

Do hint at some bits of action: Not every moment of every scene needs to be described in detail. We describe some and leave parts for the reader’s imagination to fill in.

Do be specific instead of general. Say, “pine tree,” or even “aleppo pine,” instead of “tree” . . . “tulip” or “tiger lily” instead of “flower.”

Do pause for reaction time: A big, dramatic moment must be surrounded by lesser statements of lesser importance so the reader has time to absorb, or react to, the important thing.

Do keep transitions simple: Transitions can often be accomplished with a simple, “Next morning, he . . . “ or, “Back in Paris . . . “

Do vary your sentences: Vary them both in length and in structure. The reader quickly tires of sentences that are all the same length. An abundance of long sentences feels stuffy, whereas too many short ones make the work seem childish. Likewise, the text gets monotonous when all sentences are constructed alike--subject, verb, object.

Do use setting to enhance mood: References to external stimuli--activities, odors, sounds, weather conditions--can heighten the emotion of what’s going on in the scene itself. Rain, wind, hail storms . . . the sounds of battle, the smell of lilacs . . . all heighten and build on the scene’s emotions.

Do choose strong nouns and verbs: Use words like “sprinted” “rushed” “loped” to substitute for “ran.” Describe a mountain as a “crag,” “peak” “spire” or “precipice.” The more strong verbs and nouns you choose, the fewer adjectives and adverbs will be needed.

Do handle your inconsistencies by pointing to them: As long as someone in your novel points out that yes, this is an inconsistency, the reader will know that the writer understands what he’s doing and is not just making a mistake.


Don’t rely on an overabundance of adjectives and adverbs. They can be useful, but strong verbs and nouns are better. Some writers adverb their material to death . . . things are never just “said,” they are “said haughtily,” “said defensively,” “said angrily.” Instead of writing, “She walked out furiously,” use a better verb. “She stomped out . . . “ “She banged out.” Same with adjectives. Don’t call it “a large, dark, warehouse,” better to say, “A tomb--a cavern.”

Don’t let your dialogue be repetitive: People do speak repetitively, but it makes for dull reading. Our characters may be irritating, but they’re never boring.

Don’t repeat an action over and over: If the action really was repeated . . . summarize.

Don’t use “was” and “were” as helping verbs: They merely weaken the action and produce a passive voice. “He was rubbing his eyes,” is weaker than, “He rubbed his eyes.”

Don’t use repetitive words: Duplicated words make for boring text. Word repetitions are sometimes hard to detect, even harder to avoid, but they can be caught by reading aloud. Re-writing invariably makes the prose fresher.

Don’t be wordy: As writers, we’re trying to go in two directions--saying more and more using fewer and fewer words. All unnecessary words should be removed. Anything that can be said in 5 words becomes tedious when it’s said in 10. For instance, your hero never “Proceeds” to do something. “Proceeds” adds nothing. He just does it.

Don’t get into ping pong dialogue: long dialogue passages with no bits of action, no reference to emotion, can become hard to follow, and dull. When occasional bits of action or emotion are interspersed, the reader hardly notices, but life and interest are added to the scene. These unnoticed bits are more of that writer’s “mortar.” (Caution: too many dialogue interruptions, however, can be distracting. We don’t want to focus the reader’s attention on the unimportant things the character is doing instead of the vitally important things he’s saying.)

Don’t use “it’s” unless you mean “It is.”

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