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Monday, March 26, 2018

5 Most Common Mistakes with Setting

A few weeks ago I was updating the Writing Tip Index, and was horrified when I realized I had nothing on setting. NOTHING! So I'll be slowly remedying that over time.

But today's post is rather straightforward and simple. I'm going to talk about some of the most common mistakes I see when it comes to handling setting.

Mistake #1

Perhaps the most common mistake I see with new writers is that there is essentially no setting.

The story opens up, usually with a conversation or a character thinking, and the writer literally does not tell the setting to the audience. This usually happens when the writer could care less about where the characters and plot are taking place, and may even argue that because it could take place anywhere, it doesn't matter where it is.

Other times the writer just assumes that the audience will assume by default that it's taking place in present day, in a home or office or school.

Sometimes the problem isn't that there is no setting whatsoever, but that the setting is vague--the writer doesn't give the audience enough of a setting or a clear picture of the setting.

Sure in some rare cases, you don't need a setting (excerpts from Ender's Game is often given as an example), but almost always, you need a setting--even when the scene isn't about the setting.

There should really be some sense of setting in every scene. Stories don't take place in a void. If it's not important to the story in that scene, find a way to squeeze it in.

Mistake #2

From there, sometimes writers overcompensate and put in too much setting.

Now, I think it's important to remember that some scenes are about setting. For example, in a wilderness survival story, you'll be dealing a lot with setting, because your character is trying to survive dehydration, freezing cold, and poisonous plants. Scenes where setting is a key player will naturally have more words spent on setting. In other scenes, setting is present but not as important.

It's sometimes helpful to look at the scene you are going to write and ask yourself what aspects are most important in it. That might help you keep it balanced.

But sometimes writers start learning about the importance of setting and imagery, and they get a little too carried away. They may describe everything, thinking that it will give the audience the most specific reading experience possible. Other times they describe parts of the setting in more detail than that part actually merits. Worse still is when they give a huge long history about the setting as an info-dump. Even if it's about the history, it's still an info-dump, folks.

I don't care how amazingly you can write setting, if you spend way more words on it than it deserves, it slows the pacing way down and it's a problem.

This may feel counter-intuitive to some people, particularly if you've mastered college creative writing, where much of the emphasis may be on imagery and trying to write beautifully. You need setting to write imagery, so sometimes what happens is people start overwriting setting.

Another aspect is that if you read "classics," they can often have a lot of setting. I once had a friend say that Tolkien could take pages describing a leaf in detail. So some writers today think that to be good means to be that descriptive.

But here's the thing, and listen up because it's important, back when the "classics" were written, most people didn't travel all around the world, most people didn't have access to volumes and volumes about other locations--many times readers literally did not know what something looked or sounded like, so the writer needed to spend more time describing it. Audience members literally did not know what the West looked like, or what X species of leaf looked like, or what the southern dialect sounded like. There is actually an old genre called "local color" that was simply about capturing what a region was like to live in. Kate Chopin was known for her local color short stories. And reading about these places was all new and strange and wondrous to people.

Fast forward to today, and more than ever we know what other parts of the world is like, and if we don't we can just use the internet to look it up. I've never seen the Great Wall of China in person, but I know what it looks like. I don't need a two-page description of it. I know what a Southern accent sounds like, and I don't need you to write the dialect out exactly how it may sound. Thanks to technology and special effects, I even know what a dinosaur or a real black hole would look like.

Those things still should be described if they are in your story, but the point I'm making is that today we need to describe way less. And if you are going to try to write beautifully by describing everything about setting in detail, the average person is going to get bored and skip ahead or put down the book--they already have an idea of what things sound and look like.

Mistake #3

Third on the list is poor blocking. I already did a whole post on blocking several weeks ago, because it's really a topic in and of itself. But in case you are new here, missed it, or need a refresher, here is a summation.

Blocking is how your characters interact with objects and setting.

The main issue that crops up is continuity errors. For example, I might be reading a dialogue scene where the characters are talking while doing the dishes in the kitchen. At the end of the conversation I might read a line about how they went inside the house. Huh? Weren't they already in the house?

That one sounds a little obvious, but it can happen in subtler ways. For example, in one scene I might read the Jan goes to her bedroom on the main floor. Then later in the book, I read that she went upstairs to her bedroom. So which is it? Is her bedroom on the main floor or upstairs? When writing a whole novel that can be difficult to keep track of along with everything else.

Spatial vagueness is the other problem with blocking--not being clear where the characters are in relation to their setting, how close they are standing in relation to a tree or ditch, etc.

Now with blocking, you don't want to overcompensate and get too detailed with it. You want to describe enough. It should be clear when particularly important, but not overbearing.

Mistake #4

Using the same "set piece" in multiple scenes and describing it in detail every time.

This one is tricky to explain, because it really depends on how its handled. I did this big fat blog post to explain how to render reoccurring descriptions and details so that they don't become stagnant and boring, so you can describe a set piece multiple times, but almost always, in order to be successful at that, you need to follow those techniques I explained in the post: expand, deepen, or create motion.

On the other hand, you can use the same details every time to "tag" or "anchor" the subject in the reader's mind, so doing that isn't necessarily a wrong thing either.

What is a problem is when you don't understand those things and you re-describe the entire set in detail every time a scene takes place there. A lot of stories have scenes in bars, pubs, clubs, or "inns." Imagine having multiple scenes take place there and every time you start a scene there, you take several paragraphs to describe the place in detail, again.

It gets boring right?

If it's the first time that set piece is on the page, and it's somewhat important, you can maybe take a few paragraphs to describe it (alternatively, you can weave it into the actual scene, and which you choose may depend on pacing needs), but every time after that, you just need to hit a few details--"tags" or "anchors," something that's in motion, something new, or a specific aspect in more detail. You don't need to go through and re-describe it as if the audience has never seen it before.

If you are going to spend a couple of paragraphs describing something we've already seen, it needs to be different in some way--at least in the way the character sees and perceives it.

Mistake #5

No interactions with setting.

As I already mentioned, in some scenes setting is more important than others. But there is a problem if there is often no interaction with setting.

See, I talked about imagery a couple of weeks ago, and in order to really appeal to the senses, you need some setting. You can't feel rain if there is none. You can't smell freshly cut grass if there is none. Sure, you can get some imagery in from other characters and objects, but often imagery relates directly to setting.

In real life, we interact with setting, or it interacts with us. In my room typing this, I've watched the sky get lighter outside, seen joggers on the road, I can hear the filter of my aquarium going and the fan, and I can feel the softness of my blanket. It's mainly in the background, but it's there, and from time to time, I might look out the window at the joggers.

The setting can affect the scene. Having an important conversation late at night at a friend's house is much different than trying to have one at a grad night party.

Whether setting is more in the background or a focal point of your scene, consider how it may emphasize points and contribute to tone. Does it frustrate or help a goal?

Setting is often required to pull the reader into your story, so that they feel as if they are in it. Usually, it should be more than just a backdrop.

Do you see any other mistakes writers make with setting? Let me know in the comments :)


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Monday, March 19, 2018

Purple Prose: What it is, How it Works, How to Get Rid of it

What it is

"Purple Prose" is a term for melodramatic writing that's trying to be poetic. Often it's chock-full of adverbs and adjectives (that are also often unnecessary adverbs and adjectives) and modifying phrases, and often it's a bit wordy. There are a lot of aspects that can make something sound like purple prose--sentence length and type, amount of words used to describe something, what words are used to describe something, overusing multi-syllabic words, overusing abstracts . . .  Any of these things in and of themselves isn't innately bad or wrong. It's how they are used that creates purple prose.

But rather than trying to describe all of it, it's usually best to just let you read some examples to get a feel for purple prose.

Disclaimer: I've been crazy busy in the industry lately, so I'm grabbing examples from elsewhere on the internet to save time writing one. These examples come from here and here.

1. It was a dark and stormy night. I had just finished my second cup of outrageously expensive Starbucks Guatemala Casi Cielo that was a Christmas gift from by best friend, Tom. The vibrant, stimulating aroma hung in the air as if it were a dense fog suppressed by the thick foliage of ancient oaks. My eyes dilated as the soothing scent wafted by, enticing my senses. I was keenly aware that I could now prolong my evening with the assistance of the adrenaline-boosting beverage that still danced with my taste buds at each swallow. I gradually allowed my eyelids to droop as I pontificated the next scene in my novel. Within seconds they flashed open. My sixty-five-year-old bladder sent up a signal flare to my over-stimulated brain, and I dashed out the room hoping to reach my anticipated destination with time to spare.

2. The young, precocious child of elementary school age was commanded by his endearing and loving mother to put on a change of clothes. He lumbered up the crooked and creaking stairs to his massive wardrobe that could rival Narnia’s. It was very old and worn, made of a dark and foreboding walnut, reliefs of ancient Roman and Greek gods festooned its rough visage. He opened it gingerly and it creaked and groaned in ominous protest.

3. Nox's eyes, green as an emerald diamond found in a long forgotten, stony mine, peered into my own brown, luscious, chocolate colored eyes from her regal position on the seat next to me.

Her tail wriggled softly, like a long, slithering snake having some sort of terrible seizure....did snakes even have seizures? I pondered this strangely elusive and private thought as I stared, almost enamored, at my wise and all-knowing feline companion of four entire years now.

"How big d'you reckon the floods shall be, my pet?" I curiously asked, reaching one dainty, delicate, elegantly thin hand out to pat my closest and dearest friend on top of her soft, silky, round head.

My four-legged companion let out a rather peaceful meow that instantly seemed to bring my tried and tormented soul to peace. Her quiet, soft, and very musical meows always tended to elicit a calm feeling throughout the entirety of my body, even down to the very most microscopic cells teeming within my very body at this exact moment in time.

My silky companion stood and offered me quite a graceful stretch, her back arching as high as the waves in the ocean rose.

( 😱 Aaaah, my brain!!)


Notice these characteristics:

- Melodramatic--trying to make something way more than it is. Overreacting, over-emotional, overwrought, overwritten. Usually this happens when the writer is trying to make something more powerful and meaningful than it actually merits in concept.

"Nox's eyes, green as an emerald diamond found in a long forgotten, stony mine"--we are talking about a cat's eyes.

" . . . his massive wardrobe that could rival Narnia’s. It was very old and worn, made of a dark and foreboding walnut, reliefs of ancient Roman and Greek gods festooned its rough visage. He opened it gingerly and it creaked and groaned in ominous protest."--we are talking about an ordinary wardrobe that carries no significance to the story.

"My sixty-five-year-old bladder sent up a signal flare to my over-stimulated brain, and I dashed out the room hoping to reach my anticipated destination with time to spare."--we are talking about peeing!

- Overuse of adverbs and adjectives. For a full explanation on this problem, why it's a problem, and when to break the rules, see my post here. Remember, too, in purple prose, the adverbs and adjectives are often unnecessary.

"The young, precocious child of elementary school age was commanded by his endearing and loving mother to put on a change of clothes. He lumbered up the crooked and creaking stairs to his massive wardrobe that could rival Narnia’s"--almost no noun is left unmodified.

"I curiously asked, reaching one dainty, delicate, elegantly thin hand out to pat my closest and dearest friend on top of her soft, silky, round head."--at least 10 modifying words in one sentence.

- Unnecessary adjectives and adverbs.

"I pondered this strangely elusive and private thought."--unless you are writing a story about telepaths, all thoughts are private, so you don't need the adjective.

- Modifying phrases. Adjectives and adverbs are modifiers--they modify or describe something. In purple prose, often there is an overuse of modifying phrases.

"My silky companion stood and offered me quite a graceful stretch, her back arching as high as the waves in the ocean rose."

- Overuse of abstract concepts and words. I talked a bit about abstracts last week and why they are a problem. Abstracts are intangible, but the audience needs the concrete to sink into and experience your story. Throw in lots of abstracts and you lose a lot of power.

"The young, precocious child of elementary school age was commanded by his endearing and loving mother to put on a change of clothes"--precocious, endearing, and loving are all abstract.

- Wordy. Wordiness is another beast in and of itself, but it's most often saying things in more complicated ways than they actually need to be said. It uses more words than necessary and more multi-syllabic words than necessary.

"Her quiet, soft, and very musical meows always tended to elicit a calm feeling throughout the entirety of my body, even down to the very most microscopic cells teeming within my very body at this exact moment in time."--that's a lot of words, and a lot of fancy words to say, "My cat's meowing always calmed me."

- Sentence length. This is more of an issue that relates to the context of the passage, so it's hard to pin down and sum up here. Often purple prose overuses long, dramatic sentence structures. Other times though, short sentences and sentence fragments are used to try to bring more drama and impact to an otherwise average moment in a story.

Notice in the first example how many of the sentences follow about the same dramatic length.

- Overwrought word choice. Usually in purple prose, more complicated and seemingly poetic words are used in (or added to) places where the average, normal word would work fine.

"Nox's eyes, green as an emerald diamond found in a long forgotten, stony mine, peered into my own brown, luscious, chocolate colored eyes from her regal position on the seat next to me."--dude, Nox has green eyes, you have brown. We get it.

(Side note: your brown eye part is a viewpoint error anyway.)

- Overuse of comparisons and figurative language. Not everything in writing needs a fancy metaphor. And not everything even merits a metaphor. You don't need to doll up an average work night.

 "The vibrant, stimulating aroma hung in the air as if it were a dense fog suppressed by the thick foliage of ancient oaks." It's coffee.

How it Works and How to Get Rid of it

Why We Use Purple Prose

Everyone has written purple prose before, and if someone tells you they haven't, they are probably either lying or don't know how to discern it.

I'm convinced that writing purple prose is a learning phase that almost all writers go through.

So why do we write it in the first place?

Usually it comes from wanting to make something more dramatic, more poetic, or more meaningful. Sometimes it comes from wanting to give something more emphasis.

Look at the examples above. Each "writer" (these are people who intentionally wrote purple prose) wanted to capture something ordinary and make it more.

Coffee on a late night while writing a novel.

A boy obeying his mother and going to change his clothes.

The viewpoint character's relationship with a cat.

The idea of capturing something ordinary and making it significant is absolutely a poetic ambition. Wanting to write beautifully is a poetic ambition. Wanting to make something dramatic, meaningful, and more emphasized is a fine goal for any kind of creative writer.

But seasoned writers and schooled poets know that purple prose doesn't cut it.

Purple prose takes something and tries to make it all those things in the way it is written. It's adding fluff and ornamentation to an average idea, a so-so image, a cliche concept.

But masters understand it is the idea, image, and concept that makes something significant.

It's not floofing up something average so that it appears to be more than it is. Masters can see right through that stuff, and see that the idea, image, and concept are actually nothing.

Coffee on a late night while writing a novel.

A boy obeying his mother and going to change his clothes.

The viewpoint character's relationship with a cat.

Practiced writers know, content come first, description comes second.

If you take a poetry class you should (hopefully) learn that poetry is more than the chosen words.

It's the idea. It's the image. Or it's the concept.

That doesn't mean you can't take something average and make it into something significant. But it's the content of the subject or, it's the content of how it's rendered (that might sound like an oxymoron, but I'll explain in a second).

It's the Idea

The best writers have fresh ideas. It might be their worldviews. It might be unique observations they've picked up from life.

John Green is a great example of a writer who understand that it's the ideas that can make writing great. And it's one of the key reasons people fall in love with his work.

See, John Green isn't writing epic fantasy or detective stories or wilderness survival stories. He's writing "ordinary" stories. But what makes them great are the ideas, perspectives, or observations he infuses them with.

Take a look at these examples and notice that it's his unique ideas that make them beautiful, that make them significant, that make them feel like they could be poetry.

There are infinite numbers between 0 and 1. There's .1 and .12 and .112 and an infinite collection of others. Of course, there is a bigger infinite set of numbers between 0 and 2, or between 0 and a million. Some infinities are bigger than other infinities. A writer we used to like taught us that. There are days, many of them, when I resent the size of my unbounded set. I want more numbers than I'm likely to get, and God, I want more numbers for Augustus Waters than he got. But, Gus, my love, I cannot tell you how thankful I am for our little infinity. I wouldn't trade it for the world. You gave me a forever within the numbered days, and I'm grateful.

When talking about someone who will no longer be in your life:

The pleasure of remembering had been taken from me, because there was no longer anyone to remember with. It felt like losing your co-rememberer meant losing the memory itself, as if the things we'd done were less real and important than they had been hours before.

The weird thing about houses is that they almost always look like nothing is happening inside of them, even though they contain most of our lives. I wondered if that was sort of the point of architecture.

The idea is poetic.

Notice how none of these are actually purple prose, and yet they all feel significant.

It's the Image 

The thing about purple prose is that it's taking something ordinary and trying to describe it in a way that sounds amazing.

You can do that sort of thing, but it's the image that counts.

Notice how the purple prose examples are taking average images and trying to turn them into something dramatic by stacking on modifiers, fancy words, and over indulging in descriptions and figurative language. This is often what new writers mistakenly think it means to be poetic.

But great poets know it's the image itself that makes a moment amazing, not stacking on a bunch of modifiers.

I love the image of fog that J. Alfred Prufrock includes in his poem "The Love Song."

(By the way, did you know when you read poetry you aren't actually supposed to pause at the end of each line? They teach us that when we are young so we can better hear and notice the beats and rhythm, but you are supposed to read poems sentence by sentence like you would prose. This stanza naturally pauses at the end of each line, so it's not a big difference, but many people don't know that.)

The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.

Prufrock is making a stanza sound poetic by rendering an interesting image: how yellow fog is like an animal. The content of how it is rendered.

It's a famous poem, and notice that he's not throwing in a million modifiers and fancy words. He took the content of how something will be rendered and used specific, concrete language, with strong verbs, to put it on the page.

Notice how he uses a metaphor, figurative language to capture that image, instead of simply taking fog and trying to attach a bunch of stuff to it to make it interesting.

Good poems usually do this sort of thing.

Here is another. Notice how Dorianne Laux takes something ordinary but makes it significant through the content of how it's rendered--the images she captures. Notice the specificity and how she doesn't load everything up like people do with purple prose.

Girl in the Doorway

She is twelve now, the door to her room
closed, telephone cord trailing the hallway
in tight curls. I stand at the dryer, listening
through the thin wall between us, her voice
rising and falling as she describes her new life.
Static flies in brief blue stars from her socks,
her hairbrush in the morning. Her silver braces
shine inside the velvet case of her mouth.
Her grades rise and fall, her friends call
or they don’t, her dog chews her new shoes
to a canvas pulp. Some days she opens her door
and musk rises from the long crease in her bed,
fills the dim hall. She grabs a denim coat
and drags the floor. Dust swirls in gold eddies
behind her. She walks through the house, a goddess,
each window pulsing with summer. Outside,
the boys wait for her teeth to straighten.
They have a vibrant patience.
When she steps onto the front porch, sun shimmies
through the tips of her hair, the V of her legs,
fans out like wings under her arms
as she raises them and waves. Goodbye, Goodbye.
Then she turns to go, folds up
all that light in her arms like a blanket
and takes it with her.

It's the Concept

Some things feel dramatic, significant, or meaningful because of the concept. What the writer thought of to put on the page.

You could say this is similar to ideas, but to me, the ideas are the worldviews and insights; concepts are the content of what is happening or exists. Ideas are more like introspection and commentary. Concepts are more like plot, setting, character, and worldbuilding.

BBC's Sherlock has great character concepts that are in and of themselves significant.

Molly: I can't say it because it's true. Sherlock. It's always been true.
Sherlock: Well if it's true then say it anyway.
Molly: You ba-----.
Sherlock: Say it anyway.
Molly: You say it first.
Sherlock: What?
Molly: Go on, say it like you mean it.
Sherlock: I - I love you.

Mycroft: Sherlock, however hard that was -
Sherlock: Euros, I won. I won. Come on, play fair, the girl on the plane, I need to talk to her. I won, I saved Molly Hooper.
Euros: Saved her? From what? Be sensible, there were no explosives in her little house. Why would I be so clumsy? You didn't win, you lost. Look what you did to her. Look what you did to yourself, all those complicated little emotions, I lost count. Emotional context, it destroys you, every time.

The concept of Sherlock having to get Molly Hooper to declare her love for him in order to save her life, is telling when it comes to these two characters. Molly Hooper trying to get Sherlock to say those words is even more telling.

To cap it all off, Euros argues that having emotions makes you destructive to those around you. Does having more emotion make you better or make you worse? Does Sherlock have powerful emotions? And if so, does that make him stronger or weaker? This is one of the main thematic arguments of season four. It is significant and meaningful in and of itself, but rather than get gaudy writing about the subject, the creators start with concept. They bring it forth through character and plot.

If you didn't start strong on those concepts, and you were trying to be powerful, dramatic, and meaningful about emotions, you'd probably end up fluffing stuff up.

It starts with concept.

When the concept is there, you don't need a million ornaments.

But something doesn't need to be weaved into the entire length of the story. You can have a single concept that is significant. Look at this line from The Hunger Games.

 District 12: Where you can starve to death in safety.

Isn't that a powerful, meaningful statement in and of itself? It started with setting.

In short, it's the content of that line, the concept, that's significant.

Not throwing in a bunch of modifiers and fancy words to something ordinary.

Great writing is bigger than itself, bigger than what's on the page. That one sentence about the setting tells the audience a whole slew of information.

To write powerfully, the story should be bigger. Purple prose on the other hand is about taking something and trying to make it big enough to take up the full page.

Obviously doing the former is harder.

So what do you do? Well, you start by brainstorming better ideas, images, and concepts. And then you write them in a pleasing way.

Easier said than done.

But begin practicing how to come up with them. Imagine something new. That might seem very hard for most, but it can be done.

Keep in mind too, that the more cliche something is, the more straightforward it needs to be. If you try to get fancy with something cliche, it can at worse turn into purple prose and at best be annoying. A level of originality is an important part of being powerful.

Finally, one last poem (because learning how to legitimately read and write poetry like the modern professionals is often a remedy for purple prose.) This one is a bit more lighthearted--or at least appears to be. Notice how Ronald Koertge incorporates ideas, images, and concepts in order to find significance.

I Went to the Movies Hoping Just Once the Monster Got the Girl

He was as hungry for love as I. He lay in his cave
or castle longing for the doctor's lovely nurse,
the archeologist's terrific assistant while I hid
in my bedroom, acne lighting up the gloom like
a stoplight, wondering if anybody anywhere would
ever marry me.

I war, hardly able to stay in my seat as the possibilities
were whittled away; her laughter at his clumsy gifts,
her terror at his dumbness and rage, his final realization
synapses lazy as fly balls connecting at last as he
stands in the rain peering through her bedroom window
she in chiffon and dainty slingbacks he looking at
his butcher shop hands knowing he could never unsnap
a bra

and in comes Jock Mahoney or Steve Cochran and takes
everything off in a wink and she kisses him over
and over, wants to kiss him has been waiting to kiss
him while the monster feels his own lips big as eels
or can't find them at all or finds four.

I almost shouted into the dark that life with Jock
or Steve was almost something to be feared. Couldn't
she see herself in a year or two dying at a barbecue,
another profile nobody with his tongue in her ear?
Wouldn't she regret that she had not chosen to stay
with someone whose adoration was as gigantic as
his feet?

I went to the movies hoping that just once somebody
would see beneath the scales and stitches to the huge
borrowed heart and choose it, but each time Blob
was dissolved, Ogre subdued, Ratman trapped, Giant
Leech dislodged forever and each time Sweater Girl
ran sobbing into those predictable rolled up sleeves
I started to cry too, afraid for myself, lonely as
a leftover thumb.

"What's the matter with him?" the cheerleaders asked
the high scorers as they filed out.

"Nothing. He's weird, that's all."


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Monday, March 12, 2018

Back to Basics--Imagery


Back when I took my first ever creative writing class in 8th grade, I learned about imagery. Ironically, I actually don't hear people use that term very often, most people seem to simply refer to it as "appealing to the senses."

I usually don't spend a lot of time talking about the basics on my blog. I figure people can learn about them in plenty of other resources. Besides, I've brought up imagery a few times in other articles. But I wanted to revisit it today because there are reasons why the basics are the basics. You need to master them before you can accomplish much else. Once you get more advanced, it's easy to sort of brush them aside as obvious or unimportant, but even for masters it's helpful to revisit them again and again and again. Besides, I do have at least a few things to add.

And then I'm going to tell you about how revisiting the basics saved my butt a couple of years ago when I was trying to write a scene that was one of the most difficult scenes I've ever written.

When you take a creative writing class, one of the first and most important things you learn is imagery, a.k.a. appealing to the senses. These are:

1. Sight

2. Sound

3. Touch

4. Taste

5. Smell

If you want to get more advanced, there are writers who will add others to the list, like a sense of time, a sense of self, or the sixth sense.

But when you learn the basics, it's those five.

Someone somewhere along on your writing journey (or maybe it's me now) told you that in order to write a story well, you need to appeal to those senses throughout.

You need to describe what that ocean sunset looks like.

You need to mention the fresh, sharp smell of an orange being peeled.

You need to have a line about how soft and warm a thick blanket is.

This is because naturally, beginning writers tend to write in abstract ways, focusing on feelings, ideas, and thoughts, instead of rendering the concrete.

The reason we have that tendency, is because as writers, we usually are already experiencing the feeling of our character or whatever it is we want to get on the page. So, we try to label and describe that feeling perfectly instead of writing in a way that evokes or creates that feeling in the audience. Logically, we mistakenly think that if we can just really nail describing that feeling, the audience will feel it powerfully too--they will feel exactly what we are feeling, because we described it so well.

You may indeed describe that feeling perfectly well, but chances are, if you take that approach, the audience will never feel it to the same degree you do.

This is because they are being told about the feeling, instead of experiencing what leads to those feelings. I've talked about this before.

Instead of focusing on describing the feeling, it's more effective to render well what causes those feelings, so that the audience can experience them for themselves.

This works in other areas too. Because the writer imagines perfectly what a park looks like, they don't feel the need to actually describe the park. But the reader could be imagining a park that looks completely different.

Imagery is one of the most important things to learn as a new writer because it teaches how the concrete needs to be on the page in order for the audience to become immersed in your character's story.

When you are first learning how to incorporate imagery, like many writing skills, it can sometimes feel mechanical: "Okay, now I need to put in an appeal to smell . . ." "And it's been two pages since I described a sense of touch anywhere." "I need to take a sentence and describe what this actually looks like . . ."

But through the process it becomes more natural and you eventually learn how to describe things. Some descriptions are better than other descriptions. For example, almost always, the more specific you can be, the better. The more interesting details you can select, the better. If you can expand, deepen, or put in motions those descriptions, it'll be better. If you know how or when to use or not use adverbs and adjectives, it'll be better.

One of the most important principles you are learning here is to incorporate concrete, specific lines rather than to rely on the abstract to write more effectively and ultimately more powerfully.

But it's easy with all the information and components of a good story to forget this basic. I see it every so often in editing. A writer is trying to render an emotional moment very powerfully, but they completely forget to include the concrete elements. There are moments where the abstract is beautiful and powerful in and of itself, by itself--but that's almost always after the audience has been prepped with the concrete. The one case where this may not be true is if the abstract passage is a truly original perspective, in which case, it appeals to the audience's intellect because of the new concepts in it. But when you are trying to appeal powerfully to emotions and feelings, you virtually always need to somehow attach it to the concrete.

It might seem counter-intuitive, but it's the truth.

Here's the thing. A few years ago, I was working on a scene that I knew I needed to nail in order for the audience to experience this part of the story powerfully. The scene related to a magic system of sorts that largely incorporates the abstract, the intangible. It could even be considered a spiritual experience for my character.

I worked and wrote and rewrote and sweated and cried and bled--but the most important paragraphs of the whole scene, the key paragraphs where the audience was meant to feel the most power, weren't working. They worked for me. They perfectly described what I felt the experience would be like for this character. Heck, I even drew from my own experiences that would be most similar. But for readers, they weren't enough. And as I read and read and reworked and reworked, I knew it.

But I was in a bit of a jam. See, this magic system largely works off the abstract--and the fact it does is sort of one of the points of that element. In other places in the story, that isn't that big of a problem. The magic system itself is usually not a major focal point. But here it was. I had to figure this out. I used all the methods I knew of. It really was one of the hardest things I've ever tried to write--but I also felt it was one of the most significant I needed to get right.

My dad has a motto that when things get confusing or seem out of control, you go back to the basics.

That's what you focus on.

The basics weren't going to work though, because I was dealing with an abstract magic system, and the basics I'd already tried to incorporate still weren't enough.

Here's the thing, I could have just written those key paragraphs and called it good. But I didn't. Because when it got down to it, I couldn't. I couldn't get over the fact that they really needed to be as emotionally powerfully charged for the audience as possible.

So utterly frustrated, desperate, and downhearted, I reluctantly went back to the basics.

I mean waaaaay back--back to one of the first things I'd ever learned: appealing to the senses.

Even though my character's experience was utterly abstract, I just sat down and just starting writing paragraphs that my character had experienced in his lifetime that appealed to a particular sense.

I literally sat down and wrote Sight: and then made up a few lines about something specific my character had once seen in a past moment that had an impact on him. Touch was one of the first ones I looked at, because I think it can be powerful. So I wrote a few lines about his first ever kiss (which wasn't really even important to the story).

I wasn't convinced that this was going to help me in this particular situation.

But I kept going.

I was going back to the basics.

I went through all five senses, sometimes coming up with more than one moment for each. Just a few sentences about his past experiences. And believe it or not, as I worked and more ideas came, I suddenly realized I was onto something.

I won't say everything, but I will say that doing that exercise led me to write what I believe to be some of the best, if not the best, material I've ever written.

(And it ended up being highly relevant to my magic system--more so than anything else I'd been coming up with)

It's easy now to read all this in a blog post, boiled down, with hindsight, and feel like that was an obvious and simple solution--but let me tell you, the struggle lasted for two months, and given the story circumstances, it was not obvious and it definitely was not easy. It was the hardest few paragraphs I've ever written!

But here's my point: When I was so sure the basics couldn't help me, let alone the barest of the basics, for something so abstract, they did.

It didn't mean that what I ultimately wrote was simplistic or easy. It wasn't.

But the basics gave me the tools to build the effect I had been searching weeks for. I've never been more pleased with the outcome of a passage I've written.

That's the thing about the basics. There is a reason they are the first things you learn. There is a reason they are the basics. Because you build off them to reach higher ground.

Without them, you have no access to that. Without them, I'd never have been able to reach the high-emotional impact I was searching for.

Never underestimate the power of the basics.

Using them doesn't naturally make you the next great American author.

But you'll never get there without them.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Validating the Reader

Two years ago, I wrote this article called "Validating the Reader's Concerns." I felt pretty good about it at the time, but have since realized that validating the reader is an aspect of writing way bigger and more generalized than that article. In fact, I've realized that all successful writers do it--even if they don't know it.

But not all unpublished or beginning writers do. Which can be a setback.

How come no one ever talks about this?

Hopefully you are familiar with the term and concept of validation when it comes to day-to-day life. I am because, personally, validation used to be a huge stumbling block for me. But today, I don't want to think of validation as something that is good or bad for a person, but more of something that just is.

Here is the dictionary definition:

Recognition or affirmation that a person or their feelings or opinions are valid or worthwhile.

In writing, validation is part of context. It's validating the reader's experience--sort of like a reassurance that yes, I am aware of what you are thinking and experiencing as you read my passage.

I'm not talking about validating the reader's experience in his or her personal life, I'm talking about validating how they are reacting to your story.

In short, writers have to be mind readers.

To some extent.

It's like communicating with someone in real life--when you need to tell them something, and you already know how they are going to react, so you sit and think out how you are going to present it so they listen and understand you and what you want to convey

In storytelling, you don't need to validate everything, but the reality is, if you aren't validating what the reader is experiencing in some way, your story is broken. And 95% of the time, you need to be using validation.

Luckily most of us validate the reader without ever realizing it.

But there might be times where we don't and the story breaks--often it breaks by becoming unbelievable. 

 Just for example, let's say that Dumbledore dies in Harry Potter, and no one cries or shows any signs of real grief.


Doesn't that seem weird? Especially when the characters and audience have spent so much time with him, getting to know him, and valuing him?

The reader will feel sad that Dumbledore died, or at the very least, expect some of the characters to feel sad.

But if that's not on the page, that feeling or thought isn't being validated, and there is going to be a problem. A few things might happen:

- The story will feel unbelievable.

- The reader will feel cheated.

- The audience loses trust in the writer

The audience can lose trust in the writer because they may start to think that the writer doesn't realize something is wrong in this part of the story when the audience does. Of course, this often isn't something the audience is consciously aware of--they may not be able to put it into language, but they'll know that something is wrong or broken. And that's when it swings back around and relates back to a lack of context.

The Dumbledore example is an obvious one, which is why I picked it first to illustrate the point. A lack of validation might sneak in your manuscript in other ways.

Let's go back to my example from my other post on validation: the fact that The Force Awakens includes essentially another "Death Star" (Starkiller Base).

This fact would have been hugely annoying to almost all audience members, had it not been validated.

I mean, really? Another Death Star?

That is how the audience would have responded

But the filmmakers validate and deal with how the audience would react.

Instead of ignoring the audience's concern about a third Death Star, they acknowledge it and even poke fun at it. Han says something like, "There's got to be a way to blow it up. There always is." And instead of being annoyed about this plotting and possibly laughing at it, we are laughing with it and the characters, and everything is fine. We accept the fact that this movie has another "Death Star" in it.

A lack of validation can show up almost whenever the thoughts or feelings of the audience aren't being affirmed in some way.

Let's go back to another example I've used in yet another post.

Mack shut the Hummer's hood. "Should be fine now," he said to John.

"Great. Thanks, Karl." John got in the driver's seat and stuck his key in the ignition. The Hummer roared to life.

John headed for the main road.

Why does John call Mack, Karl? We don't know. Not only do we have no context to interpret this exchange, but we have no validation that this exchange is even weird, which is what the audience is thinking. They might go back and look at it again, searching for some context, or at least some validation. But it's not there. Which leads to the conversation either feeling unbelievable, or to the audience questioning how much they can trust this writer to tell this story, since the writer is apparently unaware of this issue.

This leads me to two points:

- We need to validate what would come naturally (sadness over Dumbledore's death)

- And we need to validate anything improbable/unusual (like the third Death Star and John calling Mack, Karl)

Sometimes these things go together. For example, if no one is sad over Dumbledore's death (hard to believe, but hypothetically) then we need that fact validated by telling the reader why no one is sad.

In short, as I said before, we need to validate just about everything.

And naturally we will, most of the time.

But sometimes we as writers don't.

I think this probably happens most with speculative fiction and mystery plot lines, but it can also come from following the "Show, don't Tell" rule too religiously.

There isn't much to say about validating what is normal other than it should be there--it's expected to be there, so when it's not, something is probably broken. And you are probably doing this almost all the time naturally (if not, that's something to look at).

Just remember that the stronger the natural reaction to something, the more validation needs to be present. For example, having a line that simply says "Harry was sad" about Dumbledore isn't going to cut it for that situation. Because death causes such powerful emotional responses, we need more validation.

As for the other point, remember that the more unusual or atypical or unlikely something is, the more it needs validation.

The more unusual or atypical or unlikely something is, the more direct or louder validation it needs.

If Harry is looking at a picture of Dumbledore for the first time, and Dumbledore walks out of the frame, and Harry doesn't react, that's a problem. There's no validation. 

So how do we validate the reader?

Let me count the ways.


Validation can simply come from character dialogue.

Mack shut the Hummer's hood. "Should be fine now," he said to John.

"Great. Thanks, Karl." John got in the driver's seat.

"Did you just call me 'Karl'?" Mack asked.

John laughed. "Must be getting old. Sorry about that." He stuck his key in the ignition. The Hummer roared to life.

"Not a problem, Todd," Mack said.

"Don't tell that's going to be a 'thing' now."

"Of course not, Jacob."

John sighed, but it was a mock sigh.

He smiled as he headed for the main road.

See how the dialogue exchange validates that it was strange John called Mack the wrong name?



You can use characters' actions to validate something.

Say that our protagonist, Mary, finally got the nerve to ask her crush out, and he rejected her. How should she be feeling right now? Well, I'll tell you that if she is in any way human, she should at least be feeling something, and since she's our protagonist, the reader should too.

"Sorry, but I'm not really interested," Chad said.

"Oh, well, see you around," Mary said.

As soon as she turned the corner and Chad was out of sight, she dropped her face into her hands. Peeking through her fingers, she beelined for the nearest restroom. Someone was in there, so she quickly opened the very first stall and locked herself in.

Her actions validate her feelings and the reader's concerns about the situation.


You can validate something through a character's feelings, which can be written through dialogue or actions, or some other way, but I feel that it's still its own thing. The above example validated that Mary was feeling something through actions.

Often we want to render feelings through action--or showing--but sometimes it's completely fine to just tell them. It depends on the situation. And then there are thoughts, which I'll get to in a second.

But my point of this section is that we can validate the reader by having a character feel a certain way.

For example, if something really strange just happened, you can validate that by having a character be surprised, curious, or mystified on the page.

Harry looked back at the trading card. The frame was empty.

"He's gone!" (Surprise)

Notice how Ron's response creates context to let the reader know that this is normal in the wizarding world.

"Well you can't expect him to hang around all day," Ron said.

Often this is why in many stories that deal with outlandish things, you need a character who is the skeptic. If you don't have one, it will be mighty hard to validate some of the audience's natural thoughts and feelings.

In the X-Files, Agent Scully needed to be skeptical in order to provide validation for the audience about Agent Mulder's paranormal theories. If she wasn't, the writer would have had to squeeze in another character to do the job, and if Chris Carter didn't do that, then the whole series would have had one validation problem after another. It would have been broken.

Which leads me to the next section.


Like feelings, thoughts can come through action and dialogue, or, in writing, as a thought itself.

In the X-Files, it's important that Scully is always confronting Mulder and questioning his outlandish theories--it's important that her thought-process is almost always different than his. Likewise, on the few occasions where Scully does believe in something outlandish, Mulder then becomes her counterpoint in the framework of that particular episode.

Start looking for the skeptic in shows, even reality t.v. shows, and you'll start seeing them everywhere. It's because if no one asks those questions or thinks those things, then the story won't be able to fully validate the audience's thoughts and/or feelings, and may become unbelievable.

In writing, we use our viewpoint character's inner thoughts to validate the reader in addition to dialogue and action. This is especially important when dialogue and action aren't or can't validate.

For example, let's go back to Mary and Chad.

Maybe Mary wants no one to possibly know what she is actually thinking and feeling. The exchange might be like this.

"Sorry, but I'm not really interested," Chad said.

"Oh, it's fine. I don't mind," Mary said.
How could this be happening? she thought.

Keep in mind that what a character directly thinks in that moment though, depends on how raw the emotion is.

Since this is in the moment, Mary's feelings are going to be very raw, and probably not perfectly thought out. Later, maybe that night, we could have a line like this.

I was so embarrassed,  Mary admitted to herself. Uugh, I hate rejection.

Negative Description

Negative description is when you explain or describe what something is not. The "negative" part doesn't refer to it being down and depressing, but is used more in the sense of "negative space"--what isn't there.

Sometimes you can't validate the reader through any of the things listed above because there literally isn't anyone present in the scene who can validate it.

They might be atypical or unusual characters, or even creatures, who don't share the same thoughts or feelings about the moment that the average reader would have.

In my perpetual work-in-progress, I have a character who often doesn't think or respond to things in ways that most people would. I don't want to give a big background, because it's kind of complicated, but here's a small excerpt of when I've used this. My character, James, can be pretty atypical about situations.

Watch how he responds when learning about something supernatural for the first time, and how the text still validates what would be someone's typical response.

James stepped over animal dung. “This is a sacred place?”

Dustin tapped James’s arm. He shook his head and pointed to a knuckle of the rock formation that was lower than the others, about 25 feet up.

“Up there?” James asked.

Dustin nodded. “Not sacred in our plane, but in their plane,” he said. “That’s not the exact spot, alright? But that’s as close as you or I are gonna get to it, it’s in the rock.”

Someone else might have cocked a brow, rolled their eyes, or argued. James just said, “Okay.”

James isn't the type who would act skeptical in this situation, but perhaps most people would. Dustin is the one teaching James about the otherworldly, and he's not going to validate the strangeness either in this moment. So the only way to get in on the page is to use some negative description--what James doesn't do.

Stacking Validators

Often you'll be validating the reader in more than one way--in thoughts and feelings and dialogue and actions (negative description might be more rare). In fact, in some situations, it's required you do. The death of an important character, for example, probably needs to use almost all of the above to fully validate the audience. Combine multiple ways for most important moments.

When Experiences Deviate

Keep in mind that sometimes the reader's experience deviates from the characters', but the reader still needs validation. It's just that while the character is feeling a particular emotion, the reader needs to see that emotion not so that it validates their feelings, but rather so it validates them intellectually--how and what they think that a character should be reacting and feeling

Validation: Vital to a Satisfying Denouement

According to David Farland, one of the places in a story where validation is most important is in the denouement. After the climax, and the protagonist has triumphed, or, at least learned something valuable, the denouement needs to validate that. If it's a romance, validation might happen through a wedding. If it's an epic fantasy, it might be that the world is in peace and evil has been vanquished. If it's a detective story, the criminal is sentenced. If a character has gained wisdom, we see it validated--Scrooge donates money, goes to his nephew's party, buys dinner for Tiny Tim, wishes everyone a Merry Christmas.

Often powerful denouements validate multiple points in multiple ways.
Related Posts
Validating the Reader's Concerns
Deviating the Reader's Experience from the Character's
Inconceivable! Dealing with Problems of Unbelievability 
Context vs. Subtext (Context Should Not Become Subtext)
Raw vs. Subdued Emotion (Getting them Right in Your Story)


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