Have you ever thought of an awesome scene but after writing it down, it lacked the same punch?
It’s probably safe to say this has happened to all of us at some point. I know I’ve had scenes in my head that were the awesomest, yet when I tried to transfer them to paper I ended up with a steaming pile of poo. It’s like a disease or cockroach that refuses to be exterminated. So, instead of crumpling the paper up or throwing our computer (I don’t recommend this. It can get expensive. Lol), maybe it’s in our best interest to find a way to make it work for us.
I’ve used the term “reverse engineering” before, and in many ways, this is what we want to do here.
First, it’s way too easy to become frustrated and decide we’ve written garbage if we keep hammering on it, so let’s start by taking a deep breath and stepping back.
One of the first questions I like to ask myself is, “Is there another way to write this?”
I know, it sounds like a dumb question since we know what we want to say, but I was surprised at how effective this was/is. By attempting to look at the problem from a different perspective, we’re forcing ourselves to think outside of the box.
Take this as an example:
He turned the corner and smiled. He finally caught them.
To be honest, depending on the context this may be perfectly fine, but taken on its own, there’s nothing of substance. In our mind, we see his face, tattered clothes, or possible injuries, but how do we convey that to the reader? In ten words we turned what was a powerful and well-thought-out idea and left it lifeless.
Let’s compare it to this:
Pete forced himself to continue, wincing with every step. Making it to the turn ahead was his current goal.
As he reached the bend in the road, he grabbed hold of a tree to steady himself and followed the turn. Seeing his friends’ car parked ahead, a smile played across his face. After searching for hours, he finally found them.
In this sample, we’re shown that he’d been through a horrible ordeal while searching for them and it adds so much more strength to the piece.
As with everything, we each have our own thoughts and styles, and how we flesh this example out may depend on what genre we write. I mostly write Epic Fantasy, so being wordy isn’t a problem for me, but for someone that writes fast-paced thrillers, they may prefer the rapid-fire approach in the original example. Another thing to remember is our thoughts on a sentence, whether its tone or emphasis, changes depending on our mood. As long as we convey our thoughts as best we can to do the story justice, we’re doing something right.
When it comes to dialogue or narration, how often have we read a sample on the internet or in a book store that read like stereo instructions?
In my experience, it usually happens because of three reasons: 1) They’re overloaded with information the author wishes to convey, 2) They’re writing something to fill a niche to make some coin, or 3) They’re just starting out and haven’t fully developed their voice.
The first point is the easiest trap of all to fall into. I’m sure we’ve all done it more times than we care to admit. The trick is how do we avoid doing that?
Now that’s a tough one.
For me, I’ve learned to explore the world as my characters do. I wish I could explain how I learned to do this. The honest truth is, something just clicked one day.
Believe me, I wrote pages and pages that resembled notes and encyclopedia excerpts. I think what helped me was I wasn’t happy with them. Most of what I do or don’t do comes from how it feels to me, or a gut hunch, and something about the scenes didn’t sit well with me at all. So I kept working at it.
I couldn’t figure out how I couldn’t do the same thing other authors did in their books, and I became frustrated and decided to toss my notes aside and start over. As I was rewriting, the click happened and I only brought something in if it affected my character at all.
That was my great epiphany. Pretty simple, huh? Gotta love when the answer to our problem just pops up.
The second point is a common enough occurrence. We see it every day when we look at the trends on the bestseller’s list. Whether it’s vampires, magic schools, or teenage angst they become the heartbeat of fiction for a time.
The problem with this is it’s easy to push everyone writing these into the same category of “just looking for a payday”, and that’s not true or right.
As authors, we write what we’re interested in, and that means if enough people like a certain genre, they’re going to write their own. Those stories tend to have an energy about them that’s infectious. We can feel the love the author has for their characters and story throughout or sometimes in spurts (This is usually the case when we’re trying to find our story or are struggling to find our voice).
It’s when we read stories that have pages and pages of the characters or narration that feels robotic, like it’s just informing us of what happened and that’s all that I tend to look at as someone trying only make some money. In this case, I try not to pass judgement as it could be nothing more than someone starting out and trying to find their voice. We’ve all been there at some point and I’m a huge believer in giving people the benefit of the doubt.
And that brings up the third point. Finding our voice is not an easy thing to do (At least not for me. Lol). It’s something all writers struggle with, and the time frame is different for each of us. The easiest way to tell if we’re still searching for our voice is to look at what we’re writing. Does our style change with who we’re reading at the time?
I think I felt a few eyebrows raise at that one. Lol
There’s no shame in nodding or saying we did/are doing this. We emulate our favorites when we start, so it’s only natural. I’m a huge fan of Stephen King and Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan universe, so there was a time where I had long sentences with a dozen commas in them. My wife also got me into reading Christopher Pike’s The Last Vampire series and I started to write in First Person Present Tense without realizing it. The funny thing? I hate, I mean H-A-T-E First Person Present. I think this experience is why I don’t like it, but that’s open for debate. It didn’t help I had to rewrite thirty or so pages when I realized the shift. Lol
The biggest problem with finding our voice is we can sometimes drone on and sound mechanical, like we’re reciting something in high school English. It’s an interesting problem where we may write something that’s grammatically perfect and has the potential to be engaging, but is too cumbersome.
Think of it this way, if we’re writing a romance and the two don’t meet until page 220 of a 235 page novel and a majority of the novel revolves around the people in their lives that don’t influence the story (But are entertaining side stories), we’re doing this.
This isn’t a problem as long as we’re willing to listen to our critique groups, beta readers, and editors. The biggest thing of all is to be open. Not everyone else is always right and we’re always wrong, but more times than not, someone else not attached to our story may have a better idea on how to make the story work. As with anything, we need to put the time in to better ourselves as writers. Everyone is born to be good at something, but no one is born great.
The thing to remember is our thoughts on a sentence, whether its tone or emphasis, changes depending on our mood.